Ryan’s Hope: A Phillies post season

First you win Rookie of the Year honors in the National League. Then you follow that up by nabbing the National League MVP Award the very next season. So what do you do after that? There’s only one thing left: grab a World Series ring. And that’s exactly what Ryan Howard is setting his sights on.

Still coming to grips with his superstar exploits during the 2006 season, the Phillies first baseman insists that his winning formula in the big leagues is simply trying to have fun playing baseball for a living. So far, Howard has done just that. But even he is astounded by how well he’s done with that formula as his touchstone.

“I never thought it would happen so fast,” said the 27-year-old native Missourian. While he makes it look easy, Howard knows that his accomplishments so far have taken a lot of hard work.

Compared to most big league standouts, Howard, the major league’s leading home run hitter last season, took a rather leisurely pace to the big leagues. He was selected by the Phillies in Round 5 of the 2001 Amateur Draft and was sent to Batavia, N.Y., in the Single-A New York-Penn League. He spent the 2002 and 2003 seasons in Single-A ball, but captured the Florida State League’s MVP Award, in 2003, while with Clearwater. It was then onto Double-A Reading in the Eastern League for the start of the 2004 season. After 102 games, in which he compiled a scorching .297 batting average with 37 home runs at Reading (earning him Eastern League MVP honors in 2004), he was promoted to Triple-A Scranton in the International League. When major league call-ups came on Sept. 1, 2004, Howard was given a coveted ticket to Philadelphia.

Though the hard-hitting infielder showed promise during his late-season stint in the City of Brotherly Love in 2004, he started off the 2005 season back in Triple-A Scranton as the Phillies contemplated how to handle having too much of a good thing: a great first base prospect in Howard and a seasoned veteran in Jim Thome.

“I’m glad I wasn’t rushed through the minor leagues,” Howard recalled. “It was good because I could find myself as a ballplayer. It gave me time to figure out who I was – what worked for me and what didn’t, what I can and can’t do.”

After 61 games with Scranton in 2005, Howard found himself up with the Phillies once again, when Thome went on the disabled list on July 1, 2005. Before his 2005 call-up, Howard had been tearing up the International League with a .371 batting average and 16 home runs. This time he was in Philadelphia to stay. Howard got into 88 major-league games and hit 22 home runs in 312 at-bats, posting an impressive .288 batting average. Topping it all off, Howard was showered with National League Rookie of the Year honors.

Things took an almost ironic twist for Howard. During the 2005 season, the Phillies had a chance to trade him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Kris Benson, and relieve the overcrowded situation at first base. They decided against it. Then, following the 2005 season, the Phillies made a bold step and traded Thome, anointing Howard the team’s first baseman and quashing his desire to leave the team because he had to share playing time with Thome.

But the rookie did not feel any pressure now that he had won the leading role.

“I didn’t pay any attention to the pressure or to any of the talk about a ‘sophomore jinx.’ I came into 2006 the season prepared. I was going to keep to my game, do the best I could, but, most important, I wanted to go out and have fun.”

As he entered his second season, there had been some concern about whether the left-handed-hitting Howard could hit southpaws.

“I knew I could hit lefties when I came out of the minor leagues. I realized it was the minors, but I came here believing I could hit lefties. I started out struggling against lefties and people were saying I couldn’t hit them. But I knew I could. I hit them well in the minors, so I stayed focused. I just kept in my head that I know I can hit lefties. And I did.”

Howard turned in a monster season in 2006, batting .313 with 149 RBI and 58 home runs. The hard-hitting sophomore was on track to hit 60 or more round-trippers last season, but in September opposing managers insisted that their hurlers walk him instead of pitching to him.

“I never really thought I could hit 60 home runs in the major leagues,” he said. “I thought about maybe hitting 40, and I didn’t think I would do that during my second year. But then, when it looked as though I might get 60, I just went with the flow. I didn’t put pressure on myself to get to 60. Once I surpassed 40, I just went along for the ride.”

Things were happening so fast during the season that Howard didn’t even think about the home runs piling up. Besides his regular-season heroics, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound infielder was also the winner of the Home Run Derby at the 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.

“After the season, I had time to reflect on some of the games and the whole season in general. I think one of my biggest games was against the Yankees (June 20, during midseason interleague play) when I hit a home run into the third deck at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park. I really didn’t think I could do that. After the game, I went up there to see where the ball
landed.”

That was the first home run ever hit into the third deck at Citizens Bank Park. The seat that it hit in the third deck, a whopping 461 feet from home plate, is now marked with a white “H” to commemorate the feat. That home run was in addition to two others he hit that day off Yankee pitching, and the seven runs he drove in.

Citizens Bank Park was graced with another adornment in mid-November 2006 when the Phillies draped a huge banner of their slugging star, 57 feet high and 35 feet wide, outside the stadium in recognition of Howard’s National League MVP Award in 2006.

Strangely, Howard almost didn’t get the news when he was named 2006 National League MVP. When a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America placed the call to tell him about the award, Howard’s caller ID showed a blocked number, and he thought about not taking the call. But curiosity got the better of him, and he picked up the fateful call, which confirmed the belief of many Philadelphians that Howard had a better season than the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols, who finished second in the MVP voting.

By capturing the MVP Award a year after being named Rookie of the Year, Howard became only the second player ever to accomplish that feat, sharing that elite spotlight with Cal Ripken Jr., one of baseball’s newest Hall of Famers. Ripken earned the same back-to-back honors in 1982 and 1983. “It’s great to be considered with Cal Ripken Jr. in any category,” the Phillies first baseman said.
Howard joins only three other Phillies who have won the National League Most Valuable Player Award: right fielder Chuck Klein, who won it in 1932; reliever Jim Konstanty, who grabbed the top honor in 1950; and third baseman Mike Schmidt, who earned the prestigious honor in 1980, the same year the Phillies won the World Series. Schmidt also captured National League MVP honors in 1981 and 1986.

Howard said he’s not focusing on winning another MVP Award in 2007, just having a great season and getting the Phillies a world championship. And Phillies fans appreciate that.

That’s probably why Howard fits in so well in the Philadelphia community. He loves having people come up to him on the street and congratulate him on the game he had the night before. “But it’s tough,” he acknowledged. “They want to see you hit home runs, and all you really want to do is get hits. But I like to know that they’re in there with me every game.”
Howard believes those fans deserve a world championship.

“They (the fans) want a championship. The city wants a championship. The locker room wants a championship. The front office wants a championship,” the exuberant player said, noting that the Phils fought all season long in 2006 to get to the post-season only to fall short.

“The reason I put up those numbers last season was because I wanted to do everything I could to help us to get to the playoffs. We played hard. We all felt we could make it.”

Now Howard is gunning for baseball’s brass ring the only way he knows how: by steadfastly pursuing his goal of reaching the playoffs and the World Series. “I want to do everything possible to get us into the World Series and to win the championship,” he pointed out. “That’s my total focus. And that’s how I’m approaching next season. I want to get that ring – and have fun doing it.”  

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