Ryan Howard’s Long Goodbye

The first baseman’s Phillies career ends today after 13 years of breathtaking highs and frustrating lows.

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For a second there, you could feel something familiar stirring in your chest again — a little surge of adrenaline, fluttering like a butterfly’s wings.

Ryan Howard had just reached out and swatted at a belt-high pitch, and the ball exploded off his bat the way it used to, and most of the people in the chilly ballpark leaned forward in anticipation the way they used to. If Harry Kalas had still been alive, his voice would’ve been climbing along with the spinning white dot, adding a touch of suspense for his listeners: “It could be… it might be…”

But Harry’s been gone for seven years now. The ball took a nose-dive at the warning track in centerfield, and slammed into a red Toyota advertisement in front of the bullpen. Howard, all 6-foot-4, 250 and some odd pounds of him, chug-a-lugged into second base with a double in his first at-bat in Citizens Bank Park on Friday night.

The fans gave him an appreciative round of applause. It was the first of his final three games in a Phillies uniform, maybe the final games of his storied 13-year career. If Howard allowed his eyes to roam the stands, he surely noticed whole sections of empty blue seats. Even worse, there was a large, vocal contingent of New York Mets fans in the house, chanting “Let’s go Mets!” like they owned the joint. So this was how the most joyful era in Phillies history was drawing to a close. Goddamn it all. 

It was a miserable night for a ballgame anyway, misty and raw in a way that’s only tolerable if your team is trying to force its way into the playoffs, like the Phillies did back in 2007 and 2008. They chased the Mets down at the end of both of those seasons like a pack of unstoppable madmen. Howard and his old friends Jimmy RollinsChase UtleyCarlos Ruiz and Cole Hamels gave the city such joy when they toppled the Mets all those years ago, so maybe there was something poetic about the Mets being here to give Howard the raspberry on his way out the door. New York won the game, handing the Phillies their 90th loss.

The season finale this afternoon should be more pleasant. The Phillies will have a pregame ceremony to honor Howard’s unexpected rise from a tantalizing but imperfect prospect to the best first baseman in franchise history. For his part, Howard hasn’t been too keen to explore his feelings about The End. “You guys are looking at it the way you guys are looking at it,” he told reporters earlier this week, according to the Inquirer. “I just really stay in the moment. I don’t really try to focus on any of that stuff.”

Maybe it’s too painful to try and untangle everything right now. He remains adamant that he’s not yet done with the game, and has chafed about his recent lack of playing time. The Phillies see his .199 batting average and ever-diminishing range in the field and wince; Howard sees the 25 home runs his mighty swing produced this year, marking the 10th time that he’s topped 20 in a season.

For the last five years, he’s tried to overcome career-altering injuries and the natural erosion of ability that comes with age while facing relentless scorn from pundits and fans for not living up to that infamous $125 million contract. Hell, someone threw a bottle at him in the middle of a game earlier this year.

“We’re all human beings. We all have feelings, we all have emotions, we all care. But we may not show it,” says former Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer, who played alongside Howard for five years.

“Watch any professional sport. It all looks pretty easy, unless you have to get out there and do it. And it’s very difficult to do it year after year after year. Those who are able to do that and maintain the highest of standards for a long time, I think it’s an amazing, amazing feat. You kind of expect it from them, which is why they are such elite athletes. But when you see them tumble, and they’re not able to put up those numbers for whatever reason, everybody is quick to have an opinion.”

ED WADE CAN STILL recall the discussions the Phillies’ brain trust had about Howard before the team selected him in the fifth round of the 2001 amateur draft.

“He didn’t have a very good season during his junior year [at Missouri State University], so a lot of teams were backing off of him,” says Wade, who was the team’s general manager at the time. “But I remember Mike Arbuckle and Marti Wolever had conversations with our area scout, Jerry Lafferty, who was adamant about not walking away from him.”

The hulking slugger from St. Louis clubbed 50 homers during his collegiate career, but he didn’t appear to be a lock for the majors, let alone superstardom. “From a development standpoint, he had a pretty big hole in his swing on the inside, and he had to clean up defensively,” Wade says. “He was a work in progress at that point in time, but we knew he had potential. We had a lot of discussions about him, because it also revolved around the Thome signing to some extent.”

Wade lured legendary Cleveland Indians first baseman Jim Thome to Philadelphia in 2003 with a six-year, $85 million contract. The intention was to prove to jaded Phillies fans that the team was serious — finally — about fielding a contending team as it prepared to move into Citizens Bank Park the following year.

Howard, meanwhile, wreaked havoc on minor league pitchers, clobbering a combined 46 homers with the Phillies’  Double A and Triple A affiliates in 2004. The only question was whether there was a place for him on the major league roster. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote that the Phillies and Pirates had kicked around a possible trade involving Howard that year for then-Pirates pitcher Kris Benson.

“No, we never got close on anything,” Wade says. “As a matter of fact, I only initiated one call at one point in time, but it was just a probing call. By that stage… we could see Ryan would be a big part of the future.”

You know what happened next: Thome got hurt in 2005, opening first base for Howard, who hit .288 with 22 home runs in just 88 games, netting him the Rookie of the Year award. The team traded Thome in the offseason, and Howard responded with a season for the ages in 2006.

