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.

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