The Phanatic Magazine wraps up its "35 Reasons to Believe" series today, which means only one thing -- the regular season is almost upon us. We've counted down the arrival of Opening Day by profiling one Phillies player per day, ranging from those who have already left the club to those who are planning on carrying it. Hope you enjoyed. If you missed any of the days, click on the "Phillies Season Preview" tag below for the archived stories. And don't forget to check back in for Michael Rushton's in-depth season preview, coming soon...
By Tim McManus
The Phanatic Magazine
Day 35 - Ryan Howard
Where is the point when an athlete becomes transcendent?
What pushes someone into the elite category, where they are judged on a scale that very few get to step foot on?
For most it's difficult to pin down. For Ryan Howard, that moment occurred on June 20th of last year.
First inning, two out, two on, Mike Mussina on the mound for the Yanks. Howard turns on a pitch, and launches it into the third level of the right-field stands at Citizen's Bank Park. Brett Myers presses against the dugout fence, follows the shot in bewilderment, and sums up everyone's experience with his eyes as he turns toward the camera-- I've never seen anything like that before in my life!
Howard finishes with two home runs and seven RBI to up his numbers to 25 homers and 66 RBI just 71 games in. It was time to start paying close attention.
"I think back to that Yankee game and the ball I hit into the third deck and I went [in the stands] and got to see it and didn't think it was humanly possible to do that. The first thing that came to my mind was, 'Did this really just happen?'"
Phillies fans and national pundits alike have the same reaction when looking at Howard's MVP season as a whole. Most knew he had the chance to be special, but to have a season that statistically trumps all but one of Barry Bonds' campaigns? Shocking, even more so when you realize Charlie Manuel didn't put him into the four-hole permanently until July.
And honestly, it still hasn't sunk in. Remaining in disbelief, many are looking at Howard's sub-par spring and trying to equate it into an inevitable fall. He must be a flash -- nothing that bright can burn for long.
Put pessimism or measured caution aside, though, and history suggests that Howard has not yet reached his peak years. He has only one full season under his belt, has played in just 251 major league games and is but 27-years-old.
Does that mean that he is going to match or exceed the 58 home runs and 149 RBI that he put up in 2006 each year? Likely not, since he will be dealt with very gingerly by opposing managers and pitchers from now on.
That became pretty clear on August 11 against Cincinnati, when Howard was walked three times in extra innings. The final free pass came in the bottom of the 14th to load the bases with no outs, putting the winning run just 90 feet away.
Reds manager Jerry Narron explained, "When he comes to the plate, he's already in scoring position."
A dip in numbers doesn't mean that Howard's impact will be any less. To reference Bonds again, the slugger's home run numbers dropped after his record-setting 2001 season from 73 to 46, and his RBIs went from 137 to 110 the following year. His batting average, though, jumped from .328 to .370 and his on-base percentage skyrocketed to .582 as teams learned to further fear and respect him.
He claimed his second of four straight MVPs that year, and more importantly, guided his team to the World Series in '02, where the Giants fell a game short of claiming a championship.
When teams choose not to challenge you regularly, there are a few natural benefits as long as you stay disciplined: You will draw more walks, your average will increase, and your eye will become more keen. The strike zone becomes less important than a personal zone that you create -- if a ball comes into your wheelhouse, you crack it; if not, you let it be.
And, of course, your teammates will see better pitches, thereby shifting the entire dynamic and potency of your lineup.
In other words, Howard will affect the game even when he's caged in the dugout, giving the title of reigning MVP further meaning.
Like Howard's swing, his emergence has come so swift and violently, that it's hard to comprehend. The man himself has a difficult time grasping that he has reached such a high level so quickly.
But as sure as there is an "H" inscribed on the third-deck seat where that improbable June 20 home run landed, Howard's abilities are very real.
And for those who are still concerned, fear not -- he'll provide some reassurance in just a few short days.
Tim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org