Is Ryan Howard the Most Hated Phillie?

How easily Philadelphia baseball fans dwell on strikeouts and forget home runs

Ryan Howard once came in as a pinch hitter and hit a grand slam on the first pitch, turning a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 lead. He once was scratched due to the flu but hit a pinch-hit homer. When the Phillies were catching the Mets to make the playoffs for the first time in forever in 2007, Howard hit homers in the team’s last four regular season games.

Howard also struck out to end last year’s National League Championship Series. He’s struck out 1,207 times in the regular season and another 67 in the playoffs. His numbers are declining a bit, and his $125 million contract kicks in next year.

And Phillies fans hate him.

It’s tough to gauge fan opinion, I think; radio callers are among the die-hards, what you see on your Facebook or Twitter feed is just a representation of who you happen to follow. But I don’t think I’m way off base here. Stats geeks hate him because he’s overrated; they feel his RBI total is inflated due to the Phillies usually potent lineup. Casual fans hate him because he strikes out a lot. Die-hards complain about his big contract. Old people complain that he poses at home plate after home runs. I bet ugly dudes hate him out of jealousy, too.

It’s not an actual hatred, like the kind some have for athletes who took steroids or committed crimes. Howard’s pretty liked by those who have no rooting interest in the Phillies, if his commercials with Powerade and Subway are any indication. But in Philadelphia it’s pervasive. Ryan Howard hit a home run in a spring training game, and a guy at the bar a few seats down from me shouted, “Mr. March!” Yes, Mr. March, the 2009 NLCS MVP, the guy with the reputation of being great in September, and the amazing stats that month to back it up.

Whenever Howard screws up, defenders appear, too. The conversations devolve into angry rants pretty quickly, especially if they happen on the Internet. If Ryan Howard saw how much people debate his statistics on Twitter, he would probably … well, he would probably not care and go to sleep on his giant pile of money next to his cheerleader fiancé.

People were very angry at Ryan Howard after Wednesday night’s game. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and is hitting just .133 for the series. When he struck out with Chase Utley on second in the bottom of the eighth, the usual complaints came. “$125 million for those strikeouts!” is the usual joke. People react with such vitriol it’s as if he didn’t hit a huge, game-changing, three-run homer just three games before.

There’s nothing really wrong with this, though. If you make “$125 million for those strikeouts!” jokes when Howard strikes out, you are not clever and not welcome to watch the game with me, but feel free to do it on your own. Follow baseball however you like.

I get it. Guys who get paid the most money are under more scrutiny. When another highly paid player, Alex Rodriguez, struck out to end the Yankees’ chances last night, Yankees fans reacted as if he hadn’t helped the team to the World Series in 2009. (Phillies fans reacted by comparing Howard to Rodriguez.) Big home-run hitters get a lot of fan ire because of their propensity to strike out often. Most of the time a strikeout is not any worse than any other kind of out, and the tradeoff is more than worth it when big swings lead to big home runs. But a strikeout is frustrating. “I needed that series,” Mike Schmidt (the greatest third baseman of all time) wrote of a homer at Montreal that clinched the NL East in 1980. “Philly fans were split on whether I was a money player.”

Maybe I don’t get it. This isn’t about fair analysis of Howard’s career; it’s about fan enjoyment. Not every Ryan Howard strikeout needs to come with a complete analysis of his career. Do people really enjoy remembering his strikeout to end last year’s season every time he’s at bat? Maybe! Phillies fans choose to remember Bobby Abreu not as the guy who hit .300 when he was here but as the terrible fielder who was afraid of the wall. (Whenever a Phillies right fielder makes a good catch, Phillies fans will remind you that Bobby Abreu wouldn’t have made it.)

Maybe it’s a defense mechanism—so when Howard strikes out, you can say you saw it coming. Again, do what you want. But I prefer to think of Ryan Howard as the guy who hit three home runs in a game I attended once, as the guy who has hit 286 homers in the regular season, as the guy who knocked over Brad Lidge and Carlos Ruiz when the Phillies won the World Series.

The Phillies play a decisive Game 5 tonight and, truth be told, it’s probably going to come down to pitching. If Roy Halladay pitches well, the Phillies most likely win. But, win or lose, we’ll probably end up hearing much more about Ryan Howard. My hands will be over my ears.