Darian Howard is an 18-year-old high school senior that plays both corner infield positions and in the outfield for Pace Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. Next year, the 18-year-old will attend Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama, where he’ll play baseball for one of the better junior college programs in the state.
In theory, Howard – who says he wants to leave a legacy at the MLB level – is just beginning his baseball journey. But he’s not your average high-schooler – he has crammed a lifetime of baseball memories into less than two decades of living.
When Darian was four, his father, Ryan, stepped in for future Hall of Famer Jim Thome and won the National League Rookie of the Year. The 22 home runs and 63 RBIs that Ryan hit in 312 at-bats were enough to convince the Phillies to trade Thome to the Chicago White Sox that offseason. Thome would hit 159 home runs over the next five seasons, and eventually became one of nine players in MLB history to join the 600 home run club.
And no one ever thought twice about the November 2005 trade where the Phillies sent Thome to his hometown. Ryan was that dominant over the next five seasons.
After winning the National League Rookie of the Year in 2005, Ryan put together one of the most prolific power hitting seasons in MLB history in 2006. At age 26, Ryan slashed .313/.425/.659 with 58 home runs, 149 RBIs and a 1.084 OPS. In the same season that Ryan obliterated Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt’s previous franchise single-season home run record (48 home runs was the previous record), he became the first Phillie to win the National League MVP since Schmidt.
Even though Darian was just five at the time, he says he understood that his father was producing at a historic clip. But the moment he remembers most from 2006 wasn’t in any regular season game. It came at the Home Run Derby at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, when Ryan, ahead of the championship round, made a special gesture that Darian never forgot.
“When he [Ryan] was going against David Wright in the last round, he [Ryan] was just sitting next to me and we were just talking and he asked me to kiss his bat for good luck,” Darian recalled. “So I kissed the barrel, and he went up there and won it. And I thought at the time that I had some magic that had to do with that, but obviously it was just his skill. But me being five years old at the time, that’s probably the only memory I have, but one of the best ones that I have.”
The 2006 Home Run Derby, strange as it may sound, signaled a return for the Phillies to the national stage. Ryan became the type of player you turned on the TV to watch in 2006, even if you didn’t root for the Phillies. While the Phillies finished runner-up for the National League Wild Card in 2006 – their 85-77 record would have allowed them to win the second Wild Card under today’s rules – they would make the playoffs in each of the next five seasons, becoming a National League powerhouse.
2007-2011 is widely considered the greatest run in Phillies history, with Ryan launching 204 regular season home runs during a span in which the Phillies won five consecutive National League East crowns. Things peaked in 2008, when Ryan was the first to greet Phillies closer Brad Lidge and catcher Carlos Ruiz on the mound at Citizens Bank Park after Lidge closed out the second World Series title in franchise history.
“For him [Ryan], that’s probably one of the greatest achievements that you could ever have in the baseball world,” Darian said of his father winning a World Series in 2008. “Aside from all the personal statistics that a lot of people aim for, I can say, knowing him as a person, that a World Series ring meant a lot more to him than setting any personal, franchise or MLB records. For him to be able to go out and win a World Series with all of his best friends on the team, I think that it was very well deserved and there’s nothing – or very little – that he could put above that moment.”
In 2011, the Phillies won a franchise-record 102 regular season games. Ryan hit 33 home runs, drove in 116 RBIs and finished in the top 10 in National League MVP voting for the sixth consecutive season. However, Ryan – along with Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins – was part of a lineup that took a backseat to a historically dominant starting rotation in 2011.
Future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay turned in arguably his finest season in 2011, posting career lows in ERA and FIP and a career-high 8.3 fWAR. Cliff Lee, who had returned on a five-year free-agent contract that offseason, finished third in National League Cy Young Award voting in 2011, behind Clayton Kershaw and Halladay. Cole Hamels finished fifth, while posting what is still a career-high 4.9 fWAR.
There was every reason to think that the 2011 MLB season would conclude with Ryan tackling one of those three after the Phillies captured their second World Series title in four seasons. Instead, Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS turned into one of the most crushing defeats in Philadelphia sports history, ending the team’s hopes of capping off a magical regular season with a World Series title.
