I remember that day in Summer 1986 when Phils owner Bill Giles, choking through tears, announced the release of Steve Carlton, ending Lefty’s 14-plus years with the franchise.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” Giles said. “I couldn’t keep watch him struggling.”
We may be just a few weeks from seeing the same sad ending for Ryan Howard. His fourth-strikeout game Sunday, with boos pelting down like hailstones, could be that clarifying moment that spurs ownership to swallow hard, write a $60 million retirement check and try Darin Ruf at 2 percent of the annual cost.
No one’s really at fault here. Howard’s power evaporated through injuries, most notably the Achilles tear that ended the 2011 season. Management, stuck behind that $125 million contract that kicked in four years back, has employed a “cross-my-fingers” strategy of hoping Howard’s lost power will return.
It’s easy to condemn Ruben Amaro and Co. for the original deal. But two points in their defense: First, Howard’s is just one of 56 nine-figure contracts Major League players signed in the past 15 years. And second, even the most fervent critic could not have projected his career would wither this badly.
Manager Ryne Sandberg said everything that matters Sunday when he admitted Howard’s “Golden Sombrero” (baseball parlance for a four-whiff game) came because he couldn’t catch up with Nationals starter Max Scherzer’s hellacious fastball.
“Hopefully, this was a one-game thing against a guy who had pretty good stuff,” Sandberg said. Problem is, every staff boasts hurlers throwing that hard. According to a Sports Illustrated study, the number of pitchers averaging 94 mph fastballs tripled in the past decade. The world’s spinning faster, and Howard’s bat speed is getting slower.
And so the fans boo. They have every right. While it might seem disrespectful to heckle a former MVP trying his best, the cacophony is really a message to management: Please move on.
Some fans hope Howard will follow Mike Schmidt’s path. The Greatest Phillie sobbed through a retirement speech when he realized his skills had eroded. But Schmidt’s move to the golf circuit cost him less than $1 million in lost pay. No logical human being, no matter how prideful, would leave on the table what Howard is owed.
Perhaps the Phils would pull the plug if the organization had an heir apparent at first base. One thing Amaro has made clear — It isn’t Darin Ruf, he of the .829 career OPS as a starter. My opinion: Ruf may be just a no-speed, no-glove journeyman. But I’d bet, given 100 starts at this point, he’d be more productive than Howard.
And so we wait it out. I can’t rip management for hoping against reality Howard finds his groove, bashes a few homers and becomes tradable. I’d hope the same. But the time is coming to face facts. Everyone – the fans, the other players, Howard himself – will benefit from his release. Well, everyone except John Middleton’s bloated bank account.
It’s pathetic to watch this faded star get humiliated day after day, as memories of that 58-homer season fade further in the rear view mirror. It’s the saddest chapter in Philadelphia sports.