When it comes to Philadelphia sports, good most always isn’t good enough. The mantra is amplified when players who are identified as leaders in terms of how gaudy their statistics are, don’t come through as often as is demanded.
It is something Ryan Howard is going through right now as the Phillies strive towards their third consecutive World Series berth, but it is familiar territory that one respected former Philadelphia Flyer knows well.
Brian Propp can surely relate.
Howard finished the five-game 2008 World Series by hitting 6-for-21 (.286) with three home runs and six batted in, spurring the Phillies to their first title since 1980.
Since then, the mighty left-hander has gone 18-for-65 (.277) with three homers, five doubles, and 17 RBI but has also fanned an incredible 22 times – setting a World Series record with 13 whiffs in last year’s six-game Fall Classic loss to the New York Yankees.
While these numbers are respectable, and passable on a club which features multiple weapons at the plate, you can’t help but notice something is missing. Sure, Howard delivered the game-winning hit in Game 4 at Colorado in the 2009 NLDS, then cranked out a pair of homers and knocked in eight against the Dodgers in the NLCS, but where was he when it really counted? Setting a dubious mark for failure to make contact.
It’s a predicament the Flyers’ left-handed sniper found himself in as the Patrick Division semifinals began in the Spring of 1987.
Under head coach Mike Keenan, Propp was singled out as a veteran leader on a team which saw half of its players under the age of 25. By the time Keenan led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1985 as a rookie bench boss, Propp was at the end of his sixth NHL season and involved in his sixth foray into the playoff pressure-cooker.
He responded with eight goals and a team-high 18 points in 19 contests as the Orange and Black lost to Edmonton, but the majority of his prowess showed through in a second-round win over the Islanders (including a Game 2 hat trick) and a conference finals triumph over Quebec.
He was conspicuously absent in a first-round three-game sweep of the Rangers — then silenced almost completely by the Oilers as Tim Kerr’s absence meant more responsibility for the winger.
In 1986, after a shocking five-game loss to the Rangers, Propp’s tally was an embarrassing two assists. Discounting the ’85 run, the Saskatchewan native’s playoff stats since 1982 read: 15 games, three goals and seven assists. Good, but not nearly good enough.
It all changed in Keenan’s third playoff year. Injuries to Dave Poulin, Kerr and Murray Craven throughout most of that memorable 26-game march handed the offensive leadership over to Propp by default. In spite of another sluggish performance in a six-game decision over those pesky Rangers, Propp came alive in a seven-game death struggle with the Islanders and carried that over into following series with the Canadiens and Oilers.
His most memorable moments are clear in the minds of those who witnessed that charmed but unfulfilled postseason.
There was the two-on-none shorthanded score in the first period of Game 7 against the Isles; the opening score in Game 1 with Montreal and his joyous leap on Ilkka Sinisalo’s game-winner in overtime; his assist to Rick Tocchet (part of the so-called “Lifeline” with Pelle Eklund) on the Game 6 winner in the third period at the Forum; an empty-netter in Game 3 of the Finals with Edmonton, sealing a comeback from a 3-0 deficit; his tying tally on the power play with 6:56 left in regulation of Game 6 which shocked a listless home team and crowd back to life.
Propp finished the 1987 playoffs with a then-team-record 28 points (12 goals) in 26 games, and cemented his place in franchise lore as a dependable, clutch playoff performer. He followed up with 14 goals and 23 points two years later when a .500 Flyers team made it to the Wales Cconference Finals before losing to Montreal.
You can argue that Propp’s gaudy numbers in 1987 were a product of a diminished supporting cast. Isn’t it easier to put up numbers and get noticed when nobody else around you is able to or is expected to?
Still, there was an X factor, somewhere within old Number 26, that finally exploded and caused him to flourish in the face of adversity and reach that top level on a consistent basis. He drew upon that, and emerged with confidence in 1989 when injuries were not a factor, to set himself apart as a leader.
I don’t think Howard has reached that point yet, disappointing as that may seem.
Let’s hope that Howard doesn’t wait around until there are adverse circumstances to start proving his worth with excellent games on a consistent basis. There’s hope, in the form of a Rookie of the Year award, National League MVP trophy, and a vapor trail of franchise-record numbers, that he does possess his own X factor, above and beyond what Chase Utley and Roy Halladay have shown. But he’s got to find it. He’s got to be the shining star, and the primary mover, above the rest of the talented cast the Phillies have assembled.
It’s the only way to cement his legacy as one of the greats in this city. If he needs some advice on how to push through, Brian Propp isn’t too far away.