It’s October 7, 2011 at Citizens Bank Park. Rally towels are waving as the crowd roars in anticipation. The count is 2-2 on the man who is to that point, the greatest slugger in Philadelphia Phillies history. He’s averaged nearly 41 home runs a season up to this day in 2011, but Ryan Howard is early on a curveball. He hits a weak ground ball into the shift, the ballgame is over, the St. Louis Cardinals win 1-0.
Howard walks off the field in silence. He needs no trainer, the only thing hurt is his pride. Some Phillies remain in the dugout to watch the Cardinals celebrate. Perhaps hoping to have the pain seared into their minds to galvanize themselves for next year’s postseason.
Howard, though, goes straight to the clubhouse. He, manager Charlie Manuel, and pitcher Roy Halladay all give postgame press conferences. Their answers are canned, none of them want to speak with the press. All Howard wants in that moment is the fresh Florida air of spring training and a new beginning.
Five months later, the club reassembles in Clearwater, Florida. They’re a year older now, for most of the players that means a year closer to 40 rather than a year closer to their prime. The average age of the 2012 Phillies is just over 31, with only the New York Yankees having an older ball club.
Philadelphia stumbles out of the starting block in April. The club that won 102 games in 2011 finishes the first month of the season 11-11. But their woes do not end there. At the All-Star break, the Phillies are 39-48. General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is giving serious consideration to trading away some of the heroes from playoff runs passed.
By July 31, Philadelphia is 49-54, somewhat more respectable, but still nine games back of the second NL Wild Card. Amaro Jr. moves impending free agent Shane Victorino to the Los Angeles Dodgers for two low-level prospects who fail to ever make the majors. Besides that, Amaro Jr. stands pat, keeping Hunter Pence and his most valuable pitching assets.
Finally, now late in the season, the Phillies begin to show real signs of life. On September 5, the Phillies cross the .500 win percentage threshold for the first time since April 19 at 69-68. They’re just five games back of the Cardinals and the second Wild Card now.
Led by Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz, and Howard, it’s beginning to seem like Philadelphia may have a shot at six straight postseasons.
Howard hits just as he has since 2010, the MVP power is gone, but beneath that is still a fearsome hitter. He has 26 home runs on September 5, and he’s batting .249/.345/.482.
However, the Phillies have lost mountains of production out of their other aging stars, like Halladay, after placing second in 2011 Cy Young voting, has missed over a month this year to injury and his ERA nears 4.00. Chase Utley has been absent almost half the season to nagging knee injuries which have plagued his entire career. Even the ever-consistent Placido Polanco has faltered at age-36. Though the Phillies are surging, cracks have already formed upon their aging core.
Yet, Philadelphia shock the baseball world who counted them out at the All-Star break. Rallying for six straight wins, the Phillies are deadlocked with the Cardinals for the second Wild Card spot on September 12. This will be their high-water mark.
The Phillies win 10 of their last 19 games, respectable, but not enough to catch the Cardinals who win 13 of their last 19. The Phillies finish the season 85-77. Ryan Howard hit 29 home runs, but faltered in the season’s final weeks.
Amaro Jr., still sure he can squeeze out another postseason run from his now elderly core, signs yet more aging stars. He brings in former Texas Ranger Michael Young to play third base and trades Vance Worley for center fielder Ben Revere to replace Victorino.
But the 2013 Phillies are much the same story as the 2012 Phillies. They win just 76 games and still, Amaro Jr. clings to his aging core. Hamels, Cliff Lee, Ruiz, Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Howard return in 2014. Between them, their average age is 34.
The Phillies continue to hemorrhage talent by refusing to trade their stars in what should be a rebuilding year. Rollins is traded after 2014, but everyone else stays.
It’s become clear that Amaro Jr. will go down with the sinking ship and he does so at the end of the 2015 season, the Phillies worst since 1972.
Still, Howard and Ruiz continue to play out their contracts. Utley was traded for peanuts at the 2015 trade deadlin, and Hamels was moved upon the Nov. 2015 arrival of Phillies new GM Matt Klentak.
2016 sees Ryan Howard hit his 400th career home run, each one of them in a Phillies uniform. Philadelphia finished in the basement again that season, despite Howard’s best efforts. Fans sell out Citizens Bank Park and applaud Howard lustily when he makes his final appearance on the last day of the 2016 season.
It’s obvious the Phillies will decline his 2017 club option. Though Howard never dropped below replacement level, his production has declined steadily since 2012. He’s a shadow from a former era of Phillies greatness. Parents in the stands on the final day hold their young children up and tell them, “There’s the man who brought Philadelphia a title.”
Howard strikes out in his final at-bat but receives a standing ovation anyways.
He retires that offseason rather than search for a minor league contract or spring training invite. He won’t make the Hall of Fame, but he finishes his career with 427 home runs, second only to Mike Schmidt in Phillies history.
Someday other Phillie greats will break that number, but few will ever be as beloved a Philadelphia icon as the man who wore number 6.
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