Howard embraces Lakewood roots

BlueClaws retire jersey No. 29 of rehabbing Phillies slugger

Ryan Howard and brother Corey hold up his retired jersey as mom Cheryl looks on. (Dave Schofield)

By Jed Weisberger / Special to | August 20, 2010 6:37 PM ET

LAKEWOOD, N.J. -- Ryan Howard's return to Lakewood was successful on several fronts Friday night.

He had his BlueClaws' No. 29 jersey retired. He broke up a potential no-hitter by Greensboro Grasshoppers right-hander Chad James. He set a franchise RBI record, driving home his 92nd run in the Phillies' Class A affiliate's 4-1 South Atlantic League loss before 10,032 fans at FirstEnergy Park.

Most importantly, Howard said his sprained left ankle felt good in his first game action since Aug. 1. He is scheduled to play for Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Saturday night.

"We'll see what happens tomorrow (with the ankle)," Howard said. "I'll go to the field (Citizens Bank Park), get my treatment, then go to Lehigh (Valley) and see what happens."

Howard said he he hopes to return to the Phillies by Monday. He went 1-for-3, swatting a double to the left-center field gap in the sixth to spoil James' gem and plate Leandro Castro with Lakewood's lone run.

"I felt good on the ankle and running to second," Howard said. "There is a little soreness. You expect that with the swelling you get with this injury."

Rehab assignments occur across the Minor Leagues, but Howard's second appearance with the BlueClaws -- his first was May 23-24, 2007 -- was something out of the ordinary.

The former National League MVP, who batted .280 with 19 homers and 87 RBIs as a BlueClaw in 2002, is still loved by fans along the Jersey Shore. And, after 245 homers and three All-Star appearances, Howard returns that love.

His jersey retirement was the first in the 10-year history of the Lakewood franchise. His No. 29 is emblazoned on the right-center field wall.

"For an organization at any level to retire my jersey, to show me the respect and love like that, is something special," Howard said. "It meant a lot to both me and my family.

"This is where I got my start, where I learned what it was like to play a full baseball season. I remember, when I came home after the 2002 season, my father asked me what it was like, and all I could describe it as was 'endurance.'"

The pregame retirement ceremonies elicited a touch of emotion. The BlueClaws originally planned to honor Howard on Sept. 2, but that was before Howard was injured and before the Phillies scheduled a makeup game against Colorado for the same day.

BlueClaws general manager Geoff Brown was thrilled everything worked out -- Friday's crowd was the second-largest in team history.

"The Phillies called and said Ryan would be here Friday night and I didn't ask questions," Brown said. "I will tell you this: I could see how important our ceremony was both to Ryan and his family. We still have a special relationship with him."

Memories of FirstEnergy Park come easily to Howard.

"I look around and I can see what changed and what stayed the same," he said. "I remembered a long home run I hit in 2002 and there was a 'Hit It Here' sign. You hit that sign and won a car.

"That sign is gone, but I always thought if I hit it, I should get a car and the pitcher that threw the ball should get a car. Let's be fair to all who made it happen."

Jed Weisberger is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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