There are many suspicions being bantered about amongst knowledgeable students
of Philadelphia Phillies baseball in regards to the early season exploits of
both Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard. After all, these are two sluggers whose careers have
rarely meshed solidly together yet in whom the future fortunes of the club is so
Pat Burrell, a long-time Phillie is now on the last year of a six-season
contract, a contract that was expected to be his last in Philadelphia. Until
July of last year, his career had largely been considered a disappointment after
all the fanfare and expectation that goes with being the number one amateur draft
pick in the entire nation following an All-American career at the University of
Ryan Howard, a short-time Phillie and recently awarded the largest arbitration
contract for any player ever with less than three years service time in the big
leagues. Until recently, he was considered to be a mainstay member of a young
nucleus that promised winning baseball in the City of Brotherly Love well into the
next decade. And all of this after a less than stellar junior year in college
had left many professional baseball scouts less than enamored with his true pro
Much has changed since last July for Burrell, and perhaps even more has changed
for Howard since that lonely March afternoon when he was awarded a stunning 10
million dollars for producing perhaps the most power packed initial 2.5 seasons
of baseball the sporting world has ever witnessed.
Now, the Philadelphia baseball community trumpets Burrell at every turn and
debates endlessly the justification of offering the powerful outfielder one last
long-term deal, one that might just allow the suddenly popular slugger to do
what Mike Schmidt did, retire as a Philadelphia Phillie.
For Burrell's part, the decision is an easy one. Unlike W.C. Fields, who
declared that "all things being equal, I would prefer not to be in
Philadelphia," the left fielder has always loved the city, its sometimes harsh
phans and the only professional team he has ever known. His professed desire to
stay in Philly has even caused him to use his no-trade clause on at least one
occasion, when an impending deal with the Baltimore Orioles seemed nearly
For the organizational types entrusted with making the difficult and often harsh
decisions regarding the teams players, the dilemma promises to become more acute
with every Pat Burrell home run or clutch run batted in. Should he continue the
pace that began in July of 2007, the cost of allowing him to depart seems far too
great a risk for even the most conservative minded financial wizard who now
occupies a position of authority within the Phillie inner circle.
Simply put, Pat Burrell has begun to produce offensive numbers that only the
true greats of the game usually put up. Since July of '07 his average has
hovered at or above the .330 range continuously while putting up power numbers
that only the true sluggers of the game could possibly appreciate.
Equally impressive has been the passion for the game that has slowly emerged as
Burrell has begun to feel more comfortable with his play and the results said
play have produced. While he will never be a leader in the truest sense because
of his sometimes quiet demeanor, he has led in ways that matter most to his
teammates, in the won/lost column.
The theories as to what has led to the change in both Burrell's production and
demeanor have been endless and almost all with some semblance of fact within the
fiction. Many feel that he is finally healthy again after battling both serious
and painful hand and foot injuries for several campaigns.
Others feel that married life has finally settled in with Burrell after far too
many years as one of Philadelphia's most eligible bachelors. Still others think
that Burrell, ever the follower, was influenced by the often laid back style of
former Phillies like Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal and Randy Wolf.
Now that those leaders of the clubhouse have been replaced by more vocal players
like Aaron Rowand [last season], Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins the quiet Burrell
has silently taken their lead and has become open and demonstrative both on the
field and in the clubhouse.
One final point which cannot be ignored is the motivation provided to a player
on the final season of his contract. Of course this would not explain the sudden
power surge which erupted beginning last summer but might have something to do
with the continued onslaught in 2008. Whatever, the reasons, and they may all
have a small part to play in his continued ascent into the upper echelon of
offensive players, the facts are staggering enough in their simplicity.
To wit, should the Phillies continue their unlikely surge to the top of the
National League East with minimal production from Howard and no production from
the still ailing Rollins, then Pat Burrell could become the Phils third straight
NL Most Valuable Player. He still has a few roadblocks to maneuver and May has
rarely been kind to him, but he at long last resembles the lithe young hitter
that caused many knowledgeable collegiate coaches to acclaim him as the
"greatest hitter in college history." At long last, Pat Burrell seems to have
found his baseball peace of mind.
Truth be told, this could not have been more welcome news to a Phillie team that
is still trying to come to grips with the continuing major struggles of their
avowed greatest power hitter, Ryan Howard. As the Phillies embark on a dangerous
seven game western swing through Arizona and San Francisco, Howard finds himself
slumping as never before in his entire professional baseball career.
