With a 5–2 loss to the Mets last Sunday, the Philadelphia Phillies’ season came to a merciful, much-needed end. A 71–91 record, a few mildly exciting prospects, and a fun April: That was about it this year for the franchise with 10,741 defeats to its name over 131 years—the most of any team in any major American sport, Washington Generals included.
Sunday’s game also happened to be Ryan Howard’s final game in a Phillies uniform.
Howard, the 36 year-old first baseman, was the last remaining member of the ’08 team that won the second World Series in franchise history. Though he finished with a disappointing .196 batting average this season, the Big Piece, as he was known, could still put one over the wall, tacking on 25 homers this year in limited time. Before the game, Howard, never one for sound-bites, gave a dutiful (if bland) thank-you to a raucous crowd before promptly going 0–4 with a strikeout. Such are Philadelphia sports.
It was time for Howard to go. He was already on his way down in 2011 when he was inexplicably handed a mammoth five-year contract that looked bad from the second pen touched paper, but you’d rarely hear a fan belabor him for taking the money. Howard, along with Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz, and a host of other bit players, delivered Philadelphia the best five-year stretch in franchise history from ’07–’11, winning the division every year, generally kicking more ass and taking more names than they knew what to do with.
I, like others my age, was lucky enough to experience nothing but success in my childhood introduction to the Phillies. This was a deception, of course—I know now that the Phillies tend to be soul-crushingly disappointing, seeming to blaze new and exciting paths to mediocrity year in, year out.
Eleven playoff appearances in 131 years. Chew on that for a minute.
In a way, it’s odd that Howard held on the longest. Rollins was first to be drafted and the first to go, and the brash shortstop always seemed to believe the team was better than it was; Utley, the stoic one, had only two moments of personality in over a decade, and both involved the word “fuck”; Hamels (who, early in his career, was never mentioned without another reminder that he had married “that girl from ‘Survivor’”) was the youngest, and clearly had some good years on him when he left; and as for Ruiz, aka Chooch, the dude was so squat and catcher-like that you figured he’d last forever.
And yet it was Howard, he of the paper ankles, who was left standing when all was said and done.
They got the title together in ’08, and that mattered deeply, though any Phillies fan would tell you that they weren’t even the best team during the run. (Shout-out to 2011 Cardinals for ripping my heart out.) The best years were defined by a bonkers offense that shredded opposing pitchers from top to bottom. The beginning of the end came when they started stockpiling aging aces.
They could be deeply frustrating, able to put up a 10-spot in a shutout only to lose 1–0 the next day. Howard struck out close to 200 times a season (maybe 199 of those on a curveball), Rollins must’ve led the league in first-pitch pop-ups, and Utley couldn’t stay on the field. But after ’07—coming back from a 7.5-game deficit, with 17 games to play to win the division and stick it to the Mets—it was impossible to stay angry.
Rollins retired first, and as for the rest, they only come through wearing the other team’s uniform now. They’ll get their numbers retired, they’ll hit the Wall of Fame, the whole nine yards. Maybe when I’m in my 50s, we’ll put together another decent run.
In the meantime, I’ll remember the team I listened to on my grandfather’s transistor radio on the beach in Ocean City, straining to hear Larry Anderson describe a ninth-inning comeback over the crashing waves.