Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Big piece of our hearts

Posted by Eric Fisher On October 4

Fisher column logo2Rarely do fans demand a curtain call following an infield popup.

Rarely do fans demand a curtain call from a player batting below .200.

But Sunday wasn’t an ordinary day. And Ryan Howard isn’t an ordinary player.

The Big Piece wore out a path up and down the dugout steps, taking curtain call after curtain call from appreciative Phillies fans.

When the Phillies buy out the final year of Howard’s contract for $10 million, it will officially end Howard’s 12-season (not counting the end of the 2004 season) career in red pinstripes. But Sunday was the final opportunity for the fans to offer a public thank you to the best first baseman in Phillies history.

Not only did Sunday mark the end of Howard’s playing days as a Phillie, but it marked the end of an era. The Big Piece was the final piece remaining from the 2008 World Series championship team.

During the past few years, the final remnants of the 2008 championship team have been stripped away. Cole Hamels was traded to the Rangers. Jimmy Rollins, and then Chase Utley, and then Carlos Ruiz were traded to the Dodgers.

Howard was the final representative of an amazing era – arguably, the best era – in Phillies history. The Phillies won five straight division titles and a World Series title. In the middle of that success was Howard.

With his path to the majors blocked by slugger Jim Thome, Howard arrived to the big leagues a little late. Despite playing just 88 games in 2005, Howard was named National League Rookie of the Year after swatting 22 home runs and producing 63 RBI in 312 at-bats. In a touch of symmetry, Howard’s Phillies career ended this season with 25 homers and 59 RBI in only 331 at-bats.

Howard followed his award-winning rookie campaign with one on the most incredible power-hitting seasons in history. Howard slammed 58 home runs and drove in 149 runs in 2006. His batting average was .313, easily the best of his career. His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages) was an off-the-charts 1.084. Howard was named the NL MVP.

His average never rose higher than .279 again, but he hit at least 45 home runs and produced at least 136 RBI in each of the next three seasons. If Howard could have continued that pace for three more seasons, he would be a near-certainty to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But Howard started to decline.

“Decline,” of course is relative. He hit 31 and 33 home runs in 2010 and 2011, respectively, driving in more than 100 runs in both seasons. But 2011 ended with Howard tearing his Achilles tendon while making the final out in the decisive Game 5 against the Cardinals.

The Phillies haven’t returned to the playoffs since 2011. It’s not a coincidence that the Phillies’ decline coincided with Howard’s decline.

Howard played in less than half of the Phillies’ games in 2012 and 2013. After 2011, Howard never hit more than 25 home runs in a season and only once surpassed 77 RBI.

Criticism of Howard mounted as he declined. When you’re smashing 48 home runs and your team wins the World Series, as happened in 2008, complaints about Howard striking out nearly 200 times were dismissed as nit-picking. When you strike out nearly 200 times while batting .223 for a bad team, as Howard did in 2014, the complaints turn into boos. Loud boos.

Even in his final season as a Phillie, there was an ugly incident in which a fan threw a beer bottle in Howard’s direction after he grounded out to end the game. Perhaps the groundout evoked memories of Howard taking a called strike against the Giants in a 2010 elimination game and making the final out against the Cardinals as the Phillies’ postseason flame was extinguished.

Howard was upset about the bottle-throwing incident, but he has remained on a relatively even keel through the cheers and the jeers. Having his playing time reduced this season certainly didn’t make Howard happy. Other than a reaction to manager Pete Mackanin indicating that Howard might not play too often in September, though, Howard was a good soldier. He didn’t rock the boat.

This past weekend’s ovations were for Howard’s accomplishments and his classy demeanor. We were fortunate to have Howard as a Phillie for his entire career – thus far.

Howard’s strong second half of the season has reinforced Howard’s belief that it’s not time to call it a career. Howard bid farewell to Phillies fans on Sunday, but he’s not ready to bid farewell to baseball. Not yet.

Maybe he’s right. Howard finished his final season as a Phillie tied for the team lead in home runs despite having 250 fewer at-bats than co-leader Maikel Franco. But the Phillies are a young team on the rise. They don’t have room on their roster for a 37-year-old first baseman, especially one who would be making $25 million next season.

Howard’s career with the Phillies is over, just as the golden era of Phillies baseball in which he was an essential part is over. But we’ll always have the memories.

Sunday’s emotional farewell and collective thank you added one final memorable moment to Ryan Howard’s  fantastic Phillies career.

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