Barry Bonds carried a torch that he worked for all his life.
He carried it for Jackie and Frank Robinson, for Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, his own father, Bobby, and all the Negro Leagues players that didn't share in the wealth of Major League Baseball.
But along the way, he became more of a lightning rod and, now, a symbol in so many minds of how baseball failed. He remains one of the great ballplayers of all time. But the controversy over his use of PED's, not to mention years of press discord, took the focus off his talents as a hitter.
Ryan Howard, with his brawn and natural talent, is a product of the Bonds era. Power hitting, big guy, Howard has the ability to hit home runs for years to come.
He's also got the torch in his hands now.
In the age of steroid clean-up in baseball, Howard is part of a crop of sluggers who have the future of the game on their shoulders. If Mark McGwire and Bonds made you fall in love with baseball (again?), then the heartbreak might be fresh.
Howard has the unique task of not only inspiring that love again, but also, being one of the rare black players to experience super stardom.
Could he be near the level of Bonds in the next few years? The name, a household one? Sure, he's reached that point to an extent, but it's not over.
Philadelphia has never had a black player quite like Howard before. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins isn't a Bonds-type player, known first for speed and spectacular defense, and certainly for a summer when he chased a Joe Dimaggio 56-game hitting streak (Rollins extended his to 38). Richie "Dick" Allen was one of the top hitters in the 1960's and 70's, but controversy was also part of his Philadelphia tenure. Bill James even deduced he was the second most controversial player in baseball history. Let's not forget the difference in racial climate, as well.
Howard, while improved on defense, is known for a singular ability. And he's no magnet for controversy.
He raises his bat and we wait for a dinger. Pure and unblemished, Howard. He hits, that's that.
And while you may feel bitterness toward Bonds, he's one of the most high profile talented black players to ever swing at Major League bat. He sets the bar high. His accomplishments stand, despite being contested.
Howard can take over where Bonds left off and he can do it in a way that no one will be able to question.
Sure, there's David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, but Howard is a Midwestern kid, an All-American Missouri native whose parents fought for Civil Rights in Birmingham, Alabama.
Howard means as much to the future of the game and it's integrity, as he does to those who came before him, whose battle was long and horrific, but ultimately won.
With baseball playing second fiddle to football and basketball for many black athletes choosing a career in athletics, a player as talented and charismatic as Howard can fill a clear void.
If you didn't know who Jason Heyward was until just recently, you probably weren't alone.
The 20-year old Atlanta Braves prospect topped MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects list, with Washington Nationals pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg coming in second, and the Florida Marlins Mike Stanton taking third.
But the list had its critics.
Some took issue with top Yankees prospect Jesus Montero ranking so low. The 20-year old came in at #19, far below what Yankees fans might have anticipated.
Montero, a tremendous hitter with great instincts and power, has far to go in other areas. Though his future as a catcher is more than questionable, he will continue at that position for the time being.
If defense is where Montero needs to improve the most, just how much does the defensive factor weigh in the process of ranking young prospects?
MILB.com senior writer Jonathan Mayo explains that MLB scouts had a very definite attitude toward the importance of defensive ability.
"I don't know exactly how much defense figures in, but it's apparent the scouts I polled for this counted it," he said. "If anyone thought he could stick as catcher, even as a below average one like that, he would've ranked much higher."
It's worth mentioning that Heyward's defensive skills as an outfielder are lauded - both his ability as well as arm strength are considered above-average. In him, you have more of a polished package.
A player such as Montero, has clear issues at his position, but there's no denying what he's already capable of at the plate.
"No one doubts that Montero's bat is, and will be, special," Mayo said.
Fanhouse.com analyst Frankie Piliere, also a former Texas Rangers scout, disagrees to an extent with Montero's low ranking.
"I ranked Montero much higher than MLB.com did," Pilierre said. "These guys get paid the big dollars to swing the bat and I'm not convinced there is a better offensive player in the minors than Montero."
He acknowledges the importance of Montero developing defensively, but sees the matter in a different light.
"He's a guy that you can say the offensive production will trump any defensive troubles he has."
As a former scout, Piliere can speak to the experience of evaluating a player for a Major League team.
"If I'm looking at a player with less offensive skill but he's playing a premium spot like shortstop, I'm going to be far more critical on his defense," Piliere said. "You can live with fringe offense at certain positions, but the defense will need to stand out."
Mayo explains the process of ranking players and it's a far more refined precise than fans may realize.
"The way I do my rankings is like an AP poll," he explains. "Scouts send me their top 30 list and I dump each into a spreadsheet. If a players is ranked No. 1 on their list, that player gets 30 points, second place gets 29 points, and on down."
He admits he thought Montero would rank higher. He also points to the slight differences that affect the way the final list goes.
"There was only 8 points separating Montero and Brett Wallace [3B, Blue Jays]. I think there isn't all that much separating 11 from 19, really."
Piliere explains particulars with the different positions, that affect how each player is valued.
"For a first baseman for example, more of the emphasis in my evaluation will be on his bat. He's going to have to hit quite a bit more but he can get away with less than stellar defense," he said. "I think that can be said for any player with a good bat. If he can compensate for defense with the bat then he'll still be graded favorably."
Mayo explains that good defense isn't the overwhelming factor in how the rankings turn out, but it does tilt the numbers one direction or the other.
"While defense may not be a huge deal in ranking these guys- after all, you won't see a glove-only shortstop make the top-50- even Jose Iglesias will hit a little- it could be the difference in a few spots here or there."
And, perhaps reading a few minds, he asked a great question.