The Official End of the Greatest Era of Phillies Baseball
Sunday will mark the official end of the greatest era in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies franchise.
On Sunday, the Phillies are planning a video tribute to Ryan Howard, before the last game of the season at Citizens Bank Park. It will also be the last game for Howard as a member of the Phillies, since the team will be paying him a $10 million buyout, instead of paying him $23 million for next season. And with that, the last member of the 2008 World Champions will be gone from the team.
The Last Vestige of an Era
Howard was part of the core of the team that won five straight National League East division titles from 2007 through 2011. The other players who represented the core of those great teams didn't have the chance to take a final curtain call like Howard will this weekend, as the Phillies host the hated NY Mets for three games. Howard will start all three games, to honor the best first baseman in franchise history and one of the greatest Phillies of all time.
Rollins was traded first. Then Cole Hamels was dealt at the trade deadline in 2015, after saying goodbye to the Phillies fans with a no-hitter. Nobody knew for sure if that was his last game though. Then finally, Chase Utley was traded in August of 2015, and Carlos Ruiz was just traded this year. Now the last remaining member of the core of home-grown Phillies, responsible for the greatest era of Phillies baseball, is nearing his end as well.
The Quick Rise and Slow Fall of Ryan Howard
Howard burst onto the scene in 2005 and won the Rookie of the Year award in basically half a season. For an encore, he won the NL MVP award in 2006, when he belted 58 HRs and 149 RBIs to go along with a .313 average. He continued his dominance over the next few seasons, as he finished in the Top 10 in MVP voting every season from 2006 through 2011, including Top 5 finishes every season between 2006 and 2009. It is not a coincidence that those are the same years that the Phillies dominated the NL East. Unfortunately for Howard, that 2011 season ended with a first round playoff loss and him blowing out his Achilles tendon for the last out of the season. He was never the same player again.
The worst part about that injury is that it basically robbed Howard of his ability to ever be great again. And boy was he ever great in his prime. He struggled to come back from the injury, playing only 71 games in 2012 and 80 in 2013. Even when he played, he wasn't close to what he was before.
To make matters worse for Howard, the only thing fans think about these days is his huge salary. In April 2010, then team president Dave Montgomery and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. signed Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract. Yes, it was too much to pay for even a player of Howard's ability, but the team was retaining a key piece of the team. Or as former manager Charlie Manuel dubbed Howard, "the Big Piece." There was no way anyone could know that Howard would get injured before the big extension even kicked in and he would never be the same player again.
What Howard Meant to the Team
The salary made it impossible to trade Howard while the team began the long-overdue process of rebuilding, but it shouldn't be held against him. I mean, who would turn down that kind of money, right?
Howard stayed while the other members of that great championship core were dealt away or succumbed to injuries. To his credit, Howard didn't complain too much when his playing time was cut back. Oh sure, he sounded a bit delusional about his own abilities last season, but he was never a problem in the clubhouse and continued to put on a good face in public.
So as the Phillies and their fans say goodbye to Howard this weekend, I choose to focus on the good things.
One of the Most Feared Hitters in Baseball
Howard is, without question, the greatest first baseman in franchise history. His dominance might not have lasted as long as some others, but from 2006 through 2011, he was one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball. I will never forget the feeling of seeing him come up to the plate in a big spot and expecting him to hit a home run. Many times, he delivered.
I'll always remember the great quote from Howard during the 2009 NLDS against the Colorado Rockies. The Phillies were trailing the Rockies in Game 4 at Coors Field in the 9th inning, when Howard reportedly told his teammates, "Just get me to the plate boys." They did. He hit a 2-run double with two outs in the 9th inning off Huston Street to tie the game. Then he scored the eventual winning run on Jason Werth's RBI single. The fact that the Phillies lost the 2009 World Series doesn't diminish how great he was that season.
Letting His Bat Do the Talking
Obviously the highlight of Howard's career was the part he played in helping the Phillies win only the second World Series Championship in franchise history. He clubbed 3 HRs during that five-game series against Tampa Bay, and I'll never forget the image of him running in and tackling Brad Lidge and Carlos Ruiz in front of the mound after the last out of the Series.
Sure he struck out too much and led the MLB in strikeouts twice, but he also led all of baseball in HRs twice and RBIs three times. He was the hitter in the middle of the lineup that opposing teams tried to avoid for many of those great seasons.
Rollins made the famous prediction that, "the Phillies were the team to beat" before the 2007 season and then backed it up by winning the NL MVP award. But Howard had just as much to do with the team's first of those five consecutive NL East pennants as Rollins did. In 2007, Howard hit 47 HRs and knocked in 146 runs, many of them Rollins.
And while Rollins never shied away from a microphone, Howard was content to let his bat do the talking. Chase Utley became a fan-favorite because of his hard-nosed play and hustle, but Howard played a less demanding position and played a different game than Utley. Howard was a classic power-hitter, so his game was never about "hustle." That doesn't mean he was any less important than Utley or Rollins to the team. Manuel called him "the Big Piece," remember?
Howard's Final Curtain in Philly
So Howard is going to get to take a three-game curtain call in front of the best fans in baseball (just ask any player who's ever played for the Phillies) this weekend. It is a much-deserved honor for one of the all-time franchise greats. And in typical Ryan Howard style, he wouldn't even say what it all means to him. He just wants to play the game and help the team try to win.
Howard actually wants to continue playing next season, and I'm sure some American League team will sign him to a much smaller contract to be their designated hitter next season. Of course, he will most likely just be a platoon hitter in the twilight of his career, but he's at least shown he still has some power this season (24 HRs).
If Howard plays somewhere else next season, I hope that team makes a trip to Philadelphia. That way, the fans will get another chance to cheer him, like they did for Rollins and Utley.
A Fitting Tribute to One of the Greats
If not, then Phillies fans will get a chance to cheer for Ryan Howard one last time when he is enshrined on the team's Wall of Fame at Citizens Bank Park sometime in the near future. That's the least the team and the fans can do for one of the greatest Phillies of all time. For now though, there is the little matter of these last three games for Howard in a Phillies uniform. A uniform he honored with his play for so many years.
Thank you, Ryan Howard.
Thank you for your effort and class. Thank you for all those majestic home runs. Thank you for being a big part of the greatest era of Phillies baseball. Thank you for the World Series Championship. And thank you for everything that you gave to the team and the fans in Philly. I hope to be there to applaud your efforts one last time.