He wowed a national audience by winning the Home Run Derby before the All-Star Game that season, and was twice named NL Player of the Month en route to obliterating Mike Schmidt‘s single-season franchise home run record, which had stood for a quarter of a century. When the dust cleared, Howard had posted a .313 average and 58 home runs, and driven in 149 runs. Along the way, there were transcendent moments like this, when he homered three times in the same game off Atlanta Braves ace Tim Hudson:

“Whether a guy is a prospect or has established some production at a minor league level, it allows you to dream or project what that player may one day be,” Wade says. “But I think it’d be disingenuous for anyone to say they anticipated Ryan would be capable of what he accomplished.”

Howard won the NL MVP award, joining Cal Ripken, Jr. as the only players in baseball history to be named Rookie of the Year and MVP in consecutive seasons. “I think offensively he fed off his fellow hitters and teammates and they fed off him,” Moyer says. “He helped to solidify the middle of our lineup. It was really fun to watch. It was one of those situations where I thought, ‘Wow, I’m glad I’m on this team, rather than facing this team.'”

Howard’s sudden emergence as one of the premier power hitters in the league was significant on two levels. The Phillies were now capable of out-slugging every team they encountered, giving them an unmistakable swagger that would only grow during the next few years. And Phillies fans who had suffered through years of basement-dwelling teams populated with assorted punchlines — raise your hand if you remember the Danny Tartabull experience — had a legitimate superstar they could call their own, a player who inspired genuine awe every time he flung his hands through the strike zone. This sort of phenomena comes along about once a generation in this town. If you’re lucky.

THE VIDEO GAME NUMBERS kept piling up. Howard reached 100, 150, 200 and 250 home runs faster than anyone in the history of the game.  His sits second in franchise history — behind Schmidt, of course — with 382 home runs and 1,194 RBI. Without his bat, would the Phillies have won the World Series in 2008, or made a return trip in 2009, when he was named the NLCS MVP?

“He loved the pressure and wanted to be the man at the plate when the game mattered most,” Rollins wrote in a statement that was released to the media this weekend. “During our run, we leaned on him many times for big hits and clutch home runs and he found ways to deliver. Ryan never stopped working to better himself and his craft… whether it was getting to field early for extra defensive work or finding that sweet home run stroke.”

But then it all came crashing down. He tore his Achilles while trying to run to first base on a ground out that ended the 2011 National League Divisional Series. The image of Howard, crumpled on the ground as the St. Louis Cardinals celebrated their series victory, has often been described as the death knell for the squad that carried the Phillies to the playoffs for five straight years.

A broken toe and a torn meniscus plagued him in the seasons that followed. When he could get on the field, he appeared to be a mere shadow of the three-time All-Star he had been before. Teams employed defensive shifts to rob him of hits when he did manage to make contact. More often than not, though, he was caught flailing helplessly at down-and-away pitches, or struggling to catch up to others that he used to routinely deposit into the outfield stands.

It got ugly — never more so than when he and his family became locked in a bitter legal battle over money — but Howard remained an all around stand-up guy on the field and off, deeply committed to doing charity work that benefitted a number of different local causes.

“I haven’t talked to him about any of these things, but it has to be difficult,” says Wade, who is now a special assistant for the Phillies. “This is a tough market to play in. The bar that he set for himself and the accomplishments that he experienced in the early and middle part of his career sort of kept that bar very high. I struggle to think of how many really good players end up going through what Ryan went through and are still able to carry themselves the way he does.”

Moyer notes how difficult it is for a ballplayer to repeatedly try to overcome injuries and surgeries and regain their old form:

“You go to rehab and do what you’re told to do. Hopefully it’s enough to get you back on the field and back to being that player. But usually, once you get that chink in the armor, depending on how big it is, it’s really hard to become that same player you once were, physically and sometimes emotionally. You can only give what you can give as an individual. You can’t run around with a cape on.”

Maybe the hardest part for Howard was watching as the group he won a title with was gradually dismantled. Rollins, Hamels, Utley and finally Ruiz were all sent off to contending teams as a sort of unofficial thank-you to each of them, while the big guy was left behind to be a good sport about his dwindling number of at-bats with a young team that’s (still) searching for an identity.

“It’s sad. It’s gloomy and empty here, and we’re saying goodbye,” says Mandy Shackleton, who’s sitting with her sister, Katie, in a row of seats in front of the Hall of Fame club on Friday night. The announced attendance of 20,556 appears to be double the actual number of fans in seats. Mandy and Katie keep holding up a black-and-red handmade sign that simply reads THANK YOU RYAN, which gets them on the giant scoreboard in left field a couple of times.”People remember him for the Achilles thing and the strikeouts, but they should remember him for all of the big moments: the Home Run Derby, the MVP season,” she says. “We wouldn’t have won in 2008 without him.”

Saturday afternoon brought a little deja vu. With a man on first in the bottom of the 5th, Howard jumped all over a belt-high pitch that caught too much of the plate. The ball left his bat like it was running on jet fuel. This time, there was no doubt about it; the ball cleared the right field fence and kept on going. The Big Piece had tied the game at two, and he jumped up from the dugout afterwards for a quick curtain call.

It was a fun reminder of the excitement Howard had routinely provided the city during his long run here. Heartwarming, even. The Mets won the damn game, though. Clinched themselves a playoff berth in the process, filling our open wound with their cheap champagne. Everything old is new again.

Follow @dgambacorta on Twitter.

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