The Phillies played the Dodgers Monday night, and Chase Utley hit a home run. The shot to right field was his eighth of the season, the 244th in his career, and the first he has ever hit against the team he played with for 13 years.
“You see that blue, and it’s like…he’s supposed to have that other uni on,” Phillies announcer Larry Anderson pointed out during Monday’s radio broadcast. “It’s supposed to have red in it.”
Utley was traded last August amidst the worst season of his career, but he has rebounded in his first full year with the Dodgers, as weird as Monday night may have looked to Phillies fans.
It’s a strange feeling to see stars that mean so much to Philadelphia playing somewhere else, but it’s a feeling we may go through again next season, as both Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz are in the final years of their contracts with the Phillies. Howard — who has made roughly $160 million in his career before next season’s $10-million buyout — told MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki he isn’t done playing, even if the Phillies are done with him.
“For whatever reason everybody else thinks I’m done playing,” Howard said. “I know I can still play. I know I’m still capable of it. This year one bad month and you’re done. For me it’s about not having the opportunity to rectify the one bad month.”
Howard was referencing his play in May, where he hit .101 with a .421 OPS. Only, it wasn’t just one month, as he hit .140 with an OPS of .585 in June and, while his numbers have admittedly improved in the second half, he’s hitting .186 with a .658 OPS through 81 games this season.
Howard hit .229 last year, .223 the year before and his production has tanked since his torn Achilles in 2011 — his average is 50 points lower post injury and his at bats per home run has gone from 13.2 to 20 — so it’s safe to say this has been more than one bad month.
“Everybody looks at May and says I can’t play anymore,” Howard told Zolecki. “I know I can play and I still want to play in the future. That’s where my mindset is. Now it’s just taking advantage of the opportunities I get and put it in play for next year.”
The sports talk radio caller (or host) in many of us will read those comments, pound our desks and demand that Howard retire. Hell, Chooch too, who turned 37 in January and has been relegated to being a backup on a bad team the last two seasons. Nobody wants to see Howard or Chooch end up like Utley or Jimmy Rollins, who was with the Dodgers last year, then hooked on with the White Sox this year before being released in June.
Nobody wants to see them like Steve Carlton, slopping around the league for anyone who will give them a chance. Why can’t they see what we see? It’s over! Let it be over!
Rather than get angry, I sought help. Joel H. Fish, Ph. D., the Director of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia, is a nationally-recognized expert in sports psychology who has worked for the past 25 years with athletes from the youth level to the Olympic and professional ranks. Fish boasts members of the Sixers, Flyers and Phillies as his clients, though not specifically Howard or Ruiz.
“On some level, to see Ryan Howard struggle is difficult for some people who want to, need to and would really love to remember him at the peak of his career,” Fish explained. “I believe that underneath that anger, fans can be pained by the fact that he’s not the way he used to be. None of us are how we used to be. And that leads to some mixed emotions.”
Fish stressed that in sports — both for players and fans — logic doesn’t exist. The anger at a player hanging on too long may be illogical, but it is real. Howard and Ruiz have a chance to do something very rare in sports these days — retire having played for only one franchise. Hearing they want to still play is beyond frustrating. It’s visceral.
“The reason we get angry at players wanting to play somewhere else,” Fish said, “is that it reminds us it’s a business. He’s still able to get the amount of money you and I will never make by going somewhere else. When we see at the end of someone’s career they will just go anywhere and still make this amount of money, I think that pushes the business side of sports in our face, and there’s a part of us that resents that.”
Ruiz has made dare-I-say only $40 million in his career, so it stands to reason if he thinks he can still play, he will hook on with someone, somewhere. But Howard? The Phillies haven’t been able to trade him for two seasons, even with reports they were willing to eat a large part of his contract.
Sure, he’s hitting .444 over the last 14 days — six games — and his OPS over the last 28 games, playing every other day, is a ridiculous 1.189, but isn’t that a reason to retire after this season? Howard has a chance to go out on his terms, as a productive member of the Phillies. A feared slugger, once again.
Only, those aren’t his terms.
“We both want to be able to go somewhere and play beyond this year,” Howard told Zolecki. “I’ve been doing this thing for 12 years, playing for 12 years. You figure out how to play the game. That’s the game of baseball. Things come in waves. You have good waves and you have bad waves.”
“Part of what makes these guys so good,” Fish offered, “is that they are competitive, they push themselves and they believe in themselves. They don’t go by the facts; they go on their gut instinct.
“What I’ve found is that the same traits that have made players like Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, A-Rod, Mark Teixeira so good, are the same traits that continue to drive them to think they are the exception to the rule.”
The rule Fish referenced is a simple rule of nature. We all get old, our skills diminish, and bluntly, we eventually become useless. For athletes, that comes far quicker than it does for most of us, so the penchant to hang on in hopes of, as Howard put it, riding the good wave, is a driving force in wanting to continue playing. For retiring Yankees like Rodriguez and Teixeira, the time has come to leave their playing days behind. For Howard and Ruiz (and Utley), there may still be a few ticks in the ol’ clock left.
If Howard can swing like he used to for seven days, why not 14? And if for 14, why not 28? And if for 28, why not 162? Fish reiterated that it comes down to logic. Or, for athletes, a lack thereof.
“The heart of a competitor, and what can make a competitor so good, is not logical. Remember, each of these guys has had to overcome obstacles in the past. For an athlete to believe that if they tweak this or adjust that, they can be the exception to the rule and reconnect to their greatness…we see it all the time, psychologically.
“In a different time, different place, some athletes think they can regain that specialness.”
It will be strange to see Howard or Ruiz in a different uniform, just like it’s really strange to see Utley hitting a homer against the Phillies, or looking back at Carlton’s stats and seeing he played for four teams after the Phillies released him in 1986.
“Sometimes elite athletes, elite people have to play the experience out,” Fish explained. “They just know they don’t want to leave any stone left unturned and leave any shadow of a doubt. Sometimes their timeline may be different than what the fans think it should be.”