The time Dallas Green set Ryan Howard straight

Dallas Green, Jim Thome and Charlie Manuel in 2005
In this photo from Feb. 20, 2005, the Phillies' first baseman Jim Thome (center) speaks to manager Charlie Manuel (left) and former manager and team advisor Dallas Green during batting practice. Green spoke at length with Thome's eventual successor, Ryan Howard, after Howard was angry at being demoted to the minor league camp that spring. Green died on March 22, 2017.

The Phillies might not have won either of their World Series without Dallas Green.

Everybody knows that Green’s two-fisted managerial style pushed the Phillies to their first World Series championship, in 1980.

Few know that Big D straightened out the Big Piece one March morning, saving the team's relationship with the player and securing him as the linchpin of the 2008 championship team.

It was near the end of spring training in 2005. Ryan Howard, whose 2004 minor-league season rewrote record books, had just been demoted to the minors after the Phillies aborted the experiment of playing him in the outfield. Howard, 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, stormed out of the clubhouse. He spoke to no one. He stomped down the path of crushed stone toward the back fields of the minor-league complex, his eyes burning holes through his shoetops, his bag over his shoulder, humiliated. His agent had called and demanded a trade before Howard finished cleaning out his locker.

Poll

Who was the greatest manager in Phillies history?

Green heard about Howard's angry reaction to the news of his demotion. Green anticipated it. He saw Howard exit the back door of the clubhouse and walked briskly after him, his shock of white hair ruffling in the Clearwater breeze. This was an alarming sight: Green never walked briskly anywhere, and Green almost never went outside without his hat. He’d forgotten it in his haste.

Howard’s frustration was understandable. He'd just crushed 46 homers at the top two tiers of the minors, then popped two more with the big club in September. He figured he’d earned a spot somewhere in the majors, even if big Jim Thome was blocking him at first base. Already 24, Howard didn’t want to waste another season in Scranton. The Phillies didn’t want that, either, so they tried him out in leftfield that spring.

As Green would later say, Howard’s effort was "horsebleep." His attitude was worse. He jogged through drills. He dismissed his coaches’ instructions. He played 18 uninterested innings in left before general manager Ed Wade, disgusted, sent him down. 

Green was one of Wade’s senior advisers, one of several who advised Wade to give Howard a shot in the outfield, and Green was irate. Green’s duties back then included scouting the farm system and offering suggestions in trade talks, but he never did the Phillies a bigger favor than the morning he chased down Howard and put him in his place.

Green called Howard’s name: “Ryan.” Howard kept walking. Green hollered again, this time in his manager’s voice that had kept Rose and Schmidt and Bowa in line: “Ryan!” This time, Howard stopped, but he didn’t bother to turn around. Green ignored the insult. A 70-year-old baseball giant, 6-foot-5 but still plenty powerful, Green put his long arm around Howard and walked him into a dugout.

Green spoke for 20 minutes. Two or three times his voice rose, but only for a moment. Howard stared straight ahead. He said nothing. He nodded once. When Green finished, he patted Howard on the leg. Howard got up and left the dugout. He dropped his bag off in the minor-league locker room, changed clothes and left the facility. That was fine.

That was one of the things Green had told him: to take a few hours, maybe all day; to come back when he’d cooled off. That was the nicest thing Green said.

Green also told Howard that he was being a horse’s ass. He told Howard that he had major-league talent and major-league power but a bush-league attitude. He told Howard that when the Phillies put him in leftfield, the team had given him a real chance to make the roster, not to mention a real chance to enhance his trade value. He told Howard that his horsebleep attitude and his lousy effort made him look like a punk. That it insulted the team. That it insulted the game.

“How many times,” Green asked Howard, “are you going to have an opportunity to make a big-league team?”

Finally, Green told Howard to go to the minors and to play great, because, well, you just never know.

You never know.

Thome landed on the disabled list for good in July. Howard was ready. He led the International League with a .371 average, a .467 on-base percentage and a .690 slugging percentage, and he had 16 homers and 54 RBI in 61 games. He had been great.

He got greater.

After Howard joined the Phillies, he hit .296 with 21 homers and 64 RBI in 76 games and won the 2005 National League Rookie of the Year award. Then he won the 2006 NL MVP award. Then he led the Phillies to the 2007 playoffs, their first postseason berth in 14 years. Then he led them to the 2008 World Series title, their first in 28 seasons, the first since Dallas had finally taken them home.

It’s impossible to say how much that March morning meant. No one knows if Ryan Howard would have become the Big Piece if Big D hadn’t set him straight.

But, with a stern voice and a soft touch, he did.

Dallas Green died Wednesday. He was 82.