Oh, the apologists will point to his early season woes of last year but those
had a different feel to them and were decidedly caused by injury and not
inability. Howard began last season with leg problems and once those problems
dissolved so did his slump. Not so 2008 and not so any leg problems. In fact,
physically, Ryan Howard should now be at the top of his game, a 29 year old
fresh off a 2.5 year run that saw him crush 127 home runs in a little less than
300 major league games.
These numbers are staggering at first glance, and equally impressive after more
careful examination. Not even Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Alex Rodriguez produced these kind of statistics so early in their great and gloried
careers. Ah, and perhaps herein lies the rub, if rub there may be and many think
By placing himself in the rarefied air of such Hall of Fame greats as Ruth,
Mantle, Mays and A-Rod [future Hall of Famer] Howard seems to have become
convinced that he has already achieved their status. This has caused him to hire
and fire no less than three agents in two seasons and seemingly fight tooth and nail
for every dollar that he felt was owed him.
Fair enough on the surface and no one ever begrudges a player for trying to get
the best contract he conceivably can. Yet, Einstein has taught us that for every
action there is an equal and rapid reaction and the reaction to his $10 million
dollar winning arbitration award was both swift and decisive. People throughout
the baseball industry quickly surmised that with one swift and controversial
awarding, Howard had immediately placed himself outside of any window of
opportunity that his team, the Phillies, might ever have and signing him to a
future long term contract.
While Howard has been particularly silent on this issue, people close to him
have not. Agent Casey Close has hinted that his star client is hoping to one day
ink an A-Rod like $250 million dollar deal, one that only one or two teams could even
fathom to offer. Certainly the Phillies are not in this realm and the immediate
reaction among the faithful was that Howard's countdown as a Phillie had already
begun. Optimists felt that the team could possibly keep him until 2010, when he
would be one year from free agency.
Pessimists felt that even 2010 was probably only wishful thinking given his
likely contract demands, and that 2009 might indeed be Ryan Howard's swan song
as a Philadelphia Phillie. This was particularly depressing news to a fan base
who had just begun to extol the virtues of this latest Pat Gillick led creation,
a team that seems to play better in its collective parts than its individual
parts suggest it should.
This is not necessarily newsworthy for Gillick followers as the Phillies'
retiring general manager has long been recognized for his ability to put
together a 25 man roster that wins consistently when it seems to have no
business doing so. And even with the struggles of Howard and the inactivity of
reigning MVP Jimmy Rollins, the team recently completed its best April
performance in years.
Logic dictates that Howard will eventually hit because good hitters usually hit
and Howard is still a good hitter. However, the reasons for his myriad of
troubles rests largely with his arbitration winning, strange and surreal as that
may seem. His season to date recalls the spring of 2001 when the strapping left-handed slugger was entering his junior year at Southwest Missouri State.
The whispers were becoming a shout, the shouts becoming a drumbeat about the
exploits of a strapping 6'4" first baseman at SMS who had turned the collective
collegiate world on its ears in 2000 with home run and offensive production that
few sophomores had ever demonstrated. Ryan Howard was going to be a collegiate
mega star in 2001 and undoubtedly a first round draft pick for some fortunate
professional baseball team.
Everything seemed in place for a record breaking year until Howard got what
Phillie Assistant GM and former top scout Mike Arbuckle called "draftitis" and fell
flat on his face in his junior year. Most scouts saw only the holes in his bat,
and the way he seemed to get down on himself whenever things didn't go well for
Instead, Arbuckle saw a young talent who had placed entirely far too much
pressure on himself while waiting for the millions that supposedly awaited him
upon signing his first professional contract. He advised the Phillies to go
slowly on selecting him, but not to venture far past the fourth round in the
2001 June Amateur Draft.
After selecting HS All-Americans Gavin Floyd and Terry Jones with their first
two picks the Phillies selected Ryan Howard with their selection in round five.
They signed him almost immediately and then set out to assist the youngster in
getting back the confidence that had deserted him during his junior year in
Critics have always maintained that the Phightins' did Howard a major disservice
by promoting him so slowly through the minor leagues. Indeed, his ascent was a
slow one, through Batavia to Lakewood and then on to Clearwater, where he was the
MVP of the Florida State League. His pace was steady and his performance
guardedly impressive but few outside the organization felt that he truly ever
had a chance to make it to the major leagues.