For the second consecutive season, Ryan made the final out of the season for the Phillies, but this one carried much more significance. It was bad enough that Ryan grounded into the final out in a 1-0 loss against his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, who he hit .331 with 23 home runs and 69 RBIs in 70 career regular season games against. Even worse was that as the Cardinals celebrated at first base, Ryan writhed in pain after he stumbled out of the batter’s box, tearing his Achilles.
“I wasn’t there in person, I was actually with my mom in Kansas City,” Darian said of Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS. “I remember watching it on TV – we had gone out to eat and the game was on at a little local sports bar there. And I just remember watching him ground out, but the original camera shot didn’t show him come up limping or fall down or anything. So I was just like ‘Oh he grounded out, they lost, that sucks, I feel badly.’ Obviously it was upsetting, given that I loved the Phillies so much when he played for them. And the cameras still were kind of showing the Cardinals celebrating a little bit, so I still had no idea. And then the cameras finally panned over to him. I just saw him on the ground, and I wasn’t sure what was wrong with him so I didn’t know exactly how badly I was going to feel about it. But I called him afterwards and he told me what happened and it was pretty devastating. I knew that was probably going to affect his career in the long-run.”
Ryan, generally a pretty upbeat person, went into the rehab process with a positive attitude, according to Darian. Ultimately, though, the Phillies never got the same prolific player back. Ryan was limited to just 151 of a possible 324 games between 2012 and 2013. Between 2006 and 2009, Ryan hit 45 or more home runs every season. After tearing his Achilles, he only hit 25 home runs in a season once more, in his final season of 2017.
Still, one of the most memorable Phillies games this decade came on Sunday Oct. 2, 2017, the final game of the season. The Phillies defeated the division-rival New York Mets that day, but the game didn’t matter much. The Mets had already clinched hosting the National League Wild Card Game, and even with the win, the Phillies still finished the season 20 games below .500. But the game gave thankful Phillies fans a chance to show appreciation for the three-time All-Star. Cutouts of Ryan’s head, held together by popsicle sticks, were passed out to all fans in attendance. Before the game, Ryan addressed Phillies fans, holding back tears. This came after Ryan, along with his wife Krystle, received a customized first baseman’s mitt from managing partner John Middleton and chairman David Montgomery. And when Ryan was pulled from the game by then-manager Pete Mackanin in the ninth inning, he received another standing ovation, this time with the camera panning to Darian and Krystle, with Darian wiping tears from his eyes.
That brisk Sunday afternoon in South Philly is a day that Darian says he’ll always cherish.
“Me being able to go to the ballpark with him in Philadelphia for so many years – that was kind of like my second home – it kind of became second nature to me to wake up and go to the field with him throughout the summer,” Darian said, remembering what emotions he felt during his dad’s final game as a Phillie. “All these memories I was able to create over the years, I knew it was the end for him and at the same time, it was the end of something for me as well. So it all coming to an end for him, it was a very special moment. Me being able to walk off the field with him for the last time in his career [was special].”
Darian may not spend his summers in Philadelphia anymore, but he says he can’t put into words what the city of Philadelphia means to him and his family. He’s looking forward to returning to Citizens Bank Park on Sunday July 14, when the Phillies are scheduled to host a retirement ceremony for Ryan prior to their tilt against the Washington Nationals. Speaking of the Nationals, Darian was giddy when the Phillies lured former Nationals star Bryce Harper to Philly earlier this month. Shortly after news broke, Darian posted an Instagram story that showed his hand over his mouth covering a smile with the caption “When u STEAL Bryce Harper,” a sign of where his rooting interests still lie.
Ryan has settled into post retirement life quite well. He’s a partner at the Philadelphia-based venture capital firm SeventySix Capital. While the media industry is going through some much-needed 21st century growing pains, he recently landed a job as a studio analyst for ESPN. Oh, and as this viral video last month showed, Ryan’s 382 career home runs weren’t as exciting to him as his son’s first home run of the 2019 varsity season:
While Darian was quick to point out in Bleacher Report‘s mentions that the name on his birth certificate doesn’t say “Ryan Howard’s son,” this video filled his heart up. He traveled and watched his dad’s entire major league career, through all the peaks and valleys. But the trophy case at the Howard residence isn’t what made Ryan Darian’s role model – it’s moments like these, where the success of his son in a high school game seems to excite him as much as the October night where he sprinted from first base to tackle Lidge on the pitcher’s mound.
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