Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Lucky Ones

How lucky are we to be rooting for the team Ryan Howard plays for?

In a charming piece in this morning’s Inquirer Adam Rubin describes Howard’s experience during a just-concluded tour of Japan by a squad of MLB All-Stars. The visitors swept their hosts 5-0 and Howard was named the series MVP. Off the field, the young first baseman toured Kyoto with his mother and sister wearing a throwback Johnny Unitas jersey (what is that about??), tried his hand at sushi and was in turn captivated by the Japanese, who couldn’t get enough of him.

Little fazes this guy and even less goes to his head. Virtually unknown to Japanese baseball fans and journalists prior to the start of the series, he became an overnight sensation following his four home runs and .566 batting average. Meanwhile, the hardware just keeps piling up. Already named the Sporting News Player of the Year and winner of the Hank Aaron Award for 2006, Howard was just named the NL and MLB player of the year by his peers. He smiles that room illuminating smile of his and says the appropriate thanks to all the voters and probably wonders what all the fuss is about.

There can be no greater tribute to Howard than how other ball players speak of him: in short, with admiration, respect and affection. The other first baseman on the American squad, Lyle Overbay, got very few AB's during the tour because manager Bruce Bochy said he didn't want to sit Howard given the streak he was on. Was Overbay upset? Not in the least. He was cheering for Howard, too.

Rubin’s descriptions of Howard eating sushi were priceless. Even more delightful was his description of the pain Howard felt in his legs, seated, eating sushi. The big guy kept shifting his position trying to get comfortable. Afterwards, Howard admitted that apart from downing the sea urchin and other delicacies, the hardest thing of all was just getting up.

If Howard were to move to Philadelphia permanently and have the kind of career he is on track to achieve, he would own this town. But he doesn't appear to be the kind of guy who cares a thing about "owning" any town. We're just lucky to live here while he's passing through.


Oisín/Wizlah said...

dunno tom. couple more seasons like last year, and he might feel at home with all the love being heaped on him. I can't think of a greater honour for phillies sports fans than to have howard decide to move here because ye all are so nice to him. (I'd contribute but he won't answer my e-mails).

RickSchuBlues said...

I just hope things stay the way they are for him. Things in sports can change so quickly. Whoever thought in 1998 that Scott Rolen would be mercilessly booed in Philadelphia less than five years later? Things are going to be very different for Ryan Howard next year. True, he was coming off a ROY award in '06, but expectations were relatively modest for him. I think people would have been thrilled with a mere 40-homerun season. But what now? If he doesn't hit 50 again - a most likely possibility in my mind - will he start to get heat? And how will he deal with that? I hate to sound cynical, but no one gets a free ride in Philadelphia. Howard has yet to see the down side of playing here, which I feel is inevitable. Perhaps this is why I consider it of such urgent importance that they acquire an adequate bat to hit behind him and therefore maximize his own offensive potential. People point to the fact that he was only pitched around in September, and that he did fine the rest of the year, but I don't think the league was quite as on to him as they came to be and will now continue to be. As soon as Howard started getting the Bonds/Pujols treatment, both he and the team suffered. I fear Howard is in for a long and trying 2007 season if this is not suitably addressed - something I'd very much like to see avoided. I don't want to see Howard jumping around the field, celebrating another Cardinals' championship in a few years.

Tom Goodman said...

I agree with you, RSB. What is interesting about Howard's last month (and has been somewhat lost in the shuffle) is that while teams definitely pitched around him, he raised his batting average fourteen points during that time to end up at .313. Now, admittedly, the Phils want him to hit home runs and drive in runs, but despite the clear and deliberate attempt by most teams to avoid him at all cost (a few guys in Miami decided it was better to challenge him and lost), he drove in 20 runs in Sept. and hit .387 for the month. Still, protection for him is a top priority for next season and the Phillies clearly know it.

Oisín/Wizlah said...

Whilst I disagree with both of you on protection being quite so important, I think tom raises a salient point regarding Howard's batting average - one which I am taking as a positive indicator. The guy knows how to get wood on the ball, and he always adjusts. I remember in april being suprised at the number of singles Howard was hitting (26) - he has the determined look of a good hitter who will try and make contact no matter what. I don't think he'll hit the heights of 58 homeruns next season, but I have every confidence (barring injury, touch wood) of 40+. I think his disposition will keep the phillies phans sweet. Take Jimmy Rollins who smiles and chats and people don't generally boo him when he's at his hacking worst. Burrell and Rolen are examples of the taciturn end of the spectrum - the lack of any response is what shoves people's buttons. Howard seems to put application and work into everything he does - he's confident and polished interviews (even when he's not being what you might call professional in the alex rodriguez/jeter sense of the word), and if he has a barren spell, people will respect that.

Tom Goodman said...

Oisin makes some good points about attitude and fan response. Rolen could have been a fan favorite on talent alone but was stand-offish from the outset and grumpy and morose in his final months here. Burrell has never made the slightest attempt to be fan friendly. It takes more than throwing the third out or a foul ball into the stands, but he doesn't get it. In fact, Burrell never seems to show the slightest interest in talking with the press either. Rolen simply saw the press as beneath him for the most part. Rollins and Howard are on the other end of the spectrum. Accessible. Talkative. Heck,Howard has been in the national and now international spotlight and maintains the same easy demeanor throughout. Utley may be in the middle as far as outward expresion but I notice he makes himself available for all sorts of fan-interactive events. And even if Chase did nothing else, his all-out hustle wins over Philadelphia fans every time.

Ivan Glick said...

wonder if you'd consider linking to my new Phil's blog:
I already have linked your site.