SCOTTSDALE -- To call Ryan Howard's 2004 season in the Minor Leagues a breakout would be a vast understatement.
The Phillies' first baseman hit 46 homers and drove in 131 runs in Double-A and Triple-A, earning his first callup to the big leagues. He then went on to play for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League. He continued to mash in the AFL, hitting .331 with three more homers and 24 RBIs, and Phoenix won the AFL title.
That was the springboard Howard needed. He came up to the Phillies for good in early May 2005, hit 22 homers in 88 games, earning National League Rookie of the Year honors. He followed that up with an NL Most Valuable Player Award in '06 and has been a three-time All-Star.
The Phillies won it all in 2008, and Howard was the MVP runner-up that season. He's finished in the top five in that award's voting four times. It was all of these accomplishments that made him an easy choice for induction into the AFL Hall of Fame at Scottsdale Stadium on Wednesday night.
"It's always an honor [when] you can get recognized and be inducted into a Hall of Fame of any type," said Howard, who is one of 11 AFL Hall of Famers to win an MVP Award, and the only one to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in back-to-back seasons. "It's something special to come back here to the Arizona Fall League and be inducted into their Hall of Fame, because it is such an elite group of guys and it is such an elite league.
"It was the benchmark; if you do well in the Fall League, you're pretty much on your way. It definitely gave me a lot of confidence. It was the crème de la crème [among] prospects. To be able to come and play at that level, and then get the opportunity to go to big league Spring Training and eventually go up for the rest of the year that next year, definitely played into the confidence factor."
When Howard came to the Fall League, there was no clear spot for him in the Phillies' lineup. Jim Thome was the incumbent first baseman, one who hit 42 homers in 2004. So then-general manager Ed Wade asked Howard to give left field a try while in Arizona, and Howard figured if it'd get him in the big league lineup regularly, he'd give it a shot. The trial didn't last very long.
"I said, 'Whatever gives me a shot to get up here in the big leagues, I'm all for it,'" recalled Howard, who found his way into the lineup when Thome dealt with injuries in 2005, then was traded after the season. "They sent Milt Thompson out to work with me for a couple of days. It was very short-lived.
"I remember it to this day. Freddy Sanchez -- I remember. We were playing against Peoria and I was playing left field that day. Freddy Sanchez hit that ball that goes into the proverbial triangle between third, short and left field. I was supposed to call it, but I didn't quite get there. Thus ended the experiment. They picked it back up again in Spring Training. It was short-lived out here. I went back to first base and DH and enjoyed the rest of my time here."
After six straight seasons that saw Howard hit at least 30 homers and drive in over 100 runs (45 or more homers and more than 135 RBIs in four of those years), Howard has had injury troubles of his own. He played in just 71 games in 2012, following that up with 80 games this past season. The power is still there -- he's hit 25 homers and driven in 99 runs in 546 combined at-bats the past two years -- but the Phillies need him to be healthy for a whole season if they want to try to climb back to the top of the NL East, a place they last saw in '11.
Howard hurt his left knee and had surgery in July, ending his season. He'll be ready to really start working his way back soon.
"Just rest right now," Howard said about his course of action. "[I'm] just relaxed; let the body heal itself, let the mind heal itself. I'm watching the playoffs here and there, [I'll] get away, take a little vacation, then come back. Then probably in November, I'll be picking up the rehab, starting to train, getting things going again."