Ryan Howard was back in the ballpark Monday night, back in the middle of an order trying to make an impact on the game of baseball. Nearly 15 years after slamming his first big-league home run against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, Howard was launching a new chapter in his career.
This time, he was sharply dressed in a designer blue suit and part of a team that included veteran broadcasters Karl Ravech and Tim Kurkjian.
“I’m looking to just go have fun,” Howard said a few hours before his debut as a color analyst on ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball telecast. “Call it like I see it and just have fun with Karl and Tim.”
Becoming a broadcaster was always in the back of Howard’s mind during his 13-year career with the Phillies, but it was put on hold in 2017 as he attempted comebacks with Colorado and Atlanta minor-league affiliates that did not come to fruition. Once playing the game was out of his system, he was able to focus on a different aspect of the game.
“This is what I went to school for,” Howard said. “I went to school for coummunications/mass media, so this is something that I always had in the background. It was something I always wanted to explore a little bit once I was done playing. It lets me stay around the game, but it also keeps my schedule flexible.”
That last part is important to Howard because his 18-year-old son Darian is in the midst of his senior high school season in Georgia.
“I’m actually missing his game tonight,” Howard said. “He’s having a good year and his team is trying to posture for a good playoff spot, so hopefully they can go deep and win a state championship.”
Howard, 39, will serve in a variety of roles for ESPN. In addition to working as a color analyst, he will also make studio appearances on First Take, Baseball Tonight, SportsCenter, Get Up!, and ESPN Radio. Howard said he is unsure whether he will be better suited for the studio or in-game productions.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I’ll just have to get going and see how it unfolds. Whether it’s the analyst role or color commentating, I’m just planning on having fun and being me. Right now, I’m just getting started and the schedule kind of goes from month to month. I’ll take it as it comes.”
Howard had known for more than a month that his in-booth debut was going to come at Citizens Bank Park in a game between the Phillies and New York Mets, and he certainly has some vivid memories of the rivalry.
“Phillies-Mets on Jackie Robinson night, that’s kind of the perfect storm,” Howard said. “When they told me, I was like, ‘Yeah, man, let’s do it.’ ”
Howard said there are plenty of reasons for the Phillies, the Mets, the Braves and the Nationals to be excited about the 2019 season. A decade ago, after the Phillies lost the World Series to the New York Yankees, Phillies owner John Middleton told Howard he wanted his “bleeping trophy back.”
“Obviously by signing Bryce Harper the entire city perked right up,” Howard said. “I think that was the case with everybody in the clubhouse, too. John set his mind to what he was going to do and he did it. He said, ‘We are going to go out and do what we need to do in terms of making this team competitive again.’ That’s what you want from your owner and general manager. They stuck to their guns and did it.
“It’s definitely going to be a fun team and an exciting team to watch. Again, I think when you look at championship teams and playoff-caliber teams, you have to have the right mix of veteran leadership and youth and talent and chemistry. These guys look like they’ve figured out who they are as a team and have started to get the chemistry and when that all comes together at the right time, it will be a dangerous team. With what Bryce brings to the lineup in terms of his left-handed pop, it really turns everything around. In my opinion, they have easily one of the top five lineups in baseball.”
The Phillies’ challenge, according to Howard, is that some of the other great lineups in baseball also reside in the National League East. In fact, he sees a potential four-team race to the finish.
“It’s going to be a fun division to watch,” Howard said. “All the rivalries are being renewed. The Mets, the Braves and especially the Nats. It’s going to come down to September and you are going to see some great games between all those teams.”
And Howard, who has a multiyear contract with ESPN, will be more than happy to broadcast them from the booth and analyze them from the studio. He’s in the middle of a new lineup and he seems quite comfortable there.