April 27, 2010

Respect the Big Man, please.

Ryan Howard just received a five-year, $125 million contract extension that will keep him in red-and-white pinstripes until he’s 36 years old. It ensured that he’ll remain one of the highest paid players in baseball. It rewarded his contributions to the team and the city (one MVP, one Rookie of the Year award, one World Series championship). It probably matched what he would have gotten on the open market, justified or not. And it’s already under fire from numerous people, and I don’t understand why.
(Disclaimer: I love Ryan Howard.)
I know what the numbers on Howard say. I know the players most comparable to him (at age 29) are Richie Sexson, Cecil Fielder and Mo Vaughn, and I know he has the reputation of a strikeout machine, a disaster defensively, and a one-dimensional, righty-hitting, swing-for-the-fences kinda guy. In this era, the age of stats, there’s a hundred different things to nitpick about Ryan Howard. And many of them are spot-on; there are flaws in Ryan Howard’s game, no doubt about it.
But show me another player, show me another power hitter, that’s done what he’s done. After his MVP season, when Howard tore up the league, everyone said they’d figure him out. And you could argue they did – and he’s still averaged 46 homers and 141 RBIs a year.
Show me where the Phillies are going to make up numbers like those if Ryan Howard walks away.
And Ryan Howard isn’t just a slugger in the Sexson/Fielder-mold. Screw the stats and forget about the comparables – if you really link him to players like that, you’ve never watched the man play baseball.
Ever since this sport began (or as far back as I’ve read about it, at least), players have been absolved of their weaknesses. You can hit home runs, so it’s OK that you don’t play defense. You’ve got speed, so it’s OK that you never walk. You can get lefties out, so forget about righties. People make long careers as specialists, and rightly so – they’re immensely talented at their specialty. But some people will call Howard a power specialist, a righty-hitting specialist, and they’ll act like this is a stone-cold fact. And those are the people I can’t stand.
Because Ryan Howard is not one of those players. He’s achieved personal, team and financial success, but you can tell just by watching him year after year that it’s not enough.
For starters, he’s turned himself from a defensive butcher into a competent first baseman with the ability to make sparkling plays in the field. He’s no Gold Glover, but he can flash the leather in a way you wouldn’t have expected three years ago. He worked incredibly hard to get himself in shape before the 2009 season, and he’s maintained that same svelte figure ever since. Simply put, the guy wants to get better in a way I can’t even understand. I would have thought 40+ homers a year and slugger accolades would have been enough, but he seems to yearn for more than that. And I love that trait in a player more than anything.
His line in 2010 is .265/.299/.458, with only three homers and, even more startling, only four walks. But considering that that he’s the fastest player ever to hit both 100 and 200 home runs, that he’s one of four players to have four straight 40 homers and 130 RBI seasons, and that he remains maybe the most feared power hitters in baseball (97 intentional walks in the last four years), I’m not too worried about his production levels for the time being. Will there be a drop-off when he’s 36, 37? Maybe the inevitable effects of age will have their say, but again, to say that he’ll fade away because a big fat black guy did so in Detroit/New York 20 years ago seems idiotic. Howard isn’t even fat anymore!
(Editor’s Note: He does remain black.)
I understand that when you attach a monetary value to something (or someone), it’s only natural to compare, contrast and criticize that value to death. It’s one of the more fun things to do in sports. But when you disparage Ryan Howard, especially using the hackneyed “no lefties, no defense” line that the national press has been squawking for the past few years, you’re ignoring key elements of the big picture. You’re simply wrong.
In the end, Ryan Howard was going to get his payday. Whether as a Cardinal, a Royal, a Red Sock or a Phillie, he was adding at least another hundred mil to the Howard family fortune. Maybe some Phillies fans would have liked to see him earn this money elsewhere; I ask them where the next great Philadelphia slugger is coming from. What we’d get to replace his massive power. And from a business standpoint, why the team would let a pleasant, marketable upstanding citizen like Ryan Howard walk away.
They wouldn’t, and they shouldn’t. Only time will tell whether this extension was truly wise or unwarranted, but for right now, I couldn’t be happier to know that Ryan Howard may very well retire as a Philadelphia Phillie.

April 15, 2010

A tale of two teams.

As of April 15th, there are two professional sports teams still plying their trade in the city of Philadelphia.

One is just beginning competition in 2010, compiling 50 runs and a .307 batting average in the early going and leaping to a (relatively) unexpected 7-1 start.

And the other's season is about to come to a close, if not now then in a week or two. They backed their way into the playoffs despite some very uninspired play since the Olympic break, sparking a lukewarm reception from the fans and a morbid level of curiosity toward how long they can cling to the edge of the cliff that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The first team is rooted on with a great deal of optimism and hope, despite an unsustainable output from its hitters and what looks like a very shaky starting rotation beyond ace Roy Halladay.

The second team is a collection of dead men walking, a group of underachievers that were expected to compete for a Cup and will now struggle to make it out of the first round.

The Philadelphia Phillies are recent champions. The Philadelphia Flyers are nowhere close.

They currently operate on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Phillies, treated with disdain for so long, have won the hearts of the city with smart drafting and lovable players. The Flyers, long led with an "anything it takes" attitude by Ed Snider, have backed themselves into a corner of mediocrity from which there appears to be no escape.

Sure, they can beat the New Jersey Devils in the conference quarterfinals. But then they'll run into the Washington Capitals, a hockey juggernaut if there ever was one, and they'll be lucky to win a game.

