Crash Landing: Watching Howard One Last Time
As I’m writing about baseball more and more, I have fewer and fewer opportunities to sit down and watch a game as a fan. I don’t mean that to sound like a complaint — writing about baseball is a joy and I’m incredibly blessed to have the gigs I have — but it is a statement of fact and it’s a big part of why I write this column each week. This column is part of my attempt to stay grounded in the emotional impact of the sport and it forces me to think about not just what I’m seeing in baseball but how I feel about it. Last night, baseball made me feel things.
I was at Citizens Bank Park sitting in the upper deck to watch the Phillies play the Giants. The crowd was sparse in comparison to the days of guaranteed sell-outs, but still sizable enough that the section I was in was packed. There were countless wonderful moments that I may or may not remember months or years from now — Odubel Herrera’s shoestring catch, the bullpen’s outstanding performance, Maikel Franco’s walk-off and Altherr’s Boner, Cameron Rupp’s mammoth home run to dead center — but there was one thing I know I’ll remember.
When I sat down at the start of the game and looked at the lineups and pitching matchup — the Giants’ Johnny Cueto vs. the Phillies’… Phil Klein? — my expectations for the game were low. There was absolutely no question that the Giants were the favorites to win this game and there was every chance it would be a truly ugly blowout-style game. But I did have one particular rooting interest. A tough right-hander on the mound meant Ryan Howard was in the starting lineup for just the second time in the last seven games and, perhaps foolishly, I pinned my hopes on him. I wanted to see a Ryan Howard home run in person, one last time.
I can’t remember the first Ryan Howard home run I ever saw. If I dug through enough old ticket stubs, I might be able to figure out exactly when it was — presumably sometime in 2005 and certainly by the end of his 58-homer 2006 season — but it’s not one of those precious few baseball moments that sticks in my memory. The last one, though? I wanted to make an effort to remember that.
Howard has now hit 372 home runs. The other 18 position players to suit up for the Phillies this season have hit 349 home runs combined. To state the obvious, 372 home runs is a lot of home runs. It’s a body of work interspersed with iconic memorable blasts and utterly forgettable ones. There have been moon shots and laser beams. Oppo blasts and pulled shots. He’s homered off forgotten pitchers with short-lived careers and he’s homered off five different Hall of Famers. All of this while wearing “Phillies” scrawled across his chest.
The sentiment behind this post is nothing new from me. I’ve advocated all season long for ignoring Howard’s production on the field this year — it is irrelevant in every meaningful way — and focusing on the opportunity to say goodbye to one of the most significant players in franchise history. That goodbye is inching ever closer.
I’ve maintained that Howard will finish out the year in Philadelphia. With just two months left and rosters set to expand in a few weeks, there’s no incentive to cut him at this point and a trade is impractical. His value to a major league team is so minimal that even if the Phillies eat every last cent of his contract, no team is going to give up any prospect package worth the hassle. It’s time to say goodbye over his final months and I suppose I’m writing this to say that last night, I took the advice I’ve been doling out to heart.
When Howard stepped to the plate in the 7th inning last night, the Phillies were losing 4-0 and had managed just three hits on the evening — but Howard was responsible for two of those hits. For just a moment, it was possible to take in his 2-for-2 line and imagine it was the Ryan Howard that stole Phillies fans hearts a decade ago. But I was greedy. I still yearned for one last home run and, as he’s done so often in his career, Ryan Howard delivered.
It wasn’t a no-doubter, at least from where I was sitting. It was a line drive shot down the left field line that was perilously close to going foul. I anxiously watched the umpire awaiting the signal and once I knew it was gone, I turned my attention to Howard. Watching Howard’s home run trot is as familiar a sight on a baseball field as I know. I reveled in the familiarity of it and soaked it in with the knowledge that it was the last time I’d see that iconic Phillies event in person.
There have been ups and downs in Howard’s Phillies career, but there can be no question that the former far outweighed the latter. We’re currently living in the final moments of that career and I’m ever thankful that I had the one brief moment to say farewell in my own little way.