Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Ryan Howard, Beer Bottles, and the Graceful End

Once upon a time, Ryan Howard was a very good baseball player. Maybe not as good as some people addicted to the adrenaline rush of a cloud-scraping home run might thing, but still, pretty darn good. His best years coincided with the best years of a franchise that's been around since the 1880s and, by and large, hasn't been very good; they certainly wouldn't have been as good as they got during that golden window in the mid-to-late 2000s without him. He wasn't the most graceful fielder, but he tried hard and worked at it, and for a while he made himself more or less passable through sheer effort, and he was by all accounts a nice and honorable and intelligent guy, exactly the sort of guy you want to be the centerpiece of your team. He was the sort of guy you wanted to root for, because he seemed like a genuinely good guy who could play well.

And then stuff happened. He signed a ridiculously large and ridiculously long contract extension that everyone except the Phillies' front office knew would blow up, but hey, if the money's offered, you can't blame a guy for taking it. And then he got injured, blowing out his ankle in the last at-bat of the 2011 playoffs, unable even to really limp to first. After that, the wheels basically fell off, as he turned into a guess hitter, unable to hit anything from a lefty, unable to lay off the off speed stuff down and in. There have been rumblings for years about a platoon, but how do you platoon a guy who's meant so much to your franchise and who's been, well, such a good guy, especially when the proposed platoon partner was Darin Ruf? Every spring, Howard would show up in Clearwater with a new physique and a proudly displayed work ethic, and every year was going to be different, and every year it wasn't.

That lumbering extension is up after this year, which is a good thing, because even the $10M buyout on the thing looks like a bargain compared to the idea of having Howard play first for the Phillies again. At this point, as much as it pains me to say so, Ryan Howard looks done. He can't hit lefties. He can't catch up to good fastballs. He can't handle breaking stuff. He's immobile around the bag at first. All he can do is crush the occasional mistake, which is the sort of skill set that gets you the cleanup slot in the company beer league softball team. The Phillies, finally, belatedly get this - they've told Howard he's going to be sitting down a lot going forward while they take a look at young 1B Tommy Joseph. Joseph, a former catcher and former prospect and current concussion risk, is not likely to be a great player going forward - too many years lost to injury, too many concussions, too many cards stacked against him. But at least Joseph isn't Ruf, and he isn't Howard, and recognizing that they can't keep doing the same old thing and hope that it magically turns into 2008 again seems to be something this new Phillies management team can do.

Which is a nice way of saying it's the end of the line for Howard. Odds are he won't be traded, as he offers little value now except as a veteran presence who can occasionally surprise a righty. There's a lot of guys out there who can do that for a lot less than Howard's salary. And as a Phillies fan, I'm OK with this - but, like pretty much every other Phillies fan I talk to, I don't want the end for Howard to be an ugly one. I appreciate what he did for a team that was still finding its winning identity, and what he did to get fans excited by replacing Jim Thome's thunder boomers in the lineup.I appreciate the class and the effort and what he gave out on the field, and while strictly from a W-L record perspective I don't want him out there now, I don't want a team that's going nowhere with or without him this year to just dump him unceremoniously. He deserves a respectful exit, and one that recognizes his contributions on and off the field.

Which is why the news that some knucklehead threw a plastic beer bottle at him is just so damn depressing, and why the idiot who threw said bottle - who probably doesn't remember the years of Von Hayes or Floyd Youmans or Danny Tartabull because he's either too young or too busy swilling Bud Lite Lime to understand what the hell went on - needs a metaphorical ass-kicking and a lifetime ban from Citizens' Bank Park. Not only is he a bad person - you don't throw a bottle at another human being who is trying to entertain you, no matter what the bottle's made out of or what that entertainment is - but he's a bad fan. Ryan Howard can stick around while we figure out how to say goodbye. This turkey needs to go. Now.
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