For a team like the Philadelphia Phillies, a place amongst the franchise’s legends is hugely meaningful. Unlike, say, the New York Yankees, who can field an entire 25-man roster and more with the numbers they’ve retired, teams that haven’t achieved that level of success have a special connection to the players that enter their pantheon.
Not counting Jackie Robinson, the Phillies only have seven numbers on the brick wall above Ashburn Alley. Those numbers belong to Richie Ashburn, Jim Bunning, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Robin Roberts, along with Grover Cleveland Alexander (who played for the Phillies before numbers were issued) and Chuck Klein (who wore half a dozen different numbers during his Phillies tenure).
It’s uncertain, even unlikely, that Ryan Howard, who announced on the Players Tribune he is now retired, will join those seven. There is a common thread amongst those names: all are in the Hall of Fame. Howard, for all his achievements, is highly unlikely to be enshrined in Cooperstown, and the Phillies have a semi-official policy which is not to retire a player’s number unless he is.
That being said, Howard still deserves to be in their company as one of the greatest Phillies of all time.
Long time coming
It took a long time for Ryan Howard to come to the big leagues. The Phillies drafted him in the fifth round in 2001 and he rocketed up the minors. By 2004, he was one of the most talked-about prospects in the game. He had hit a team-record 37 home runs at Double-A Reading…before he was promoted to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, then the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate, at the end of July. Howard came up as a September call-up that year and made his debut on September 1, as a pinch hitter for Vicente Padilla. He hit .282 in his cup of coffee in the majors and hit his first two homers. He had nothing more to prove in the minor leagues. He was ready.
There was only one problem: Howard was a first baseman, and Jim Thome occupied that spot on the field on the MLB roster. Thome had raked since coming to Philly as a free agent in ’03, hitting 89 home runs and driving in 236 runs in his first two years with the team.
Teams around the league dangled trade offers in front of then-general manager Ed Wade for the slugger. When Howard reported to Spring Training in 2005, the team tried to convert him into an outfielder—something that his present-day equivalent, Rhys Hoskins, has done with more success. It looked like Howard was destined to either languish for another season in Scranton or be used as trade fodder if the front office wanted to add to an up-and-coming team.
Then, opportunity struck: in the middle of the 2005 season Thome injured his elbow. Howard came up and promptly won the NL Rookie of the Year award by hitting .288/.356/.567 with 22 home runs and 63 RBI. Now the Phillies had a problem, and they eventually ended up trading Thome to the Chicago White Sox for Aaron Rowand.
The rest is history. Howard was the fastest player in history to reach 100 home runs, then 200. He set the team’s single-season home run record with 58 in 2006, the year he won NL MVP as the Phillies fell just short of a postseason berth.
During the Phillies’ glory years of 2007-11, Howard was without a doubt one of the best players in baseball. He hit 204 home runs in those five years, drove in 647 runs, made two more All-Star Games (in his first, in 2006, he won the Home Run Derby), and finished third and second in MVP voting in ’07 and ’08. He was fantastic in the clutch, hitting .285 with 526 RBI in high-leverage situations and .282 with six homers and 19 RBI in 78 at-bats as a pinch-hitter. He took over during the National League playoffs in 2009, sealing the pivotal Game 3 in the NLDS against the Rockies before wiping the floor with the Dodgers, hitting .333/.524/.933 with two homers, a double, a triple, and eight RBI en route to the NLCS MVP award.
The fall, unfortunately, would be as quick as the rise. Representing the Phillies’ last hope in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS against the Cardinals, Howard hit a dribbler up the first base line but crumpled to the ground before he could get more than three or four steps out of the batter’s box. He had torn his Achilles tendon—an injury that in hindsight had been foreshadowed weeks before when the team said he was playing through “bursitis of the heel.”
Deprived of his base, Howard was never the same. He missed half of each of the next two seasons and never got more than 25 home runs in his last three years with the club. By the time his contract expired in 2016, he was the last of the heroes of ’08 remaining on the roster. He gave the fans one last bit of nostalgia in that last series against the Mets, homering in his penultimate game before being replaced before the top of the ninth in game 162, affording a fan base that had often expressed its frustration with his struggles since his injury one last chance to salute him as the champion he was.
One of the best
There isn’t any doubt that Ryan Howard deserves to be alongside the likes of Schmidt and Carlton as one of the greatest Phillies of all time. His numbers may not have reached the lofty plateaus of the men who led the charge to the team’s first title in 1980—although who knows what would have happened if he stayed healthy—but his impact on the franchise goes beyond his numbers.
Howard was a cornerstone of the best five-year period in the history of the franchise. He was one of the best and most feared players in the league during his peak, and he propelled the team to heights it had never known. The Wall of Fame in Ashburn Alley is an honor, to be sure, but he deserves more than that. His No. 6 might never be painted next to Ashburn’s, but any player who dons it in the future has a lot to live up to.
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