Ryan Howard arrived in Philadelphia in September 2004. The next season he was the National League rookie of the year. Today he stands as the pillar of the club that even rivals concede is the model of excellence. As Brian McCann said Sunday: “The Phillies aren’t just the team in the National League East — the Phillies are the team in the National League.”
Charlie Manuel wasn’t managing the Phillies in 2004, but he arrived in 2005 and has been there since. And Manuel, who has become my favorite manager to hear speak, was asked today by an Atlanta correspondent (i.e., me) if a big-hitting rookie can make a difference not just on a season but on the future of a franchise.
“A player like that brings excitement and energy,” Manuel said. “He brings a whole lot to a team and to a clubhouse.”
The obvious point of reference: Jason Heyward. He’s not yet Ryan Howard — there’s a difference of 222 big-league homers — but he’s the most exciting rookie to emerge since the Philly big man.
Manuel on Heyward: “He’s a highly talented kid. He’s a tremendous athlete. He can do about everything you want a guy to do.”
And he can: Heyward is, to use the scout’s jargon, a five-tool player. Howard, on the other hand, is the classic big-hitting first baseman: He can’t run much, but he hits ‘em so far he gets to trot. Heyward might never have a 40-homer season. (Howard has had four in succession.) Then again, Heyward isn’t apt to strike out 180 times a year, either.
They’re different kinds of players, but the Braves would be delighted if Heyward had a Howard-like effect. Since 1995 the Braves’ batting order has been anchored by Chipper Jones, and he’ll turn 38 this Saturday. The best-case scenario: Heyward and his minor-league buddy Freddie Freeman become to this organization as Howard and Chase Utley are for Philadelphia — middle-of-the-order fixtures.
Asked if, way back when, Howard energized the Phillies with both his production and his presence, Manuel said: “Without a doubt. And he still carries that.”
The Phillies and Braves embarked Tuesday on the first of their three-game set at Turner Field , and the home side having the point to prove. The Phils have won the NL East three seasons running; the Braves haven’t made the playoffs since 2005. The Phils have graced each of the past two World Series, winning it in 2008; the Braves haven’t reached the Fall Classic since 1999, haven’t won a World Series game since 1996.
The Phils still have a deeper well of big-league talent, but the Braves are perkier than they’ve been in year. And that, we must say, isn’t because of Troy Glaus. It’s due to No. 22.
This is baseball, where one player isn’t supposed to make a difference. But Ryan Howard showed us the right man can indeed make a difference. Through two weeks, Jason Heyward has made a difference here. He entered Tuesday’s game with 15 RBIs, one more than the fearsome Howard. (Who did, it must be noted, drive in his 15th run of 2010 with a fourth-inning hit off the mitt of the forlorn Glaus.)
Yes, it’s premature to liken any 20-year-old to Ryan Howard. But it’s almost inevitable, and it’s great fun. It has been more than a decade since the Joneses, Chipper and Andruw, made their debuts. We in Atlanta were way overdue for the next big thing.
And with that, we’ll open the floor for questions, comments and weather forecasts. The Braves believe they’ll be able to get this game in, but I should note that the ground crew put the tarp back on the infield after the home team took batting practice. (No live BP on the field for the visitors, in sum.) It’s not raining now, but the tarp’s advent generally means sprinkles are on the way.
Whatever happens, I’ll be here all night to discuss it. Though I sincerely hope I won’t be here all night, if you take my meaning.
UPDATE: At 5:39 p.m., it started raining. Hard.
UP-TO-THE-MINUTE UPDATE: At 6:12 p.m., the rain has ceased and the sun is shining and the tarp has been lifted. Yay!