The End of Things

With any luck, you weren’t paying attention.

Mid-Thursday afternoon, following the Phillies’ 2-1, sweep-avoiding victory over the Giants on the back – and left arm – of Cole Hamels, the Ryan Howard era came to an end. A few years down the road, the line of demarcation for the end of the era of reverence for one of the most prolific sluggers of his time will likely point to the end of Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, but in the wake of that loss, there was still hope. There was hope that, with time and treatment, Howard would rebound to usefulness and manage a passable latter-stage career.

Not so. Howard was benched Thursday, with a right-handed pitcher on the mound (Tim Hudson) against whom he owned a .328/.425/.687 career line, with seven home runs in 80 plate appearances. Yes, even in a situation that doubly benefited his platoon-leaning bat, Howard was sat. He did not pinch-hit for Darin Ruf in the bottom of the 8th, when Giants righty Jean Machi came in to relieve in the one-run game, nor did he comment on the situation post-game, referring reporters instead to manager Ryne Sandberg.

Howard’s time is over, and the end is coming on terms nobody rooted for.

Hopefully, in due time, once the dust settles from whatever ugly fallout awaits this situation, Howard’s peak will be remembered for the magnificent thing it was. There’s little denying the impact Ryan Howard had on the Phillies organization, Phillies fans and baseballs alike as he terrorized pitchers from 2005-09. The cumulative line from those years – encompassing his Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player campaigns in ’05 and ’06 – amounts to a delectable .279/.376/.586 with 220 homers in 713 games (3,103 PA). There will be no batter to equal that sort of production in a Phillies uniform for some time in one year, let alone over the course of four-and-a-half.

No one hit as many home runs in as little Major League time. Fastest to 100, 250, 300. Even as his other performance numbers slipped, the man remained a formidable power presence. He hit 31 and 33 HR in 2010 and 2011, a steadfast presence in the lineup of a team that won 102 games (remember?) that second year.

Without The Injury – you know the one – maybe this day wouldn’t have arrived so quickly. Sure, Howard had already begun to trek downward, looking more “above average” than “Giancarlo Stanton” for a little bit by then, but for a guy who’d built a reputation on late-swing, opposite-field home run strength to suffer a devastating injury to a back leg could be more of a long-term nuisance than many imagined. So far down the road, one would have hoped to see some sort of return to form, with performance devoid of hindrance via injury. It’s unclear if that’s what we’re all bearing unfortunate witness to, but the reality is that the idea of Ryan Howard as a productive hitter for the Phillies is gone and will not be returning.

The team itself is demonstrating as much. All of the stars were aligned for Howard to play in a favorable situation today, and he was passed over. Shortly after the game, as if to add a rotten cherry atop a sour milk sundae, this came out:

It’s done. The bridge is a breath from being little more than smoldering planks and irradiated rope,regardless of whether Howard is traded tomorrow, the afternoon of July 31, sometime in August or not at all. The best respects any of us, as fans, can pay the Ryan Howard of today is remembering the Ryan Howard of the bygone Golden Age. No injury will ever take those numbers, awards and championship away from him or his B-Ref page. His end comes in ignominy, while only some paid close attention, but his rise and reign will linger in the hearts and minds of those who were along for the ride. Things are sour now, and they may remain so for a little while, but the perspective that I (and hopefully you) will hope to maintain is one of gratitude for and recognition of what once was.

Ryan Howard is a champion. May his legacy reflect that more than the scratched and scuffed end that befell his time in Philadelphia.

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