We were spoiled.
It was easy for Ryan Howard to hit home runs. So easy, in fact, that the early stages of his career made him more than a threat: It made him an expectation. The impossibly quick wrists that allowed to wait the extra microsecond, the obsidian forearms that elevated ordinary fly balls into instant offense, the power to all fields; it all came together to create a titan, a master in the art of the arc of a baseball's flight.
The 2006 season, now 10 years gone, was a different time for baseball. Home runs across the league were higher than they are now, to be sure, and offense often outweighed pitching by significant margins. For all of that, though, Howard's mammoth .313/.425/.659 season line was still good for a 167 OPS+ and a 162 wRC+, well outpacing the garden variety hitter even in an offensively-charged season. In a year with plenty of slugging, he was still The Slugger; no one topped his 58 home runs, and no one has hit more than 54 in any year since.
The Phillies scored 865 runs in 2006, and Howard drove in 149 of them. Only Alex Rodriguez, with 156 RBI in 2007, has had more in the last 10 years. His 383 total bases were the most any Phillies hitter had in nearly 80 - now going on 90 - years. Everything about the way he squared up a baseball seemed, felt and sounded different.
Take, for example, the home run that placed him atop the club's single season leaderboard. On August 31, 2006, at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., the newly-crowned Home Run Derby king stepped to the plate in the fourth inning against Nationals pitcher Pedro Astacio. RFK, widely remembered as being a cavernous maw almost on par with the Astrodome during its three seasons of service to the Nats, was made to look tiny by Howard on this swing. What ballpark could contain this?
Citizens Bank Park certainly couldn't, not even with the notoriously worm-burning villain Tim Hudson and his vicious, vile sinker on the mound just three days later. The Phillies were playing the first game of their second doubleheader in as many days, fighting for a Wild Card berth in the early days of September. The previous day, Howard had gone 3-for-7 with a double and three walks as the Phillies split doubleheader No. 1. Hudson, though, poised a more potent challenge than his predecessors, Oscar Villareal and Kyle Davies. Howard had barely seen Hudson to this point in his career, and Huddy was in the midst of his prolonged prime.
Power yet prevailed.
Three times, Howard took Hudson deep. Nos. 50, 51 and 52, and the four RBI that came with, helped the Phillies take the game, 8-7. In the process, Howard set a mark for the most home runs ever hit by a player in their second Major League season, and though he would only hit two homers over his final 21 games to fall short of sauntering in the gently-trod meadow of 60-plus-homer seasons, he had seared a brand onto the history of the franchise all the same. Oh, and winning a Most Valuable Player award for your troubles ain't nothing to sneeze at, neither.
When someone does one thing so, so well, it can become easy to try to turn reality on its head, to try and sift through the positives to see what they may be masking. I was guilty of this not long after this season, trying too hard to ground myself in strikeouts and batted ball profiles to enjoy the strength on display before me. But time softens rough edges and, with distance, I've come to more fully appreciate what we had. Ryan Howard's 2006 season was the best, purest, most marvelous single-season display of offense from a Phillies hitter that I've yet to lay eyes on. The trials of recent years have only served to raise my own personal awareness of what a truly magical hitter Ryan Howard was, and how his style of raw, feral, power hitting served as one of the brightest feathers in the cap of the greatest era that Phillies Baseball has ever known.
Fifty-eight times, a reminder. Fifty-eight times, a spectacle. Fifty-eight times, an unforgettable force.