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Ryan Howard Clears His Own Path
By Jim Salisbury
• 2005 All-Rookie Team
• Rookies Play Big Role In Penant Races
• Gomes Is Pleasant Surprise In Tampa
• Huston Street Shows No Fear As Rookie Closer
Check out this anecdote, provided by Phillies general manager Ed Wade. Howard was in the midst of a 46-homer season between Double-A and Triple-A in 2004. As much as Phillies officials loved what they saw from the slugging first baseman, they knew he was blocked by Jim Thome, who was signed through 2008.
The Phillies dangled Howard as trade bait--with a high price tag--but potential buyers were skeptical of whether he'd hit big league pitching. Wade learned that while exploring a possible deal before the trade deadline.
"Lots of guys hit home runs in Double-A," a rival GM scoffed before moving on to other possibilities.
Thirteen months later, the same GM who turned the thumbs-down on Howard asked Wade to put his phone number on top of the list should Wade field offers for Howard.
After putting up big minor league numbers since 2002, Howard finally got the chance many thought would never come when he took over for the injured Thome on July 1.
Howard, 25, did not waste the opportunity. He hit .288 and led all rookies with 22 homers and a .567 slugging percentage, while driving in 63 runs in 308 at-bats.
Howard's strikeouts (100) were high, but he did offer answers to those who wondered if he could hit with the big fellas. Pitchers made adjustments on Howard, and he kept on hitting.
"It's just about getting the reps," Howard said. "It's the same game it was in second grade except there are more people in the stands. Once you get by the hype and play your game, you're fine."
Now Blocking Thome?
Just months after agent Larry Reynolds asked the Phillies trade his client, Howard became a fan favorite. The Phillies stayed in contention for the National League wild card until the final day of the season, and Howard was a big reason for that. The Phillies were 16-6 in games when he homered. He twice hit game-winning grand slams. He drove in 27 runs in the final 29 games, and his 10 homers in September were the most ever by a rookie.
While Howard became a top Rookie of the Year candidate, the man who once blocked his route to the majors became expendable. The Phillies will try to trade Thome just three years after he signed a six-year, $85 million contract and energized a city where baseball had seemingly hibernated for a decade.
Trading Thome might not be as simple as getting him to waive his no-trade clause, though. The Phillies will have to eat a large chunk of the $46 million he is owed. Further complicating the decision is Thome's health. He's 35, and since the start of the 2004 season, he has battled hand, finger and back injuries. An elbow injury that required surgery ended his 2005 season.
"A lot of people thought we should have addressed this situation a year ago and given Ryan his opportunity to play (with another club)," Wade said. "But we needed to look at it from a somewhat selfish standpoint.
"I'm glad to have Ryan Howard and I'm glad to have Jim Thome. I know someday, we'll be forced to make a difficult decision."
Winning Fans In Philly
The Phillies have not put an "untouchable" label on Howard, but they don't have to. They've expressed a desire to get younger. And fans might storm Citizens Bank Park if he is traded.
"I'm not going to worry about it," Howard said. "Whatever happens, happens."
Thome has been silent on the matter. He didn't want to distract teammates in a pennant race, and he didn't want to come across as a rival of Howard's. In truth, he is anything but that.
"Jim's been great," Howard said. "I ask him stuff. He gives me advice. He's been very helpful."
Thome's injury gave the Phillies a chance to see what they had in Howard. They saw more than they ever expected.
"To step into a pennant race and hit in the clutch the way he did was beyond what we hoped for," assistant GM Mike Arbuckle said. "He handled all types of pitchers, including some of the best in the league. And he played well defensively."
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was a roving instructor when he first saw Howard at high A Clearwater in 2003. Manuel loved what he saw. He compared Howard to a young John Mayberry. But Manuel believed the lefthanded-hitting Howard stood too far from the plate, which prevented him from using the right side of the field. Eventually, instructors persuaded Howard to move closer to the plate.
"The first time I saw him I looked at him as a 40-homer guy, but he was not an all-field hitter," Manuel said. "He's made great strides in two years, and he's still improving."
It's crazy how this game works out sometimes. A year ago, the Phillies would have traded Howard, but they never really came close to doing so because no team was willing to meet their price. It's probably a good thing no one did. Howard became a force for the Phillies this season, and should remain one for years to come.
"This guy has a chance to be special," Manuel said. "He already is special."