The Phillies played a baseball game today against a rival team. They also won that game by a score of 5-2 thanks to great pitching from Jerad Eickhoff, a surprisingly central part of the team’s future.
None of that matters, though. It was the team’s 71st win of the season. Neither team had any players chasing any end of season awards. The basic outcome of the season would be the same for both teams, win or lose.
That allowed us to focus one thing: The final game for Ryan Howard as a Phillie. To be clear, Howard is technically under contract for next year for $23 million. But, the Phillies have a $10 million buyout that they will undoubtedly exercise to end Howard’s 13-year tenure in Philadelphia. We know that, Howard knows that, and the Phillies know that.
Obviously, we all wanted Howard to hit a home run in his final game, just as we would want anyone to hit a dinger in his or her final game. But, for Howard, it’s more than that. In my lifetime, no Phillies player had been so defined by the home run throughout his career than the Big Piece. In his first full season in the majors, Howard won an MVP award after he hit 58 home runs, or one every 10 at bats.
During the game’s pregame tribute, the Phillies installed a plaque where that 58th home run landed. Unlike Veterans’ Stadium, which had a star to commemorate a home run hit by Willie Stargell, Citizens’ Bank Park will at least commemorate a Phillies home run.
Ryan Howard did not have the sort of game Sunday that we will remember for very long. He went 0-for-4 with a swinging strikeout, two ground outs, and a pop out. It was not a great game for Howard, but it was the sort of game we’ve gotten used to.
What makes Howard’s greatness clear to me is that we can all recognize his transcendence despite the fact that he has, theoretically, performed worse than any random AAA call-up for the better part of five seasons. What made Howard special wasn’t the aggregate of his accomplishments. Sure, 382 career home runs and four consecutive seasons of 40+ dingers is a cool accomplishment, but it wasn’t those totals or the MVP award or the 58 home run season that made us feel his greatness.
Rather, Howard’s greatness was proven with each individual home run. Something about each one felt different than if someone else hit it. Maybe it was the loop of his swing, or the staredown, or the walk out of the batters box, or the strength with which he hit them, especially early in his career. If you asked 20 people, you would get 20 different explanations of what specifically made those home runs so special and so unique. Whatever it was, it stuck with him from his first home run in 2004 to his last home run in 2016. The home runs were different, for sure; there were homers Howard his in 2007 that he could never recreate in 2016. But in that difference was a repetition of majesty. I don’t know if any of us can put words to describe the similarity, but a Ryan Howard home run was always a special event.
We didn’t see a home run from Howard today. We didn’t see a hit or a walk or a sharply hit ball into the teeth of that blasted shift. Aside from Howard himself, we saw nothing that evoked the sort of memories we will call upon decades in the future. That’s ok. There’s nothing he either could do or needed to do to cement his legacy. That work was already complete.
Goodbye Big Piece. We’ve been counting down to this day for the past five years, but we were still not ready for it.
Ryan Howard walks off the field at CBP in his final game wearing a #Phillies uniform, amid a standing ovation from players and fans: pic.twitter.com/YqD4eQP9qI— Meghan Montemurro (@M_Montemurro) October 2, 2016