Opinion

One Last Trip With Ryan Howard

bc3eb450a36c480c81c6b6f5ffb6a566.jpgDear Pete Mackanin,

I have one request. Just one. Yes, I’ve said a few things about your decisions this season. I’ve chided you for not playing young players when, clearly, it was beneficial for the long-term health of your team. And I’ve scratched my head at your questionable misuse of Odubel Herrera, clearly, your best position player.

But I come to you with a fresh mind and a heart flooded with nostalgia.

Here is one request: Please start Ryan Howard on Saturday against the Mets. I will be at the game, and all I want is one more opportunity to watch him swing the bat.

When I was 20, I clamored early in the 2005 season for the Phillies to trade Jim Thome and call up Howard. Sure it was only a year before that I cheered as Thome hit his 400th career home run at Citizens Bank Park, but I saw Howard swat 46 in the minor leagues in 2004, then two more with the Phillies to end the season. And to start 2005 he had already hit 16 homers. It was time.

So Howard tapped the plate at Citizens Bank Park. He crouched, brought his bat high into the night, whirled it back behind him, and prepared to change baseball in Philadelphia. Twenty-two home runs in 88 games that year. He finally stayed in July and won the Rookie of the Year award. We know what happened after that.

But Pete, the numbers don’t tell us everything. Sure, between 2005 and 2011 Howard hit 284 home runs, posting a .275 average, .368 on-base percentage and .560 slugging percentage. But, my God, did you see those home runs? Did you sit on the edge of your sofa, watch Howard slowly draw up the pitcher, and calmly prepare his swing for liftoff? Did you jump off of that sofa as the ball stormed off the bat, as if the ball grew a face and screamed for the shadows beyond centerfield backdrops and fan walkways?

Did you grow up with this behemoth of an idea, a tissue-soft man wielding a titanium stick and sending tiny baseballs into oblivion? By himself he carried ragtag teams on his back, teams that sometimes started their games with human roller coasters like Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick, and sometimes finished their games with a well-past-his-prime Jose Mesa, or a well-off-his-rocker Brett Myers. Yes the guy struck out, and yes we buried our heads in our hands, but were you there in September?

It was in September when Ryan Howard created his legacy. In the early years it was driving Tim Hudson off road with blasts that put his name above Mike Schmidt. I don’t know if you believed the guy could actually tie Roger Maris, but I did. Imagine that – after the steroid era there was one, and he approached Maris with two weeks to go. That was Ryan Howard.

Then the games meant more, and suddenly Howard was sauntering to the plate with a man on base and a deficit. And it was the eighth inning. It was always the eighth inning, right? He’d patiently wait for his pitch – typically the breaking ball that hung just a millisecond too long in the zone – and swat it into hapless road crowds who’d have to drive home and remember that Ryan Howard ruined their evenings and their autumns.

Then the World Series. Oh man, the World Series. Everyone came out in Game 4, but Howard made it his night, striking two blows. And he jogged the basepaths and we yelped and leaped and hugged each other and realized this was finally the year, and all of us twenty-somethings who weren’t there for 1980 actually had our moment. This was the guy who did it. Chase was unbelievable. Jimmy was electric. Cole was phenomenal. Brad was dominant. But Ryan Howard was the train they all rode in on.

“Get me to the plate, boys,” he told them, and good God, he did it again. You were there for that. And okay, it was a double, but the gall of that guy, right? Hell, the gall of him to walk up to that plate, every time out there, and raise that bat high in the air as if every plate appearance was Ruthian. Sports Illustrated, get the photo. A living phenom for seven years, changing baseball in Philadelphia with every beautiful swing.

See, Pete, that was my twenties, my innocence, my final blow.

My twenties effectively ended in the fall of 2011. Achilles heel.

I didn’t notice him collapse in agony. I turned away, turned off the television, buried myself in a book and moved on. I let out the anger, let out the frustration, realized the fun had passed me by, that maturity had to take hold for once. And the spring arrived and he wasn’t there yet, and I wasn’t there yet.

Then he showed, and I was finally showing. I met my wife, I deconstructed myself, and he was destroyed, a different man, no longer the graceful machine of mammoth gallantry. He was struggling, gritting teeth, rolling eyes to the same sky to where he once lifted that bat. Awkward. I was beginning to come together, and he had already come apart.

I was there in those early days, when skies were blue in summer and sparkling red in autumn, and thousands of us roared so the beast could roar back. I was there just before he fell, and it all felt different. I was different. They were different. Citizens Bank Park was eerily quiet for such an enormous time, and you could only feel the simple breeze of October, not the roar. There was no roar. And he soon fell.

I was there after the fall, bringing the woman I would marry, falling in and out of love with the Phillies everyday, focusing elsewhere. He was now an enemy, a hurdle in the middle of the lineup card. These are the days you still remember, Pete. Tough days. What can you do? Charlie played him. Ryne played him. You played him. He makes the money. Maybe the spark will return. Maybe the glory will magically shove itself back through the turnstiles. You had to play him. I get it.

We cursed him, the general manager, the money, the owners, all of it. We counted the days until it ended. How far was 2016, anyway? Before we knew it another year had passed, another $25 million gone, and another poor season to read about on those blogs. More snarky comments. More laughter. Again, I get it. And I didn’t want to care. I didn’t want to think about him. But you get hooked back in, especially in the spring, always in the spring, and quickly you’re watching every pitch again until you realize, come on, he’s still there?

This year was different. He’s still there. No question marks. He dealt with family issues. He dealt with what turned out to be a snake dangling his name to wolves. Forget the snarky comments in the blogs, what the hell were we doing to Ryan Howard? So I was there in April, Citi Field, another baseball elder on the mound, and he tapped the plate, crouched, brought his bat high into the night, whirled it back behind him, and lifted a baseball into centerfield, clear over the wall.

That was the only run you scored that night, Pete. It was the only run anyone scored. We watched fireworks afterward. But I had seen them already.

One week later, Citizens Bank Park. Nationals in town. You got wrecked that night. No runs. Until very late. And it was he, another bomb, quiet and brash. We cheered, two of maybe 200 left in the crowd. Because of him.

But I can’t let that be the last time, Pete. I wasn’t prepared to understand that it could be the end. Maybe there was another game in there, another home run in there. The significance of that swat can’t measure to whatever I may feel on Saturday, as he steps up at Citi Field, and I’m sitting in left field and standing with applause. I swear I’ll stand, no matter what the Mets fans do. I’ll probably cry, too.

You have to understand that Ryan Howard was it. I was 20. I was dumb. I was young. I was anything goes. The exuberant highs, the disappointing lows, the redemption, the maturity. I’ll be 32 in a few weeks, and at any moment, at the same time, I’ll welcome my child into the world. I grew up, Pete. And he was my guy. He was it.

Please. There will be, at least, one fan in those seats Saturday evening, and he’ll be hoping beyond hope that you write him on the lineup card. You’ll make his day, make his twenties return in a rush, make him remember his eternal happiness that he’s 31 and prepared to change his world.

Thanks.

Sincerely,
Tim Malcolm

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