READING, Pa. -- Ryan Howard, a favorite adopted son in this city, played straight man on Wednesday at the Phillies' Winter Tour Caravan stop."It's good to be back in Baseballtown," said the National League Rookie of the Year. "One of my best memories here is that crazy hot dog vendor. You don't get that anywhere else." On cue, the ostrich-riding, screaming crowd-pleaser burst through the door of the Reading Sheraton ballroom, tossing hot dogs and thrilling the 650 attending one of the tour's final stops. It was that kind of night at the $50-a-plate fund-raiser, where local baseball personalities were honored -- longtime men's fast-pitch softball coach Rocky Santilli was named the 2006 King of Baseballtown -- and a contingent of Phillies got fans riled up for the season. "We have new guys on the team, and we're looking forward to getting things started," said Howard -- who established a Reading Phillies franchise record in 2004, with 37 home runs -- to fans. "With you guys behind us, we know we're going to do well." The cold night quickly warmed up, as Howard, center fielder Aaron Rowand, closer Tom Gordon, general manager Pat Gillick and manager Charlie Manuel answered questions and signed autographs. Fans had the chance to welcome back Howard and meet the team's new closer and center fielder on a night marred only by hideously bad puns from the team's director of fun and games, John Brazer. (A jumper cable walked into a bar. The bartender said, "I'll serve you, but don't start anything.") The night began with Hal Ely, a partial-season-ticket holder for the Reading Phillies, singing the national anthem, and ended with the players signing autographs. In between, each player stood at the podium. Some told jokes or funny stories, others thanked the fans for their support. As usual, Manuel created a stir when he demanded that the crowd boo on the count of three.
"Good, I feel at home now," joked Manuel, who then delighted the crowd with his seldom-recited "My Most Memorable Day," a poem he wrote.During the question-and-answer portion, Gillick was asked when the team would acquire a No. 1 pitcher. Gillick explained that the pitching staff is still a work in progress, and reiterated his desire to continue to tinker. Rowand summed up the night when he was asked what qualities his former White Sox teammates exhibited during their World Series championship run. "We had 25 guys pulling for the same goal, and we didn't stop until we got there," said Rowand. "We had a great thing happen to us. Here I feel we have a group of guys who want to play the game the right way, hard. I'm happy to be here."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.