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PHILADELPHIA – For the last three weeks, Donovan McNabb's text messages went unanswered. He kept sending them anyway. The sports heroes of this city need to stick together, and as Ryan Howard's streak without a home run wore deep into October, the words of encouragement continued.
"Stay strong," McNabb wrote.
Only Howard never responded. Not once. So when the two biggest active figures in this city's enormous sports landscape crossed paths Sunday night in the bowels of Citizens Bank Park following Game 4 of the World Series, the one in which Howard redeemed himself for everything that had gone awry in October with two home runs in a 10-2 shellacking against the Tampa Bay Rays that left the Philadelphia Phillies one victory shy of a championship – well, McNabb had to ask, what gives?
"Sorry," Howard said. "I got a new phone."
Flimsy though the excuse may have been, McNabb was not going to quibble. He wore a red vest and a Phillies hat. He asked Howard to sign a Phillies jersey. He posed for a picture with his right arm stretched across Howard's broad shoulders. And then McNabb, the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, a job equally important to the mayor's, put his hands on Howard's back, shook him, and said: "You doing it. You doing it."
If the Phillies do beat the Rays in Game 5 on Monday night – and with Cole Hamels pitching, the forgone-conclusion meter is at orange and teetering toward red – they will bring the city its first professional sports championship since 1983. The burden will be lifted, McNabb's job perhaps a sliver easier, and Howard, finally, can sop in the credit he deserves.
To see what he did Sunday night – to see Howard first lift a soft curveball, his kryptonite, over the left-field wall, and to see him next turn on a fastball from a left-handed pitcher, his other nemesis, and blister it 20 rows deep into the right-field bleachers – was to remind the baseball-viewing world the type of transcendent talent he owns.
For the last month, so much time had been spent dissecting Howard's faults – his propensity to strike out and his feeble efforts against breaking pitches and his miserable batting average from the seventh inning on – that everyone seemed to forget just who Howard is, and why Phillies manager Charlie Manuel trotted him out in the cleanup spot day after day.
"He's a carrier," Manuel said. "And a carrier is somebody that can take your team and get the big hits and knock in runs, and he can put you on [his] back and he can carry you."
Yes, he is that. And he is more, too.
"He's a machine," said Milt Thompson, the Phillies' hitting coach who saw Howard tie his franchise-record five RBIs in one postseason game. "This is him. This is a power hitter."
True enough. Though still not there.
"He can help this game," said Phillies reliever Tom Gordon, a 20-year veteran. "He'll be used the way he's supposed to be used. Ryan understands the responsibility and the burden. It depends who you put it on.
"Maybe Ryan is the guy. If that's what he's willing to accept, let him be it."
That's it. Howard can be the face of baseball. He can be the new Derek Jeter. He can hit home runs. He can unleash a pearly smile that sells sandwiches. He can be the conduit to remind African-American kids that there is a place for them in baseball, even in a city like Philadelphia, where latent racism lingers.
Howard can do anything, which is why October has registered as such a shock: He's done next to nothing, his first home run coming Saturday night and only three RBIs accompanying the 42 prior at-bats.
"When you do go through a cool spell, that's part of the game," Howard said. "You're going to go through those runs. And unfortunately for me, it started out early in the playoffs.
"But I think everybody would rather have me hot right now."
From McNabb to the cops who asked to pose with Howard for a postgame picture to the fans at Citizens Bank Park, ravenous for a championship and enjoying every minute of the four-homer barrage the Phillies put on the Rays. A hot Howard generally means successful Phillies. During September, when he hit 11 home runs and slugged .852, the Phillies went 17-8 and leapt over the New York Mets for the National League East title.
And now here they are, on the cusp of turning Philadelphia positively giddy for a day, which happens, oh, every Halley's Comet or so. There is reason to believe in this team, and in Howard particularly, even if he spent the majority of the month flailing at pitches and looking more the strikeout king than the home run prince.
Howard spent hours of extra time in the batting cage with Thompson. They practiced the one-handed drill, in which Howard uses only his bottom hand – the right one – to swing. He worked with a batting tee. He took hundreds of cuts off a pitching machine. The hunt for a missing swing is far tougher than anything pirates seek. At least theirs is buried under something tangible.
Swings get lost as much in the recesses of hitters' minds as they do in the physical manifestations. So even though Howard knew he needed to lead more with his hands – let them move forward instead of his shoulders, which cause him to open his stance and wave at awful pitches – the reparation of his psyche was imperative, too.
"He just relaxed," Thompson said.
He could because the Phillies were winning. And since they were winning with protagonists galore, Howard could shake off the criticism and focus on hitting the ball to the opposite field. He did that in the fourth inning, a three-run shot off Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine. And with his stroke back, he turned on a Trever Miller fastball in the eighth inning, blistering it with the kind of force that comes only from 6-foot-4, 260-pound men, of whom there are a scarce few in professional baseball.
"You never take people like that for granted," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Ever."
By the end of the night, the streets of South Philly teemed with people who know the feeling of dread, embrace it as their own, really, and yet were softening. There was something about this Phillies team, this game, that felt different. And it was Howard, certainly, the welcome return of this year's 48-homer monster and the 58-homer MVP of 2006.
They do love him here, even though scouts almost uniformly believe he's due for a steep decline, which is why the Phillies haven't given him a long-term deal his numbers say he deserves. That matters none right now, because, as Howard said when he was changing, the place will be "bedlam" if the Phillies win their second championship.
Howard pulled a navy shirt over his head to go with black sweatpants, and finished off the outfit with a white sweatsuit top, white shoes and a thick silver chain to ring his neck. He slinked away from the cameras and over to McNabb, and they were joined a few minutes later by Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. When Howard stood next to the diminutive Rollins, the pair looked funny, like Schwarzenegger and DeVito in "Twins."
McNabb and Rollins chatted, nearly 20 years of shared Philadelphia experience between them, while Howard looked on. He can be shy, especially when surrounded by a pair of extreme alphas, and he knows when to defer.
In any event, all of the attention from the passersby went to him, from teammates' to coaches' to one unexpected passerby's.
"Congrats, brother," Jim Thome said. "Get this done tomorrow night."
Thome was the Phillies' first baseman before Howard, and the reason that at 28 years old Howard has spent only 3½ seasons in the major leagues. He came to visit old teammates and Manuel, his former manager in Cleveland. And even Thome, one of the generation's great power hitters, felt compelled to recognize the display Howard had put on.
Because watching Howard, even in his weakest times, is a treat. The expectation of something happening is sometimes as good as the moment itself. Sunday was not one of those nights.
Whether McNabb knew it or not, Ryan Howard was responding the only way he knows how.