By Andrew Wheeler
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — As I often do, I stopped by CBS 3 Sports Director Don Bell’s desk the other night and he posed a question to me. “Let me ask you this,” as we moved from one topic to another, “What do you do with Ryan Howard?”READ MORE: North Philadelphia Crash Leaves Young Girl Dead; Sister, Mother Injured
It’s not the first time I’ve heard that question recently. His struggles, despite a few hits over the last few days are epic. He is a shell of what he once was and has been for years now. It’s been tough for fans to watch and I can’t even imagine how hard it is for Howard to work every day and not get the results that he wants or was used to.
I’ve seen stories that talk about father time catching up with everyone. I’ve seen articles and tweets I view as harsh and heartless blasting the Philadelphia Icon. Yes, I said Icon. Even some are suggesting that something must be done immediately.
“The Big Piece has to go!” some say in what I view as a complete overreaction.
Truth is, even though I’m a member of the media and we aren’t supposed to admit it, I’ll always be a Ryan Howard fan. It wasn’t the distance of the home runs, or the number of them. It wasn’t the times, that we are all forgetting, where he was clutch and feared. Not even the span of a baseball career that was being compared to “The Babe,” made me admire and respect Howard the way I do.
It wasn’t even the championship that I’ll never ever forget.
My appreciation for Howard the person and Howard the professional were forged on the fateful night in October 2011 when the Phillies lost an epic pitching battle between Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter. The Cardinals advanced, the Phillies’ season ended.
It was truly the last time we all saw the Ryan Howard we all remember. It was also officially the end of that era of Phillies baseball, whether we knew it then or not. He was that important to those teams, that when he wasn’t him anymore, it all fell apart.
For most fans, the indelible image we all remember will be Howard blowing out his Achilles on the final at bat of the game. When I see it, I think about how much pain he had to be in, but that he tried to get back up and tried to run anyway because he knew he needed to be safe or the season was over. Once the final out was made, he just crumpled to the ground and gave up his fight to run to first.
For me, it’s what happened after that that stands out. I’m not in the locker room often anymore, but during that run I was. Every time somebody rips Howard, or talks about disrespecting him and releasing him, it makes me cringe when I think about after that game.
For the most part covering that team could be difficult. In part because the players liked to hide from the press…and I don’t blame them. I can’t imagine having a bad day at work and then having people that have no idea what it’s like to do my job standing around me asking about why I screwed up that day. It’s one of the unfortunate realities for athletes.
However, while most leagues players are required to speak to the press a certain amount of times per week and after games, there are no such rules in place for MLB.
Some guys thought they were too important to be bothered. Some would berate you for 10 minutes before they agreed to an interview and then turned on the charm for the cameras. Some fan favorites were completely invisible after games or simply said no to requests. They either didn’t want to be bothered or didn’t care. Once the media availability was over then they came pouring out of the corners of the clubhouse they had hid in.READ MORE: WATCH LIVE: Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. To Announce Major Boardwalk Rehabilitation Funding, Other Upcoming Projects
That night was a little different in some respects because some big names were leaving. Brad Lidge was a free agent, so he did an interview. The same was true for Raul Ibanez and Ryan Madson. I remember we were all asking two questions, would free agent to be Jimmy Rollins talk and would Howard talk.
The Media Relations folks didn’t have any idea if Howard would talk and really wouldn’t officially confirm what had happened. Most everyone thought it was the Achilles by the way he went down, but it wasn’t officially official until we all heard it out loud from somebody that knew.
We were informed that Rollins would not speak after the game. He would hold a special press conference later in the week to discuss the game and his free agency. He wasn’t the only one that didn’t talk.
Nobody left because there was still the possibility that Howard would talk.
Then there he came. This massive man, hobbled on crutches looking crushed not fearing the worst, knowing it. He had to have been in a tremendous amount of pain. Everyone was standing near his locker and the sea of reporters parted to let him through.
Then he fiddled around in his locker for a moment. Got ready, turned around with the use of the crutches, put them aside and stood there and answered every single question asked by the reporters….on one leg.
I’ve never seen it before and I’m almost certain I’ll never see it again. The questions were endless. What happened? What is the injury? What did the doctors say? What went wrong in the game? How do you feel? He eventually put his arm out and held on the locker to help keep upright.
Then what was probably 15 to 20 minutes passed and out the door he went on crutches.
Is his salary way too high for his production? Yes. Will he struggle the rest of the season? That’s what it looks like. Might this be his last season in the majors? Maybe, but none of that is important.
What’s important is what he brings to the team right now.
He’s a veteran that the young guys can see doing the right things, trying hard, putting in his work. He’s a voice in the locker room that if somebody steps out of line can easily put them back in.
His value by statistical standards may be completely diminished, but there is a value in having a professional around.
Both he and Carlos Ruiz aren’t what they used to be, but their presence has a value that can’t be measured by some formula. It’s a human element that fans and entertainment media never factor into building great teams. Young players have to learn the right way to do things from veterans or they could be ruined forever. I want this current crop of Phillies youngsters learning from Howard and the example he sets.
If the way that Howard handled himself on just that one night alone is any indication, a year with a former MVP and World Series Champion could pay dividends to the young players on this team for a decade and beyond.MORE NEWS: House Votes Against Taking Up Gun Bill After Texas Killings
In that way Howard could end up being worth every penny.