And yes, those are the same Capitals who, along with the Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins, were on the up-and-up in 2007. Since then, the Pens have won the Stanley Cup and the Caps just took home the Presidents' Trophy. Meanwhile, the Flyers qualified for the 2010 playoffs in seventh place.

Meanwhile, the Phillies are doing what they now do, which is "destroy bad teams and clobber mediocre pitching." Sure, their 7-1 start is a bit hollow when you consider that it came against the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, but you won't get far in Major League Baseball unless you beat up on the weaker teams. And the Phils know how to do just that, maybe even more so with the additions of Halladay and Placido Polanco. If J.A. Happ turns in another strong year and Cole Hamels starts going deep into games, they'll feast on the rest of the National League just like they're doing to the bottom-feeders.

But the Flyers are destined to feast on nothing but treats from the snack shack at their favorite local golf courses. They're trapped under the contracts of Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell, so it'll remain difficult finding top-line ice time for future studs like Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk. They're up against the cap, they've got no franchise goalie and rumblings of locker room discord seem to pop up at least once a year. Simply put, they've got issues.

In a way, it's fascinating to have both of these teams playing at the same time. An early-season baseball game, often times the most boring, irrelevant event on the sports calendar, is now drawing more enthusiasm than a Flyers postseason match-up with longtime rival New Jersey. But that's how it should be, and it sums up the tale of these two teams. Even if the Flyers make an unexpected run, even if Brian Boucher recaptures the magic of 2000, the (not fun) roller coaster ride they've led us on over the last few years ensures that they won't come close to matching the Phillies' hold on Philadelphia.

April 4, 2010

Rest in peace, Donovan McNabb.

It's just like the Philadelphia Eagles to steal the thunder from the Phillies on Opening Day. Luckily, the baseball season is very, very long, so I'll do a Phillies season preview some other time. For now, it's all McNabb.

I was too young for Randall Cunningham and too smart (even at age 12) for Bobby Hoying. Donovan McNabb is more or less the only Eagles quarterback I've ever known, and now he's gone.

I was for trading McNabb two months ago, and I still am today. I think that they've nurtured Kevin Kolb this long for a reason, and they didn't bother extending McNabb for that same reason. We could argue Donovan's virtues and weaknesses until the cows came home, but for the last few months it seemed like everything would come to a head and the only remaining option would be trading number 5. It became less a question of "Should we move him?" and more "What will we get for him?" In that abstract sense, a second and a third/fourth is about what I expected.

But my roommate noted, and rightly, that the Detroit Lions got a first, third and a sixth from the Dallas Cowboys for Roy Williams (wide receiver edition) a year ago. Granted, the Cowboys had obviously overpaid, even from day one, but it's still disgusting that a division rival paid more for a worse player at a lesser position; kind of taints our move in a very roundabout way.

For the record, let me note that I think McNabb was, and is, a very talented QB. He's brought the city a lot of success, and I think we'll look back fondly on his achievements after the fact.

And he'll make the Redskins better, which is obviously the worst part of the deal. If the Eaglesshipped him off to Oakland, Buffalo or Cleveland, we'd probably never see him again. He'd play out his career in AFC obscurity, and we could evaluate the compensation (as Reid loved to call it in his presser) instead of the move itself.

But nope -- McNabb will be coming back twice a year for as long as he plays in the National Football League, and something tells me he'll have a chip on his shoulder. But how will we, the fans, feel? Will we want the Eagles defense to destroy him, possibly injure him? Not me personally, but I'm sure some assholes will. It'll be very revealing to see the response Donovan gets when returning to the Linc; I know it won't be Dawkins-esque from last year, but I hope there's a standing ovation and an acknowledgment that we did really love him, after all.

But I am a Kevin Kolb fan. I like what I've seen so far, and I also like that he has DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, LeSean McCoy, Leonard Weaver and Mike Bell to work with. I'm a firm believer that a quarterback (for the most part) is only as good as the players around him, and Kolb will be playing with an extremely talented group of guys. He'll have a bunch of opportunities to put the ball in someone's hands, rack up some yards after the catch and watch his stats soar. That's not a bad thing for a young, inexperienced quarterback, and I think it'll greatly help the kid's growth.

It'll be a learning experience on both ends, actually; we can see how good Kolb looks with essentially the same team Donovan played with in 2009, and we'll see how McNabb performs in a new system with less talent. If this was 2001 McNabb, or even 2004 McNabb, I'd say that he'd dominate no matter who else was on the field. But while he can still bust out a big play or two with the legs, he's more of a true quarterback now than ever.

Will the aged Santana Moss be rejuvenated with a non-shitty QB? Will Chris Cooley have a bounce-back year (we know Donovan loves him a good tight end)? How will the three-headed monster of old running backs (Clinton Portis, Willie Parker and Larry Johnson) handle the running game? I know the Skins have a very solid D, but how their offense shakes out will be something we'll all keep an eye on.

In the end, it'll be very weird seeing someone else other than McNabb behind center. With this and the Sheldon Brown trade, everyone from the 2004 Super Bowl team (sans Akers) has been sent packing. This is truly a new era in Eagles football; let's hope it's as interesting as the last. And let's all get our flat jackets and earmuffs ready for the first Eagles/Redskins game, whenever it may be. If you hated Favre vs. the Packers, for us this will be a thousand times worse.