Why Don’t We Hate Ryan Howard?

The Phillies' "Big Piece" isn't earning his $125 million, and fans seem to know whose fault that really is.

The biggest local sports news of the week — other than, you know, the latest chapter in the never-ending “did Donovan throw up?” saga — is another injury to Ryan Howard. The Phillies first baseman was diagnosed with a torn meniscus in his knee, which will keep him out for 6-to-8 weeks.

The injury is the latest setback for one of the key players in the Phillies’ recent run of success, one whose production and ability to stay healthy have gradually declined over the last several years. Sure, Howard’s not exactly a scrub at this point, but he’s certainly not playing up to his $25 million-per-year salary, one he’ll be collecting through 2016.

But what I’m interested in is the fan reaction. Ryan Howard is something unique in recent Philadelphia history: He’s a superstar athlete making huge money who’s been a major disappointment, yet he hasn’t become a figure of hate among the city’s fans. Philly may be the toughest city there is on its own star athletes, yet Howard, with some exceptions, remains relatively popular.

Why do you suppose that is? I did an informal survey of friends of mine who are Phillies fans, asking what they think of Howard these days. I got different answers, but the consensus was pretty clear, and largely correct: There’s so much residual affection left over from 2008 and the great years before and after, and Howard’s such a likable guy who’s clearly trying hard, that he largely gets a pass for his injuries and diminished production.

As for that five-year, $125 million contract, granted in 2009 when Howard had two years to go on his last deal, and which an ESPN.com columnist this week described as the worst contract in the history of the game? Most fans are sophisticated enough to place blame not on Howard but on Ruben Amaro, the GM who gave it to him. After all, all Howard did was what any of us would’ve done — he was offered a pile of money, and he said yes.

There’s another reason why Philly is still in Ryan Howard’s corner: He does all the little things right.

Like Roy Halladay, he’s repeatedly played through pain, probably past the point where he should have sat out. He hasn’t acted lazy or given up. He hasn’t said stupid things in the media or passive-aggressively bashed teammates or his manager. There are never sports radio segments about “Ryan Howard’s shocking comments,” the way there used to be — and honestly, still are — all the time about Donovan McNabb.

In all his time in Philly, Howard has never been part of any off-the-field scandal. He’s had no run-ins with the law, and his name has never surfaced in any steroids investigation. And he’s handled his injury frustrations gracefully — there’s the Andrew Bynum way of being an injured player, and the Ryan Howard way is not that way.

Of course, once in a while you’ll hear the usual idiocy — like people who think Howard should give money back to the Phillies, or “he should concentrate on baseball, not Subway commercials!,” or, well, just about every comment on this post. Howard sometimes gets criticized for never giving good quotes, but nobody besides beat reporters cares about that. The loud, ignorant minority of local sports fans is just as loud and ignorant on this issue as it is on most others, but in regard to Howard they remain a decided minority.

Ultimately, the biggest reason Phillies fans can’t bring themselves to hate Ryan Howard is that he did win that championship in 2008, and was a huge part of the most prolonged run of success in Phillies history.

Yes, chances are the next time the Phillies win or even contend for the World Series, Ryan Howard will be long gone, yet that won’t be anytime soon, because that contract makes him pretty much untradeable. But even if the next three years are as rocky as the last three, Ryan Howard’s No. 6 will probably be retired by the Phillies one day — along with the numbers of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and possibly Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz — and every five years Howard and the rest of that group will be invited back to town to celebrate the anniversary of the 2008 title. When that happens, I can’t imagine there’ll be much booing of Ryan Howard.