Four and a half full seasons. 220 home runs. 635 runs batted in. A .961 career OPS. An MVP award, a Rookie of the Year award and two All-Star teams.
Simply put, there is no one in baseball like Ryan Howard.
Prince Fielder might be semi-Howard-esque, but his career OPS is 40 points lower and his roughly 40-homer, 110-RBI pace pales in comparison to Howard's 50-and-140 mashing abilities.
Does the Prince hit for a higher average? Yes. Does he hit lefties better than Howard? Yes. But that's not what the Philadelphia brain trust asks from our monstrous first baseman. The Phillies pay Ryan Howard to destroy right-handed pitching and crush fastballs, and he does both of those things (1.070 OPS against RHP and fifth overall in runs above average per 100 fastballs faced the last three years) better than almost anyone in the game.
Basically, if you're looking for baseball's best power hitter, you're looking in the right place. He might not be Albert Pujols, but who is? Very few people in the history of baseball (which is quite an expansive amount of time) can compare favorably to Pujols, and coming up short in that regard should not be a slight against Howard.
There was a time, though, when Howard seemed like he might become difficult to work with, someone who overvalues his own contributions and undervalues the unique way this current Phillies team appreciates his skill set. Howard's early-career posturing made it appear that, above all else, he wanted a $200 million contract and the respect that comes with that kind of money. And who doesn't? No one faulted him for that specific desire, but everyone thought it was fairly obvious that Howard wasn't Pujols, wasn't Alex Rodriguez, wasn't an all-time legend in the making. He was great, yes, but most likely great in the Mo Vaughn, Carlos Delgado, (ahem) Cecil Fielder way. A great short-term slugger, but not a player beyond comparison.
But then the Phillies won a relatively unexpected World Series championship, in great part due to Howard's three home runs and six RBIs in the Fall Classic. And then Howard agreed to a very reasonable three-year extension with new general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. And THEN he got in great shape and focused on his defense with third-base coach Sam Perlozzo. Did something click in his head? Did he realize he loved this team, the city, these fans? Did he decide that, if he was really going to be a $200 million superstar, he had some work to do?
We might never know for sure, but the .279/.360/.571 line he put up in 2009, combined with greatly improved defense, spoke volumes. Ryan Howard has his limits, but we can never dog him for being complacent, or lacking ambition. He may never actually get his nine-digit payday, and if he does, it probably won't be here. But during his time in Philadelphia, he's become a beloved sports icon, and he's cemented himself as the game's premier big bopper. There's a lot to be said about a guy like that; surround him with an MVP-caliber second baseman and a very skilled complimentary cast, and you've got a World Series-winning offense. We've seen it before, and we could easily see it again.
My only Ryan Howard complaint, however, is an odd one, something that has nothing to do with the man himself. Why are we being told to call him the "Big Piece"? Who came up with that? How is "Big Piece" better than "Big Man"? I know that "Big Man" was already adopted by another famous, giant black man, possibly the coolest giant black man of all time. But I highly doubt that Clarence Clemons would mind if we borrowed it for Ryan Howard. I bet Clarence Clemons loves Ryan Howard even more than I do.
But aside from all that, let's not forget this one last key aspect, something discussed much less than the Big Man's big bat: the almost unparalleled equilibrium between Ryan Howard and Phillies management. Hell, between everyone and Phillies management. Amaro and Pat Gillick have built an organization that people want to play for, where they'll forgo super long-term contracts and flourish in a beautiful ballpark with a great team and loving fans. That, along with Howard's mighty lumber, acquired taste for championship success and commitment to his own continued excellence, is why the Phillies will return to the World Series.