CD's Connect the Dots... Boom in the Gloom

For Phillies fandom, it was another day of depressing headlines. Stories of another Phillie loss, an occurrence that is becoming an almost daily thing. There was a story about another injury to a key player, this time Jim Thome. And of course, there was the daily speculation about the future of Larry Bowa, Billy Wagner, Kevin Millwood and Pat Burrell. All in all, not very promising. Still, a tiny story not yet getting attention may offer Phillie fans a glimpse of future hopes...

Not much has gone right in Phillieland this season. A beautiful new ballpark has taken its hits over the proximity of the outfield fences. In fact, the San Francisco Giants were giddy with expectation upon taking batting practice at Citizens Bank Park. High expectations have been replaced by daily losses, injury updates and dismissal rumors.

Yet, in a season of muck and dirty water, a lotus blossom has grown, and its buds are beginning to bloom with increasing color and sophistication. I am speaking of one Ryan Howard, erstwhile MVP at Clearwater, and recent slugger at Reading. If you haven't heard amid the din of the negative Phillie babble, Howard was recently promoted to Scranton Wilkes Barre in Triple A.

On Saturday night, Howard was playing his twelfth game as a member of the Red Barons. His first eleven had been fairly pedestrian for a player advancing leagues in the middle of the hot August weather. Oh, he had a homerun, and 5 doubles, and had knocked in 7 runs. Still, this was a player who recently put up staggering numbers at Reading in Double A.

His season in Double A will not truly be appreciated until off season perspective makes his numbers more meaningful. Still, 37 homeruns and 102 RBI in 101 games will make any Rotisserie League fan clamor for his services. It was a season for the ages, one that no Phillie player has ever had. Not Richie Allen. Not Greg Luzinski. Not Mike Schmidt.

Nevertheless, Howard has been a victim of his own success. It seems he has suffered from various "baseball geek" ailments. Too old for his leagues. Too many strikeouts. Too little speed. Too bad he can only play first base. Amazingly, playing in an organization as public relations conscious as the Phils, Howard was often reduced to an afterthought, and it is little disputed that the Phils tried mightily to trade him at the deadline for the likes of Kris Benson or someone of his ilk.

They say that the best trades are often the ones not made, and in Howard's case, this may be true. For on a Saturday night in mid-August, when for all the world it seemed as if another Phillie season is ending in disappointment and defeat, Mr. Ryan Howard had his official coming out party at Triple A!

Chances are you might not have heard about it. Few have. It seems that Ryan Howard, in only his twelfth game in Triple A, hit 2 homeruns, a double and a single, scored 3 runs and knocked in 6 runs in an 8-3 victory for the Red Barons. Friends, these are impressive numbers in any event, but made even more impressive by the circumstances.

This writer maintains that few, if any players, have had such an impressive offensive performance this quickly in a Triple A game. Oh, many players have had equally impressive games, and some have had even more scintillating one-day onslaughts. But to do it in only your twelfth game is cause for pause.

Pause as in carefully examining just what we may have in this young slugger. Pause as in quietly deciding how to make proper use of this electrifying bat at a stadium where homerun hitters may feel as if they have discovered paradise. Pause as in throwing away forever the notion that Howard is a "one trick pony" and can't be taught to perform in other arenas.

The Howard story is a fascinating and revealing one, a story of success, failure, disappointment and redemption. It is one that any young player would do well to study and learn from. Even more exciting for Phillie fans is the possibility that this is an ongoing story, with the climax events still to come!

Ryan Howard was an excellent college player in Missouri, an All-American first baseman in his sophomore year. His power totals were the talk of the major league scouts everywhere, and expectations were high as he entered his junior year. Surely, this was the year that he would put up even more impressive numbers and culminate this as a number one draft choice in the June 2001 Draft.

Then a strange thing happened on the way to the party. Howard developed a case of "draftitis", a rare and often fatal disease among college baseball players. They become so engrossed in worrying about what the scouts are thinking that they forget what got them there in the first place, their talent.

Howard suffered a season long slump, and hit only 13 homeruns, and amazingly hit less than .300 in his junior year. The thud of Howard falling in the June draft could be heard from Missouri all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and the Phils were the happy beneficiaries of his services when they drafted him in round five.

Assistant GM Mike Arbuckle happily chortled that the Phils had made a steal in the fifth round, and that only Howard's fall from grace in his junior year had allowed the Phils to nab him this low. Few fans listened, and many of the naysayers were quick to point out that a 21 year old player starting out in Batavia of the short season NY-P league was unlikely to ever make a dent in the major leagues.

Arbuckle bit his lip, and continued to insist that getting Howard "comfortable and confident" again was his primary goal. To his credit, Howard acknowledged his shortcomings and had a solid though not earth shattering year at Batavia. Still, the naysayers said that Howard was too old, too strikeout prone, and too much of a one position (first base) player to cause even a tremor of noise at the higher levels.

The year 2002 saw Howard advance one level, and his season at Lakewood was again strong, but not scintillating. The doubting Thomas's continued to wail at him as a player too old and too one dimensional for inclusion to prime time television.

