'Extreme honor' for slugger to be recognized for giving back to community
By Paul Hagen
PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Howard's baseball future beyond this season is unclear. His physical presence in the only city he's called home during his exemplary career is not.
The new Phillies Urban Youth Academy was formally unveiled Thursday, and it was announced that the facility will be called the Ryan Howard Training Center. The first baseman won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2005 and the NL Most Valuable Player Award in '06, when he hit 58 home runs to establish the franchise's single-season record.
"It's been our passion to give back to our community, especially when it relates to baseball and education," Howard said, standing next to his wife, Krystle, at the dais. "It's an extreme honor to be part of something we hope will help thousands and thousands of kids."
Howard then turned from the audience filled with dignitaries -- including Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, councilman Kenyatta Johnson, Phillies chairman David Montgomery and Major League Baseball's vice president for youth and facility development Darrell Miller -- to address the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) travel teams that were standing in the back of the room.
"Always believe in your dreams and make them your priority," Howard told them. "This facility is an open door for every baseball player and softball player to follow their dreams. ... Please take advantage, have fun and always believe in yourselves."
In addition to the complex in the shadows of the Center City skyline, players have access to the field complex at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park near Citizens Bank Park that was opened last year.
The 7,500-square-foot training center was added to the existing Marian Anderson Recreation Center, and it includes four retractable batting cages, plus space for fitness training, educational and vocational programs. It will be utilized by more than 8,000 boys and girls.
The Howards were honored for their contributions through the Ryan Howard Big Piece Foundation. The project was also supported by MLB, the Phillies, Phillies Charities, the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, the City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Mayor Kenney, who grew up in South Philadelphia, remembered playing baseball in the streets as a kid until the cover came off the ball, taping it up and then playing some more.
"This is what our children deserve," Kenney said, indicating the state-of-the-art facility. "Every precious child is put on this earth to meet his potential. And that potential can't be met if they don't have the resources they need."
Kenney also pointed out that Howard's contributions toward rehabilitating the baseball fields in the city's Hunting Park neighborhood triggered further improvements, and crime has decreased 89 percent in the area.
Several speakers mentioned that the Phillies are known for their community spirit, and Montgomery also reflected the feelings of those who have been involved since the project was first conceived in 2007.
"The first word that comes to mind is 'finally,'" Montgomery said, eliciting knowing chuckles from the audience. "This is an exciting day for the Phillies. A long journey has come to a very, very successful conclusion."
Miller has been closely involved in the effort since the beginning.
"It's an honor to see a dream accomplished," Miller said.
Miller followed that with an eloquent riff on how baseball mirrors everyday life, and he concluded with the observation that the most important single word in the English language is "we."
"We did it," Miller said. "And we're not done."
"I don't think there's been anything like this in my long tenure as a city official," added Philadelphia managing director Michael DiBerardinis. "This is about opportunity to grow and learn in your neighborhood."
DiBerardinis cited a survey that found the playing surfaces at FDR Park are the best playing fields in the northeastern United States.
After the speeches, Howard was presented a framed bat signed by the senior members of the Phillies' RBI program, and he threw the pitch for the "first hit" in the new batting cages.
"I want [the young people] to know I believe in them," Howard said. "Why? Because I was just like them."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.