Thursday, July 13, 2006

From Jackie Robinson to ... Ryan Howard?

Could it be that the Philadelphia Phillies will finally produce their first bona fide black superstar?

That is, a superstar in the sense of bigger-than-life personality so widely accepted, marketable and beloved that he not only could be the centerpiece of a franchise, but a bridge to a still-elusive fan segment — and untapped revenue source — the black Philadelphia.

Ryan Howard, the 2005 rookie of the year and powerful first baseman who won baseball’s home-run hitting contest during the All-star celebration this month, could be that player.

Howard’s shoulders seem that broad, his heart seems that willing, his sense of the mission to promote something larger than himself seems right on.

In Pittsburgh, Howard went toe-to-toe with the Mets’ vibrant shooting star, David Wright, in the finale of the nationally televised derby. And he not only held his own at the plate but also in the Q ratings.

His luminous smile and personality lit up the Pittsburgh skyline, all but defying anyone not to include him in the next generation of marketable baseball stars.

That night Howard said on national TV that his home-run derby win finally gave the Phillies — one of the major disappointments of the 2006 season — something to cheer about.

He also gave the organization more evidence that he just might finally be the guy the Phillies can count on to close a gap that has existed since, well, 1947.

That’s the year Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and became baseball’s first ambassador to black America. And black America responded, welcoming and worshipping the heroic figure who helped the game shed, at long last, its segregation policies. One by one, most every major league team reinvented Robinson in the form of their own homegrown superstar players of color.

Larry Doby in Cleveland. Henry Aaron in Milwaukee/Atlanta. Willie Mays in New York/San Francisco. Ernie Banks and Billy Williams in Chicago. Joe Morgan in Cincinnati. Frank Robinson in Cincy and Baltimore. Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente in Pittsburgh.

Even St. Louis, the seat of rebellion against Robinson in ’47, eventually gave us Bob Gibson and Lou Brock.

The Phillies? They neither couldn’t or wouldn’t plug that caliber of superstar into their mosaic. And that gaping hole assured to this day that the Phillies’ major contribution to the story of baseball and race remains the fact that Philadelphia was the one stop most hostile to Robinson in ’47.

That legacy, and the lack of a major black presence in Phillies’ history is why I contend blacks in Philadelphia remain indifferent, even suspicious, of the franchise to this day. Al Downing, who grew up in Trenton and went on the pitch for the Yankees and Dodgers, agreed with that perception in a conversation long ago. When with L.A., Downing also noticed how few black fans turned out. And those who did came to root for the Dodgers.

Jackie’s team.

That allegiance, Downing contended, directly resulted from the Phillies never having given black Philadelphians someone to replace Robinson in their hearts. Not that there weren’t Phillies of color.

Richie Allen was a talent, to be sure, but one who often played the role of the angry black man — not so popular in blue-collar Philly during the racially volatile 1960s.

Sad fact is, Philadelphia never got Richie Allen. And the moody Allen never got Philly. And it cost Allen, who should have gotten much more of a bounce, popularity-wise, given his enormous talents.

Then there was the introspective Garry Maddox. A class act, Maddox often did more in one month, community-relations wise, than some 25-man rosters did in a season.But Maddox was quiet and introspective. And, to borrow a phrase from Reggie Jackson, Maddox was never seen as “the straw that stirred” the winning Phillies’ teams of the 70s and 80s. Not with Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, pepperpot shortstop Larry Bowa and Dallas Green, the larger-than-life manager of the Phillies’ 1980 championship team, around.

Tony Taylor? Oscar Gamble? Gary Matthews? Davey Cash? Good citizens and good players, all. But they, too, played in the shadows of larger stars.

Of the current Phillies, Jimmy Rollins seemed on the cusp of being the breakthrough guy, but the ebb and flow of his game often seem to conspire to keep the shortstop and town at arm’s length from each other. Rollins is more willing to step up than, say Pat Burrell or Bobby Abreu. But to be a Frank Robinson, Pops Stargell or Ernie Banks requires not just talent, but a larger-than-life presence that never shrinks from the spotlight.

Jackie Robinson has waited a long time to hand off the baton to such a figure here.

Ryan Howard, it’s there for the taking. Grab it and go the distance.