This week Ryan Howard was released by the Braves after 11 unspectacular games for their Triple-A affiliate in Gwinnett. Some might consider this an inglorious, ignominious exit for a former MVP fallen on hard performance times, but I see it differently. I see it as a man so in love with baseball that he was willing to move on from the only franchise he’d ever played for, willing to toil away in Georgia for a Triple-A affiliate of a bad team with an All-World first baseman blocking him in the big leagues. It didn’t work out, but Howard’s story has (potentially) ended with him trying to do the thing he loved, and not for money or for glory. I like that about him.
I don’t like that Howard seemed to batter and bruise my beloved Mets on the regular from the minute he came into the league as a Rookie of the Year slugger, possessed of such otherworldly power that he might as well have been named Kal-El or Mar-Vell. He was from another planet where gravity was not the same as here, and he proved it by hitting 382 dingers, many of them moonshots that left Citizens Bank Park with alacrity.
He hit 58 homers in 2006 alone, more than anyone in a single season this millennium save Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa. But despite his abiding love for baseball and his crushing might, the thing that I think made Howard special was something else entirely. Something that might be nothing more than a trick of the light, but makes him nearly unique among the 18,649 players ever to step on an MLB diamond.
If his career ends today, Howard will have amassed over 6,000 big-league plate appearances, no mean feat in and of itself. But what makes him special is that all of those appearances came with a single franchise and Howard only ever appeared at one defensive position on the field. Howard was a first baseman, full stop. While many major leaguers at least spend an inning at some position other than their primary home, Howard never set foot too far from the first base bag. And among MLB players with 6,000 or more plate appearances, only five in history ever played just one position for one team (not counting designated hitter or pinch-hitting appearances, obviously).
|Bobby Doerr||Red Sox||2B||8028|
(Data pulled from Baseball-Reference.com)
There’s something appropriate and poetic and nostalgic about these five players all toiling for teams that date back to the dawn of the previous century. (And something appropriate about the Yankees having two of the five players in question.) Are you as surprised as I was by this list? Two Hall of Famers, one first-ballot guy who isn’t eligible yet, one guy who definitely should be in but isn’t, and Ryan Howard.
In a game that is constantly changing and shifting, with players roving all over the field to get bats into the lineup and gain a tiny sliver of advantage, Howard was as immovable an object as his frame would have implied. That 15-foot area near the first-base line in eastern Pennsylvania was his territory, for better or for worse. With players moving from team to team at an alarming rate, he remained with the Phillies until the very moment he could no longer stay on a major-league roster, which just so happened to coincide with the expiration of his massive contract.
Of course, being one of a five players to play so long for one team at one position is the sort of thing that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Do people love David Wright or Evan Longoria any less because they picked up a few innings at shortstop? (Or Lou Gehrig, for that matter?) Is Ted Williams any less of a Red Sox icon because the team let him pitch for two innings in 1940? Absolutely not. It’s a trick of the light, the kind of statistical irregularity that doesn’t really mean anything, but helps us sort and taxonomize and make sense and narrative out of nine dudes, wood, and leather.
This sort of thing isn’t what truly makes Ryan Howard stand out; his talent, his drive, and his circumstances did that. This is another chance for us to re-examine a player we thought we knew. Beyond the platoon splits, the enormous dingers, the bright smile, Ruben’s Folly, and the cameo on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, there’s another story, another fun fact. If you play baseball long enough and well enough you tend to at least stumble into one or two of those. And eventually, strange people with Play Index subscriptions will find these odd factiods that let you live even longer and stranger in our hearts.
By never making it back to the bigs with Atlanta, circumstances conspired to give him another something special, allowed him to fall into a category with just four other world-class historical baseball figures. Farewell, Ryan (if this is the end). You’ll always have 2006 and that patch of dirt in Philly. We’ll always have the memories and the occasional fun fact.