Friday, July 11, 2008

Strange Indeed

Has anyone ever had a more bizarre first half in baseball than Ryan Howard?

It all started in February when the big guy was awarded a huge $10 million one-year deal, a record in baseball's arbitration era I think and $3 million more than the Phillies were offering. The arbitrators decided his version of what he was worth was more believable than the official club version. Score one big one for the big guy and, incidentally, one for all of those (which includes his manager) who believe production of runs, not batting average or balls put in play is what counts the most.

Next he stumbled out of the gate and by June was still flirting with the Mendoza line. Score one for the big guy's critics, who clearly believe all of those K's and feeble AB's were killing the team.

As he stumbled with the bat, Howard did nothing to improve his standing with the range-factor stat heads or numerous other critics of his defense. Heck, I got to see him throw a perfectly good pick-off by Jamie Moyer clear into left field live and in person only last Saturday night, one evening after he made not one but two errors on one play. Score another one for the big guy's critics, who grew more vocal by the day.

Even though he wasn't hitting his own weight, and even though he was on a pace to break his own single-season strikeout record, Howard continued to drive in runs. Some were softies, coming in losses or garbage time, but many others were crucial. Only yesterday his two home runs provided the margin of victory. By day's end Howard was leading the majors in home runs, leading the NL in rbi's and had set a franchise record for most rbi's before the All Star break. Not bad for a guy who still isn't hitting his own weight.

Howard has heard the boos and doesn't like them. Who does? The fans want to love him but they also want, as fans are wont to do, their money's worth. (Of course it ain't their money, but the way fans everywhere see players' salaries is this: you're getting paid all of that money, often more in a year than we'd be paid in a lifetime, and you'd better damn site earn it.)

Lately, Howard's comments in the press seem clipped compared with his relative loquaciousness in his first two seasons. There is even a hint of disdain at times, resignation at others. Resigned to what, you might reasonably ask? The time-worn myth that fans in Philadelphia are tougher than anywhere else? Try playing in New York or Boston. Indeed, try playing anywhere but Miami and Tampa Bay where all seventeen fans keep their own counsel.

Howard's contract negotiations have been characterized by bitterness. His $900,000 salary last year was seen by him and his family as a slap in the face. A mere 100 grand more and he would have set another record for salary for a player with his short tenure in the big leagues and, moreover, one who was not eligible for salary arbitration. The arbitration panel might have had that in the back of their so-called neutral minds when they more than made up the difference this time around. After that "slap" in the face Howard seemed bitter. His family seemed even more bent out of shape. And even though the Phillies offer this year was $3 million less than he was asking and even though he was awarded the extra dough, he thought it necessary to point out he wasn't bitter or angry about the process. Meanwhile, bloggers and commentators everywhere were either speculating how long it would take him to file for free agency when he became eligible or were wondering whether or not the Phillies could or should offer a player of his size and age and proclivities (read: K's and E's) a huge long-term deal that might break the bank.

Howard remains mum on the whole matter. All he does is go out there, swat the ball over the fence, drive in his mates, boot a ground ball or throw here and there and swing and miss with prodigious frequency. In other words, all he does is continue to have a very strange year.

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