Piece, Out: Howard says goodbye
Professionalism on, off field Howard’s most profound legacy
Ryan Howard’s Phillies-record 58th home run returned to earth in 2006, crashing into row 7 of section 145 in the left-field stands at Citizens Bank Park. That would be as good a place as any for the organization to begin to attempt the impossible.
The Phillies soon will hammer a circular, bronze plaque onto the spot, reminding generations of fans where Howard once created history. They even had his son, Darian, symbolically place the tablet on the spot Sunday, causing fans to roar and Howard to swallow hard.
He is a 100-millionaire. A car wouldn’t make it. Nothing could. But that thoughtful and unique gift would come close. It would come close because it was a fixed spot, a pinpointing of one baseball achievement. Maybe there will be a statue later, or a retired number, or a Wall of Fame night. There will never be a way to recognize Howard’s spirit, his dignity, his professionalism when it wasn’t always easy to be professional.
Howard’s baseball career is not over. But with his four hitless at-bats in a 5-2 victory over the New York Mets Sunday, its Phillies chapter closed. Soon, by a contract that has been fair through every finely printed line, the Phillies will pay him $10 million to leave, removing themselves from the obligation to pay him $23 million to play. Business. Not personal.
If he signs elsewhere, it likely will be in the American League, where he never again will have to subject his over-traumatized legs to the inconvenience
of playing infield defense. He wants to play. Those 25 home runs he hit this season say he will have that opportunity.
“I know,” he said, “I still have more in the tank.”
Wherever he lands, he will bring something of value beyond his continued ability to send baseballs into fair-territory seating areas. He will bring a rare professional nobility, the kind he showed repeatedly this season, one that began with having a dripping beer bottle tossed his way. It was not easy for him to surrender half of his job, or more, to Tommy Joseph.
But not only did he do that, he often stood in the clubhouse, on those sore legs, and discussed why.
“I always considered him a true professional,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He is pretty evenkeeled, but the fact that I was the one who started platooning him and gave him less playing time makes it a little different. I’m sure Howie respects me, but I can’t be his favorite manager because of that. It is what it is.
“He deserves a lot of recognition, and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Howard was properly recognized Sunday, with 36,935 attending a game that lacked meaning for either team. It was Fan Appreciation Day, and the
Phillies were handing out gifts. That helped.
But the customers were there early for a pregame tribute to Howard that was as well-executed as any play the Phils had run in a season without enough. There was a video tribute, including some classic Harry Kalas calls. (It has been pointed out that Howard was the last remaining Phillie to have had his achievements described by the late Hall of Fame broadcaster.) There were some standing ovations, and they were sincere, just long enough to resonate, not over-the-top staged selfie-moments. There was a hug and a handshake from Mike Schmidt and a top-of-thedugout-steps tribute from
his teammates. And, yes, there was a microphone.
“All of this kind of came up really fast,” Howard said, over the loudspeaker. “I didn’t know what I was going to say. But I want to thank the fans for making it all fun.
“We had some good runs, didn’t we?”
They did. There were five first-place finishes, an MVP award, a Rookie of the Year season, a world championship, a 2009 NLCS MVP award and 382 home runs, 67th most in major league history. Were there boos? Too many, probably. But whenever there was disappointment, there was Howard, somehow larger than it all. The Big Piece, indeed.
When he shredded his
Achilles, and in the process his career, on the last play of the 2011 NLDS, not only did he try to stumble to first base but, not long after, he stood in the clubhouse, in physical and professional pain, answering every question. He was a stand-up professional even when he couldn’t stand up at all.
He just finished a rough season, hitting .196. But he was always willing. Even Sunday, as the ceremony bubbled, he had another idea.
“Thank you again, from the bottom of my heart,” Howard said. “Now, let’s play this game. Let’s play this game.”
Few ever played that sport as well in a Phillies uniform. Even fewer were as professional and decent
while they did.
There will never be a sturdy-enough plaque to carry that message.
To contact Jack McCaffery, email him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery.
Ryan Howard acknowledges the crowd Sunday before his final game in a Phillies uniform, capping a distinguished career that inspired one of Philadelphia’s most successful eras.