For one thing, his age [24 when he reached Reading] indicated that his solid
minor league performances might be influenced by the fact that he was always
considered "old" for his league. For another, he was considered only a marginal
defensive first baseman in an organization with Jim Thome firmly entrenched at
first base at the major league level.
The breakout campaign came in 2004, when Howard hit a staggering 46 home runs at
Double-A Reading and Triple-A Scranton combined. No longer where people speaking
in hushed tones about the young lefty and speculation was rampant that then
Phillie GM Ed Wade would trade Howard for pitching help. He might have done so
if not for two distinct factors.
One was that the Phillies under Wade were under performing and the Phillie GM
was unlikely to withstand the fallout of the lackluster performance of his team.
The organization could not fathom a departing GM moving such a potentially
electrifying young player. The other factor that came into play was the
continued injury problems of Thome, woes that would ultimately lead to his move
to Chicago in the American League.
Ryan Howard came up to stay in the summer of 2005 and when the dust had settled,
his 22 home runs and 63 RBI in merely 88 games played earned him Rookie of the
Year honors. Still, that season pales in comparison to what he did during the
summer and fall of 2006. Not only did the sweet swinging lefty slugger hit a
career best .313 but swatted 58 home runs and drove in 149 runs.
This earned him National League MVP honors, and his first visit to arbitration,
a place that most major league teams, and particularly the Phillies, find
disquieting at best, and repulsive at worst. Howard lost his case, came to camp
out of shape and predictably injured himself in trying to catch up. Catch up he
finally did, and his 47 home runs and 136 RBI were ample firepower for him to
win his arbitration case this spring to the tune of $10 million dollars.
Yet, Howard historians recall still another season when expectation came face to
face with reality and young Ryan Howard fell victim to those expectations with
less than inspiring results. If 2008 and the pressure of earning that $10
million even faintly resembles the terrible spring of 2001 when Howard felt the
pressure of becoming a first round draft pick, there is little coincidence
Clearly, Howard has been bothered by those expectations; expectations that he
ironically enough created with both A] his tremendous opening to his major
league career and B] his salary demands which many baseball purists feel are
unreasonable and unattainable. It is also worth noting that his junior season
collegiate slump lasted all season and that at 28 years of age, the baseball
clock is ticking on Howard and the ticks get louder each season.
Neither of these facts can make for particularly happy talk within the Howard
camp and it is also worth noting that agent Casey Close, the super sleuth who
promised to deliver the first baseman untold millions, might instead have
eventually cost him millions by playing such a demanding hand to the very team
that was prepared to make him a possible core member for life.
For all their alleged practices of cost cutting and thrift movements, the
Philadelphia Phillies organization has long tried to take care of its own and
has consistently trumpeted the need to build from within. They were particularly
proud of the current crop of athletes, many of whom grew up in the Phillie
Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Kyle Kendrick, Ryan Madson, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard are all proud members of the
team's farm system and most baseball officials felt that this solid and
relatively young core of players would produce winning baseball in Philadelphia
for years to come.
Now the future, though still rosy, may or may not have Howard's name written in
it. Chances remain strong that the team and player will eventually tire of the
year-to-year arbitration battles, and the Phillies will never give in to the
demands of agent Casey Close and his client, nor should they. Unless something
changes quickly, the odds are that both Howard and the Phillies will decide on
an amiable divorce and he will be moved to either New York or Boston, teams that
might find good use for a player who could be no more than a designated hitter
within three seasons.
Until then, both Howard and his current employers can only hope that he
eventually puts away his mental foibles and once again starts to resemble the
hitter that has so terrorized opposing pitchers since 2005. Should this occur
soon, the Phillie middle of the order 3-4-5 trio of Utley, Howard and Burrell
might become the most feared middle of the order in baseball.
Until then the club can only hope that Chase Utley and Pat Burrell will continue
their torrid ways until Ryan Howard eventually catches up. As previously
mentioned, this may be more difficult than it appears. Chase Utley has never
truly had a crisis of mind, and his consistently brilliant career defines those
No so for Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard. Thomas Wolf once observed that "nothing
can support a man whose mind is wounded." Those wounds are powerful, deep and
often self absorbing. Yet Pat Burrell has successfully navigated through that
process and his impending career year leads credence to that navigation.
It remains to be seen what will eventually transpire with Ryan Howard. The
Phillies can only hope for the best while reluctantly preparing for the worst.
For now, one can but surmise as to the eventual outcome of a player still
searching for that elusive lighthouse in the fog known often hauntingly
as...peace of mind.
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