Top 10 of 2016

Top 10 Moments of 2016: Howard’s end

img_3333This week we’re counting down the top 10 moments of the 2016 Phillies season. 

Here is No. 2.

2. Howard’s end

There is crying in baseball.

That’s a well-worn trope at this point. Sure there’s crying in baseball. We’ll cry tears of joy when our teams win championships, and we’ll drown ourselves in tears when they lose the opportunity.

This season we cried for the family, friends and memory of Jose Fernandez, a brilliant pitcher gone far too soon and far too unfairly. And, when our favorite players leave us, or when they give us one more shining moment of graceful skill, we may feel the salt forming at our tear ducts. It’s okay. It’s really okay. We can cry.

In Philadelphia we’re reminded of Mike Schmidt, who upon realizing his body couldn’t anymore handle the rigors of the 162-game schedule, held an impromptu press conference one May day in 1989 to announce he was immediately retiring from baseball. He barely formed two sentences before he broke down in an uncontrollable fit of crying. For a moment he sounded like an eight-year-old boy who just said goodbye to his parents at the start of summer camp.

These were repressed tears of a man who so coldly buried his emotions. But by 1989 he was universally revered both nationally and locally. He was an astounding talent and wise sage. He had earned all of the plaudits. And so, without obstacles, Schmidt’s emotions poured out and showed a man who truly gave everything to baseball.

And that’s why crying in baseball shouldn’t merely be permissible but necessary. For 162 games, plus spring training, plus the postseason, plus workout time and training, players are wired to focus on baseball every day for 10 months, at least. With constant travel and the unique stress of the job, they’re challenged to keep consistent and healthy relationships with loved ones.

Their jobs are confined to doing one thing extremely well – better than 99 percent of all people in the world who do the same thing – and performing that task in front of thousands of people who typically project their emotions toward them, and millions more watching on television doing the very same thing. They’ll hear and read about their job every day, whether they want to or not, and typically can’t walk far until they’re told how much they mean to someone, or how much someone may not like them at all.

The really good ones, the ones like Schmidt, make millions of dollars, but only after years of being paid low and unfair wages and frequently not having a solid backup plan because, otherwise, life has been all about baseball. And some of the really good ones have to consider, once they earn those millions, where that money has to go. Sure you’re living comfortably, but then your family members want more, and they squander that, and they drag your name in the mud, and suddenly you don’t know who to trust or who’s on your side.

That brings us to Ryan Howard, who on Oct. 2, 2016, ostensibly ended a 16-year career with the Philadelphia Phillies organization. When he stepped out of the dugout that Sunday afternoon, the final day of the 2016 regular season, he was well aware that his relationship with the Phillies was, for now at least, ending.

Which, in itself, is odd. Howard hasn’t claimed he’s retiring; in fact, he believes he can still perform for another organization. And while his performance lacks consistent depth, he can still swat home runs, like the 25 he hit for the Phillies in 2016.

But by throwing Howard a celebratory thank-you party on the last day of the season, the Phillies were effectively telling Howard that he was being let go. No contract extensions or renewals. No talks to be had. Thanks for the 16 years of devoted service, but we’re not interested in your service anymore. Still, here’s a cake in the form of a video in front of tens of thousands of people.

Still, there was something strangely comforting about that celebration, knowing that we finally were able to celebrate one of these fallen heroes. The Boston Red Sox feted David Ortiz with gifts and praise upon his retirement. The New York Yankees gave Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera extravagant sendoffs recently. We had to watch as Jimmy Rollins was traded away, and Chase Utley was traded away, and Cole Hamels was traded away, all without proper sendoffs. Now Rollins is likely to retire; Utley may come back to us, but the sheen has faded; and Hamels will probably go another five or six good years, at least.

All we had going into 2016 were Howard and Carlos Ruiz, and then, on a random off day in August, just like that, Ruiz was gone, off to Los Angeles to join Utley in the championship chase. No goodbye there, either.

But Howard stayed, possibly because his performance wasn’t highly valued by other teams. We watched as he struck out a little more, grounded into shifts a little more, and sometimes, strike another magnificent home run into right field. Each of those final home runs felt right. His last, against Bartolo Colon in the penultimate game of the season, meant little but came at the right time. The exact right time.

The next day, Howard was set to play against the Mets. He wasn’t going to hit another home run. He wasn’t even going to get another hit. He struck out, then grounded out to first, then grounded into a double play back to the pitcher, and finally popped out to shortstop. In the top of the ninth Pete Mackanin called him back to the dugout for Tommy Joseph, and the fans stood in cheered Howard one final time.

What mattered that day, even in a 5-3 win with a seventh-inning comeback, came before the first pitch, when the Phillies carted out that video, presented Howard with a plaque and handed him the microphone. It was surreal that this was happening, that the Phillies could find the nuance to celebrate a man they were letting go, but it was strangely comforting, and it was actually necessary.

“All of this is … kind of just … come up on me really fast. I don’t really know what I was gonna say.”

Schmidt knew he was retiring, that it was over for him, but it came on fast for him, too. There’s little time to process the emotion, to understand the finality of things, whether it’s a baseball career or a relationship with the organization you called home for nearly 20 years.

“You know, like I said, I’m just a laid-back cat from St. Louis out here trying to play ball. That’s it.”

Schmidt opened his retirement speech in a similar way, mentioning being a kid from his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Of the millions of kids that play baseball every year, that strive to be the next great major leaguer, only a scarce handful actually achieve the type of success of a Mike Schmidt or a Ryan Howard.

It’s different up there. Especially combined with everything else that comes with the baseball life. It’s what he knows most, maybe loves most, maybe needs most. To know that this is the end, that possibly, nobody will want that talent from you again – here it was, finality staring him in the face.

“Just this city as whole, man. I just … I wanna thank you because I’ve grown with all of you.”

We didn’t see Jimmy Rollins cry. We didn’t – or may never – see Chase Utley cry. Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz – they didn’t cry. But we saw Ryan Howard cry at that moment. And with it, at least from this writer, came similar tears.

We cheered Howard at his best, booed him at his worst, lived and died with his swings, whether they resulted in a celebration at the plate or a collapse on the first base line. He was, in many ways, the pendulum and the lifeblood of the last 12 years of Phillies baseball – when he was high, we were high, and when he was low, we were there, too.

So we cried together that afternoon. Because baseball is an odd game that’s also big business, but it still mirrors life itself. We still have those same highs and lows. We still try to be the very best at what we do, whether at work, with family, or in ourselves.

We all want to be Ryan Howard at his best, but ultimately we’re all just Ryan Howard, everything that comes with it, and in our most revealing moments, crying under their awesome weight.

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