Piece, Out: Howard says good­bye

Pro­fes­sion­al­ism on, off field Howard’s most pro­found legacy

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS -

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 jm­c­caf­fery@21stcen­tu­ry­media.com; fol­low him on Twit­ter @Jack­McCaf­fery.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS — MATT SLOCUM

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.

Jack McCaf­fery

Colum­nist

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