However, his 2003 season at Clearwater was a year that just could not be completely ignored. Yes, he was 23 years old and still playing Single A baseball. Absolutely, he was a bit older than his competition. Certainly, he was a first baseman in an organization that seemed uninterested in another first sacker until at least the year 2008, the year that Jim Thome's contract ends.

Still, a player who leads the league in batting and homeruns, and nearly wins the Triple Crown is a player worthy of study. Clearly, a player who wins MVP honors while performing on a mediocre team seems more than just a passing fancy. The naysayers still had the last word. "Yes," they cried, "but let's see what he will do when he gets to Double A Reading, a league that separates the men from the boys." Fair enough.

As noted, all Howard did was shatter every homerun record available to the Eastern League. In a bit over 100 games, Howard hit 37 homeruns and knocked in 102 RBI. His slugging percentage was astronomical, and his power output made even the naysayers in the Phillie organization take notice. But only for a moment.

As the July 31 trading deadline arrived, rumors of an impending Howard trade were rampant among Phillie talking heads, talk shows, and Internet talk sites. An offer for pitcher Kris Benson of Pittsburgh was mentioned, and never denied. There was loose talk of a trade for pitcher Paul Wilson of Cincinnati, again with nary a denial.

Happily for Phillie fans, these trades never materialized, though it was the opponent's reluctance rather than the Phil's that kept these deals from happening. Amazingly, the Phillie mantra continued to be that Howard was a first baseman, and a first baseman only. Forget the idea that he could be taught to play left field. Perish the thought that a player might, just might, need to be accommodated so his homerun bat would grace the fields of CBP instead of enemy territory.

When the deadline passed, the Phils took a deep breath and promoted Howard to Triple A Scranton. The Barons were in a pennant race and needed reinforcements. Still, to hear the Phils talk, it was as if this was a minor move, one with no consequence. Howard was still thought to have no future in left field, and probably no future in Philadelphia.

Frankly, friends, this thought process borders on the outrageous, if not outright arrogance. In a game where the best teams look at players and say, "Why not?" the Phils often see the same players and say, "No way!" Howard is clearly a player with a special skill, the talent to hit a baseball great distances. This is no mean feat, and not one that should be quickly overlooked.

Quick now, Phillie historians, name the past Phillie players of the last 40 years who have been developed in the system with the homerun potential of Howard. Richie Allen in the early 60's, and Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski in the 70's. Possibly Scott Rolen in the 90's and certainly Pat Burrell. That's it! In 40 years, only five players have moved through the organization with the electric powers skills of Mr. Howard.

Not coincidentally, all five went on to great careers, and two of them are Hall of Fame worthy. It is also worth noting that not one, not two, and not three but four of these players changed positions while performing in Philadelphia. Allen began his career as an outfielder, and was made into a third baseman by Manager Gene Mauch, who recognized power when he saw it.

Schmidt was a college shortstop, who originally began his professional career at second base before moving to third to protect his tender knees. Not a bad move for the Phils as Schmidt is now deemed the greatest third baseman of all time.

Luzinski was a first baseman, who moved to left field so his bat could be placed in a lineup that already included a power hitting first baseman, Deron Johnson. In fact, Luzinski's case most parallels Howard's in terms of position switch and circumstances. As most recall, Luzinski was a one man wrecking crew for the Phils from 1972-1980, and his defense cost the Phils far less than his bat did assist.

Finally, we have the case of Pat Burrell, an All-American third baseman in college. The Phils moved him to first base upon his arrival in professional ball because Rolen was thought to have the hot corner wrapped up for at least a decade and a half. Burrell then moved to his present location in left field, and has done nothing to embarrass himself or the organization that made the switch.

Yes, phanatics, there is a precedence to these moves, and it behooves the Phils to think quickly about purchasing an outfielder's glove for young Howard. No longer considered too old for his league at 24, he may well be emerging as one of the burgeoning sluggers to ever put on a Phillie jersey. And as with most Phillie stories these days, here again is the rub.

Phillie executive types still insist that Howard's only position is first base, a spot that appears blocked by Thome. In the irony of ironies, on a day that Burrell was being talked about as lost for the season, and Thome suffered yet another debilitating injury, Howard had his coming out party at Triple A.

Two mammoth homeruns. Six runs batted in. Eleven total bases in only five at bats. In only his twelfth league game. Howard seems a man on a mission, and that mission MUST include participation as a Philadelphia Phillie and not as a Phillie opponent. Get him that outfielder's glove quickly and have him report to the Florida Instructional League in October.

When he is there hit him 500 fly balls a day in the hot Florida sun. Hit them to his left, hit them to his right, hit them over his head, hit them in front of him. Make him work, but do it in a fashion that will allow him to succeed, as succeed he must. Then find a Winter League team that will agree to let him play left field and place him there.

Clearly, this is an experiment whose time has come. No more talk of failure or lack of speed. No more loose lips that sink ships concerning his need to be traded for another arm that Larry Bowa can burn out with overuse. Replace it with positive talk about a Philadelphia developed player who will succeed, and carry the hopes of Phillie fans with him, regardless of the position he plays.

In a season of gloom and doom, it is time to make room for the boom.

Columnist's Note: Please send any comments or suggestions to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thanks! Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast

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