The Big Piece Pounds ‘Em Out

4 Aug

It’s not always easy to be a slugger in this baseball-crazed town.  Just ask Mike Schmidt.

But Ryan Howard has handled his days as the Phillies resident missile launcher with grace and style.

And 276 home runs.

In an era where many hitters who homer have become more known for the drugs they take than the moon shots they hit, Ryan Howard has been a glorious exception.  A soft-spoken, self-effacing slugger who lets his bat do the talking.  And lucky for us, his bat has a lot to say.

Especially lately.

After hitting two home runs Tuesday night, Howard hit another one yesterday, his 24th, and first off a lefty this season. He added 4 RBI to bring his league-leading total to 87 while helping his team sweep their second straight series, this one over the Colorado Rockies.

Charlie Manuel likes to call his clean-up hitter the ‘Big Piece’ so it’s hard to believe that growing up, Howard wasn’t even the biggest ‘piece’ in his own family.  At 6′ 4″ Howard placed a distant third to both his older brother Chris, 6-6, and his fraternal twin brother Corey, 6-7. (Did you know he had a twin brother?)

All three were athletic and played many different sports but Ryan like his dad, Ron, loved baseball.  Ron’s favorite player was Dick Allen and when he realized his son shared his passion, he built a makeshift batting cage in the backyard where Ryan took batting practice day after day.  Perhaps that’s where his strong work ethic was born.  At Phillies BP, Howard is often the first to arrive and last to leave.  Thanks, Ron.

In his home town of St. Louis, they still talk about a home run a young Howard blasted in Little League.  It cleared the fence, went over the parking lot beyond and smashed into a Red Lobster across the street.  (They would have loved the second decker he hit Tuesday night.)

But though Howard had a stellar career at Lafayette High School, no scouts came to see him, no major college baseball programs came calling.  Howard amazingly went to Southwest Missouri State College (now Missouri State) as a walk-on for the baseball team.  (Can you imagine a baseball coach getting a walk-on gift like Ryan Howard?)

He was later awarded a scholarship and, after his college career, was drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round of the Amateur Draft. He started his pro career with the Batavia Muckdogs, a low Class A team.  His first hit in the pros?  A home run, of course and the rest as they say is history.  Baseball history.  And Howard adds to his mark in the baseball history books with every home run he hits.

And we get to watch.

It’s easy to remember the strikeouts, the swings at those low and outside sliders or the called third strike variety with runners in scoring position.

But I choose to focus on the quiet superstar, the terrific role model, the athlete who gives back to his (and our) community with the Ryan Howard Family Foundation.

I choose to focus on the big man with the sweet swing, the slugger who brought us one parade down Broad Street and is working hard to try to bring us another.

I choose to enjoy every at-bat of the man his manager likes to call, the Big Piece.

Thanks, Ryan.  Just keep on swinging for those fences.

And we’ll keep on watching.

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