It was not a single moment, but a series of them, spread out over years. Ryan Howard was the mainstay of it all, the Phillies’ hulking, fearsome presence batting cleanup that opposing pitching staffs had to go through every few innings. When you remember Ryan Howard, remember all those years that this was true. Remember those pauses you made, only half-paying attention to the game, when the defense had retired the side, and you’d peek, as the broadcast went to commercial break, at the graphic: “Due Up.” And when his name was there, you stayed. You watched. You held your water or rushed to get that beer before the break. Because he just might. And you had to see.
How many did you see? How many times were your arms in the air, your fanny out of the seat, how many times did you delight in that big mechanical bell, and the lights, and the boooooonnnnnng! it made?
It’s difficult, during this dreary September of strikeouts that punctuate a summer filled with flags at half-staff, to recall the time when the Phillies were the kings of the long ball. When they could Grand Slam All Day.
For fans of advanced years, the span of Phillies seasons become eras, of flowerings and vast nomadic pilgrimages through the droughts of the forgotten, of AAAA almost was-es and slowly dimming has-beens. You get sluggers like Howard, Thome and Schmidt only so often - maybe one, two per generation, maybe - and as your own years advance you look into the future for just one more, and wonder: Will I see the likes of him again?
But this is macabre thinking. That flowering, in the last decade, was wondrous to behold. It was a great party that, like those great parties you have ever been to in your life, won us so many unforgettable pictures.
The entire era was filled with aesthetics, all inspired by young men who could hit baseballs a very long way for nights on end. In early 2009, it seemed to infect an aging Raul Ibanez, and an entire team, no matter how far behind they might have been in the mid-innings, would simply wake up at 9:30 p.m. and hunt you down and beat you, own you and yours in ways that felt, to opposing fans, complete and, at times, a very transgression:
It was glorious, and youthful, and - though the metaphor of the home run is certainly problematic - there is this aspect of slugging baseball that tingles us, all of us. Chicks dug the long ball; our own blog mistress, Liz Roscher, began her illustrious Phillies blogging career on a site with that very name.
And this power, on sultry summer evenings swimming in pheromones in Ashburn Alley, with average attendance well over 44,000 per night, it brought us together. We felt it. And we felt each other, whether we wanted to or not.
We are not necessarily a pretty people, and we don’t win often. When these times come, we drink deep, and well we should have. The minor league grapes may be more plentiful in 2016, but they are a long time from bottling, and we are getting parched.
For the trendy, the wealthier, in beautiful cities with, well, I don’t know, delicacies that range beyond bread, meat, cheese-ish and onions? prettier vistas that might have all the elements of urban texture, functionality, hipsters, be clean, and - who knows - budget surpluses? Ability to hold onto young families in the city limits? Name the feature that Philadelphia lacks, and don’t pretend that you never do. You always do. Anyway, for those other people, in those other places, the scorn we always have for them becomes moreso when our team is good, because we understand that this isn’t about people from those places being right - sweet Jeebus, they are always so insufferably right - it is about the fact that we simply want to punch them in the nose. And home runs are good proxies for that. Sometimes punches in the nose are too.
The Biggest Piece of what the Phillies were is disjointed now, a kind of sad appendage on the bench, not entirely useless, but not of this moment. Five, ten, twenty years from now, Ryan Howard will be in that lexicon of not just Phillies athletic greats, but Philadelphia athletic greats - with Schmidt, of course, though he wasn’t as complete a player, or durable, but his tools flared brightly, and for a long enough time, and the right time, that he should be with Chamberlain, with Erving, with Bednarik, with Clarke. He was this era’s biggest piece, and as we say goodbye, remember that time, remember that era; it could not have happened without Ryan Howard, who is always on that team bus coming back from the airport in the playoffs, and his bat, riding beneath the seats, is the most fearsome. And you had better watch out when you play the Phillies in Philadelphia. It was Ryan Howard’s time. He was due up.