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Piece Out Memory No. 6: Rupturing Achilles Tendons and Hopes

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As Ryan Howard lay writhing on the ground at the end of the 2011 NLDS, Philadelphia knew an era had ended.

St Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies - Game 5 Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

We’re getting to the end here of the Ryan Howard memories and are firmly in the territory where you remember where you were when these events took place. On Friday, Matt Winkleman wrote about the called third strike in the 2010 NLCS (11 beers deep in the Lunt dorm common room at Haverford College). Soon enough, you’ll hear from Justin on “Get Me To The Plate, Boys” (writing a 10-page paper on Plato’s Laws before running to the sound of screaming from a room across the hall). Today, we have the moment that marked a) the end of it all and b) the beginning of Howard’s contract extension.

I was watching this game—Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, if you need a refresher— by myself in my dorm room by means of a streaming site that, a year later, would debilitate my computer with a virus. In retrospect, this was a wise decision—watching it alone, not the virus part (though that computer was garbage anyway)—as I surely “couldn’t have even” with others’ reactions or jokes about the damn rally squirrel.

You know how this game ended, but if you need a quick refresher, here you go. After a brilliant pitching duel between Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter, the game came down to Ryan Howard. With the Phillies down one, with the bases empty, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, things were set up perfectly for some vintage “Get Me To The Plate, Boys” Howard heroics.

I’ll spare you the video embed, but if you’re into that sort of thing, I’ve linked to it. I remember time freezing as Carpenter lobbed his loopy curveball right down the middle to Howard. The same sort of pitch Howard has unleashed on hundreds of times. It just hung there while Howard cocked his piece ready to unload a hurting on that mistake.

Time sped up after that. Instead of lofting the ball 500 feet into the air and toward the Bud Light or Budweiser sign in right field—whatever it was at that particular moment—it went straight into the ground with the same sort of force. Whether it was from the sheet force of his swing or out of desperation to beat out a routine grounder to second base, Ryan Howard stumbled to the ground with the same painful violence the ball had just moments earlier. He got up, hobbled, then rolled over, all while Cardinals players crossed our screen in the sort of annoying glee that only comes when you know that your dark magic is so powerful that it can literally kill a man.

There’s a scene from Seinfeld in which George and Jerry are debriefing after George gets caught staring at an NBC executive’s daughter’s cleavage. George justifies his staring saying, “It was cleavage. I couldn’t look away.” To which Jerry replies, “Looking at cleavage is like looking at the sun. You don’t stare at it. It’s too risky. You get a sense of it then you look away.” The same could be said of Ryan Howard lying on the ground and subsequently being helped off the field by training staff. I knew I shouldn’t have kept watching; it would only make the moment hurt more. I should have gotten a sense of it—that didn’t take long—shut my computer, and grabbed the bottle of bourbon I had on my shelf.

As trainers and coaches rushed onto the field to tend to their fallen hero, it was clear something had gone horribly wrong. You got a sense of how big the guy, both in importance and physical stature, was with the sheer number of people needed to bear his entire weight. It took five grown men to get him off the ground and two trainers to bear his mass on their shoulders as he hobbled toward the dugout. You didn’t want to watch and you hated watching, but the tears both paralyzed and provided a necessary veil through which to view such horrors. We didn't know it yet, but we sure felt it: Something monumental had just happened. We needed to keep watching—our eyes and ears transfixed on the TBS broadcast—to learn more about what we undoubtedly did not want to know. Nietzsche was right that the drive for truth can do harm.

As it turned out, of course, that was the final swing of Ryan Howard: Productive Major League Hitter. Through the time of his injury, Howard had produced 19.4 WAR, according to Baseball Reference’s tally, but since the injury, he has given back 4.7 of those hard earned wins. Watching him limp-run in the ensuing years is the lasting visual mark of the injury that struck him down, a constant ode to his fruitless efforts to will himself to first base on October 7th, 2011.

The what ifs are enormous. What if Ryan Howard didn’t run out that weak grounder? What if he never tore his Achilles? It’s hard to remember given the still-fresh backlash from the ill-fated contract extension, but Howard was still in his prime. 2011 was his sixth-consecutive season finishing in the top-10 of MVP voting. He had still never produced fewer than two offensive wins above replacement in his major league career. He had never hit less than .250, fewer than 30 home runs, fewer than 100 RBI, or OPSed lower than .800 in a full major league season. Sure, he was 31 and we all knew the decline was either coming or had already arrived, but we still had a productive first baseman for at least a couple seasons yet.

The injury didn’t only end Howard; it also ended what was the best team the Phillies had ever assembled. 102 regular season wins. A rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels combined with Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, and Shane Victorino all at the height of their powers. Oh, and they also added a goofy dude from Houston who hit .324 after the trade deadline. This team had to win it all. Until it came crashing down, first with a ground ball, then with the fall of the biggest figure on a team of superstars.