Memory is an intriguing trait. We have a relatively tenuous grasp on both the neuroanatomy of memory, and the psychological packaging that categorizes our sensory inputs into memory. Generally we understand a lot of how things work, but there is still a great deal of speculation and theory at work. A thorough understanding of memory, however, isn't necessary to know that some things stick with us like few others. Of all the things we see and do in our day to day lives, only a small fraction are encoded into long-term memories. Fewer still are those moments in time where you tend to remember exactly where you were, and what you were doing when those particular events happened.
Over the course of Ryan Howard's career we've seen many memorable hits, or games, when he hit baseballs that changed the course of a game. Or even when he simply hit a baseball with distance and authority rarely seen, even at the highest levels of baseball. The prelapsarian Howard was a something to behold, a hulking, home-run launching, centerpiece to one of the most prolific offensive teams Phillies fans have ever seen. And he's the only reason I remember where I was September 2nd, 2006.
The 2006 season was Howard's first full one, coming off a 2005 in which he won the Rookie of the Year award in only 88 games. It was his best offensive season, the only one in which his on-base percentage eclipsed .400 (.425), the year he set the single season home run record for the franchise, and culminated in an MVP award, however ill-deserved it might have been.
September 2nd, 2006, was a Saturday, I spent the shank of the evening at a local bar that a friend had purchased the year prior. One thing about having friends who own bars is that it can lead to imprudent amounts of drinking. Luckily, our friend also happened to have an office apartment directly above this bar so when the aforementioned imprudence occurred that night a few of us ended up crashing in the apartment above the bar. Sunday the third came around pretty quickly, and we decided as a group to get something to eat for lunch, so we went to the nearest and recently opened Starters Pub (which later became somewhat infamous) where we watched that Sunday afternoon's game on their 60 inch projection screens.
Howard came into the game sitting on 49 home runs, having passed Mike Schmidt's record 48 homers the previous Thursday. He was facing Tim Hudson. You likely remember the rest:
Howard left that game as the 23rd player in baseball history to hit 50 home runs in a season, and as the record holder for most home runs in a second season, besting Ralph Kiner's 51 in 1947. He would go on to hit another 6 home runs the rest of the season, crammed between intentional walks and pitch-arounds that became so common to him those seasons, finishing with an awe-inspiring 58 home runs.
It was great. It was great because you were watching mammoth home runs. And lots of them. It was great because they were untainted by the specter of the PED era. It was great because he was passing historic milestones. It was great because you got to hear Tim Hudson whine about how small the ballpark was, as if there was a park in the sport that could hold Howard. It was great because we had those goofy fan groups like Howard's Homers cheering him on and that little kid changing his shirt three times that day. It was great mainly because it was fun. And that's what we remember.
The impuissant Howard we see before us today, and to whom we say goodbye at the end of this weekend, has been dispiriting the last few seasons simply because of the height of the peak from which he descended. Had his star never shone so bright we'd not have missed its being extinguished. His three home runs in his first three at bats of that September game a decade ago were peak Howard. That iconic game, perhaps Ryan's best, towards the end of his greatest season, and at the very beginning of the most dominant era of Phillies baseball, encapsulated everything that made us look up from whatever we were doing when Howard came to bat. And whatever the biochemical reasons, it will be remembered for as long as people who were around to watch it remember Ryan Howard.