The Final Piece: A Farewell To Ryan Howard
We knew it was coming. We’ve expected for at least a year that Ryan Howard would be the last man standing and now the time has arrived to say goodbye. There are less than twenty games remaining for the Phillies this year which means there are less than twenty games remaining in Howard’s Phillies career. It’s been a tortuously long and painful farewell as Howard’s performance on the field never rebounded from the Achilles’ injury he suffered in the final seconds of the 2011 NLDS. But instead of dwelling on the bad, we’re finally at a point where we can look at Ryan Howard and focus on the joy he brought to the city of Philadelphia.
It’s not easy to isolate a single favorite memory of Howard’s Phillies career. For me, my absolutely favorite thing about watching him play was more of a feeling than a single moment. For half a decade, every time Howard stepped to the plate you felt as though greatness was possible. When Howard took a swing and connected with a baseball, he hit the ball harder and further more consistently than anyone I’d ever watched in a Phillies uniform. He was among the most feared hitters in baseball and for good reason. He’s always been a one-dimensional player, but during the glory years that one-dimension was more than enough. He was a power threat that made it impossible to ever give up on a Phillies game. Howard could — and did — deliver heroic game-tying or go-ahead home runs at any time. He made the game fun, he made the Phillies fun, and he made the impossible possible.
Ryan Howard has hit 378 home runs for the Phillies — 386 including the postseason — which means great moments are easy to come by in reflecting on his career and the Phillies audiovisual team will never struggle to find enough material to build highlight reels for the copious tributes to Howard and the 2008 Phillies that surely await us in the coming years. I have found, however, that there is one moment that stands out for me as most representative of the greatness Ryan Howard was capable of creating.
For the majority of the 2007-2011 glory years, I was living in Upstate New York. I passionately watched every postseason game in which they played, but the prospect of actually attending one of them seemed unlikely to pan out due to the distance. Then, through a series of unexpected circumstances, I found myself in possession of tickets to Game Four of the 2008 World Series. When they arrived at my door, I exploded with glee at the poor unsuspecting UPS man. Now that I think about it, I may have even hugged him. Sorry, UPS man. Getting the opportunity to go to a World Series game was a lifelong dream achieved and getting to go with my hometown team starring was everything.
I traveled down to Philadelphia that weekend and, as you may recall, the Phillies entered Game Four up two games to one after a late night walk-off win the night before. Just two wins away from the first Philadelphia championship I’d ever know, Philadelphia fans were as optimistic and excited as I have ever experienced. Walking into Citizens Bank Park that night, the atmosphere was electric. There was smiles and laughter and, at least in my case, more than one moment of awe and wonder as I took in what was happening around me.
When the game started, though, the nerves started to creep in — the World Series lights and fanfare can only do so much to negate a lifetime of Philadelphia sports fandom, after all. Fortunately, a bad call and a bases loaded walk gave the Phillies a 1-0 lead in the first inning and a two-out RBI single by Pedro Feliz would increase that lead to 2-0 in the third. In the top of the fourth, however, Joe Blanton gave up a solo home run to Carl Crawford and suddenly we were reminded that there was a possibility this game wouldn’t have a fairy tale ending.
Then, with the Phillies up 2-1 in the bottom of the fourth, Ryan Howard stepped to the plate with runners on first and second and did this:
Joe Buck’s matter-of-fact style and the levels on the crowd noise don’t do justice to the way Citizens Bank Park absolutely exploded when Howard deposited that baseball in the left field stands. For me, it was right at that moment, that I knew the Phillies were going to win the World Series. It’s baseball and anything can happen. The Rays could have come back and my “knowledge” of what was about to happen could easily have gone for naught, but it didn’t. Home runs later in that game by Joe Blanton, Jayson Werth and, naturally, Ryan Howard a second time gave the Phillies a 10-2 victory. Four days and one 48-hour rain delay later, they’d complete the job and win it all.
Cole Hamels was the immensely deserving World Series MVP that year, but the man who put the Phillies over the edge in my little brain was Ryan Howard. That beautiful swing which had generated so many home runs had delivered when Philadelphia needed it the most. It wasn’t a surprise — it was never a surprise to see Ryan Howard hit a home run — but it was memorable and wonderful.
Ryan Howard is one of the greatest to ever suit up for the Philadelphia Phillies. He did things at the plate that so few have ever been able to do. He delivered when it mattered and for that he will be a Philadelphia sports icon always. As ready as we are to welcome in the next era of Phillies baseball, it’s hard to say goodbye to players who have been so central to our baseball lives. Howard is the Big Man and he’s the Last Man and, man, oh man, am I going to miss watching him play.
Thanks for the memories.