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October 02, 2016

Ryan Howard's emotional last day: 'It will be with me forever'

While everyone else was clearing out their locker spaces, exchanging handshakes, or heading out the door, Freddy Galvis grabbed one of the giveaways from Fan Appreciation Day on Sunday, an oversized cardboard cutout of Ryan Howard’s head attached to a popsicle stick, and attempted to prop it up above his stall, over his name card.

As Howard posed for photos with members of the public relations staff, and reporters scrambled to talk to players headed out for the offseason, the soon-to-be longest tenured Philadelphia Phillie fumbled with the giveaway before getting it to rest above him. After 13 memorable seasons, Ryan Howard’s Phillies career had just come to an end and Galvis tried to pay a very small homage.

“It was emotional,” Galvis said. “For a person who has done a lot for this team and this city and this sport, him leaving this team right now, he’s done everything and done everything that’s been asked of him, winning the Rookie of the Year, MVP, World Series. He helped the city. He’s a one of a kind of person.”

The 26-year-old Galvis, who played with Howard for five seasons, said it was difficult to watch the former MVP say goodbye during a moving pregame ceremony prior to Sunday’s game, an inconsequential 5-2 victory over the New York Mets.

As that ceremony began, with a highlight reel video playing on Phanavision, Tommy Joseph and Cody Asche were leaning over the rail right next to Howard.

“Cody’s like, ‘We should probably scoot away,’” Joseph said afterward. “It was neat at first. You want to talk to him during that video, seeing those homers and you want to be like, ‘Dude what are you thinking there? That was awesome.’ But then you (realize) this his moment.”

The final day of the 2016 regular season was Howard’s moment at Citizens Bank Park.

It was his final game in a Phillies uniform. It was a recognition of his iconic 13-year stay in Philadelphia.

It was an emotional goodbye for the 36-year-old Howard, who is set to file for free agency for the first time in his professional career next month.

“Today is a day I'll definitely remember,” he told the crowd of 36,935 inside the ballpark after the game’s final out. “Philadelphia will always be home.”

Afterward, Howard retired to the press conference room at Citizens Bank Park, where he was joined at the dais with his teenage son, Darian, and his young daughter, Ariana, trying to process a day when the emotions were on overdrive at every turn.

“It was a rollercoaster, man,” Howard said “I’m not going to lie. It was crazy. I really didn’t know what to expect, what the organization was going to do, how I was going to feel. But, getting out there, seeing the people, seeing the different videos. Everything just all kind of came in and hit me all at once. It was great. It was great today. I’m still trying to register it.”

The goodbye could have been somewhat awkward. The Phillies hold a $23 million club option on Howard’s contract for the 2017 season and cannot announce that they are, instead, opting to activate a $10 million buy-out until after the World Series.

Even though everyone knows what’s coming – from the front office, to the fans, to Howard himself – it’s not official. Even general manager Matt Klentak admitted a few weeks ago that he wasn’t sure how they would honor Howard since it could be “irresponsible” or “premature” to formally announce he couldn’t be coming back.

It could have been awkward, but, instead, it was one of the most emotional, memorable, and enjoyable days at Citizens Bank Park in the last half decade.

Howard was presented with multiple gifts, include a baseball-shaped plaque commemorating his franchise record 58th home run in 2006. He received one of the plaques while an identical one was placed among the outfield seats where the ball landed.

Darian Howard, now a high school sophomore and a budding baseball prospect in his own right, had the honor of putting the plaque in place while his father watched from outside the home dugout. Howard had “no clue” his son would be a part of the pregame ceremony.

“That as definitely something special,” he said. “Because he’s basically grown up here as well, from the ’06 Home Run Derby, all the years after that, coming in, knowing the guys and being a part of the group, just being one of the guys, it’s amazing to have him be a part of it as well.”

Both before and after the game, Howard was at the microphone thanking the fans. Like the rest of the afternoon, that, too, was surreal.

For better or worse, there were two acts of Howard’s memorable Philadelphia story.

There was taking over for Hall of Famer Jim Thome and becoming an instant star, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 and the NL MVP the next year, averaging 44 home runs and 133 RBI in his first full six big league seasons and serving as the big piece to a Phillies lineup that won five straight division titles, two NL pennants, and a World Series. And then there was the Achilles’ injury on the play of the final game of 2011 NLDS, the lengthy rehab that followed, the physical toll it took on the rest of his body, and the $125 million contract that was strapped to his back throughout those years that he couldn’t escape.

The former brought unwavering adoration, represented by a sell-out streak that made Citizens Bank Park the summer’s hottest place in Philadelphia during the golden years of the Phillies' 2007-11 reign. The latter led to those cheers quickly morphing into boos.

Throw in the legal dramas he would also endure (first with members of his family suing him to claim a piece of his career earnings, then with an erroneous report from Al Jazeera TV claiming PED usage) and it was not always easy for Ryan Howard to show up to the ballpark eager for a day’s work in recent years.

Howard reported to spring training this year at peace, however. He seemed content with where he was in his career.

The 2016 season was tumultuous at times – he lost his starting job in June – but Howard never quit and managed to find his power stroke as the weather warmed. Howard’s 10.00 at-bat-per-home run rate was the best in the National League since the All-Star break, second only to New York Yankees rookie Gary Sanchez (9.85) among major league players.

Like Howard, Phillies fans, too, were at peace with the Big Piece. He received a warm curtain call two months ago, when he hit a go-ahead grand slam on the night the man he replaced, Jim Thome, was inducted into the team’s Wall of Fame.

He was cheered throughout the season’s last month, no more than this weekend, when everyone in the ballpark attempted to give him standing ovations each time he stepped to the plate. It was their way of thanking Howard for all of the memories.

Howard grabbed the microphone both before and after the game and thanked them back.

“I want to thank the city as a whole, because I've grown with all of you," Howard, choking back tears. "My family has grown with all of you. … Thank you again from the bottom of my heart.”

The emotion was real, and maybe the closest thing the Phillies had seen since Mike Schmidt, who was also a part of Sunday’s ceremonies, read through his retirement speech through tears 27 years ago.

“I still want to play and I know there's more in the tank,” said Howard, who turns 37 in November. “I tell my wife all the time, ‘I'll know when it's time when there's no more to put out there, lay out there.’"

“I called him a crybaby,” manager Pete Mackanin joked later. “But I must admit I had a little tear welled up in my eye. It was pretty different kind of day.”

Different, but in a very good way.

“Kind of a bittersweet day,” Mackanin said. “But all in all, I’m glad he got to feel that affection from the fans.”

Unlike many of the other key members of the 2008 World Champions, Howard was never traded to a contender for an opportunity to return to the postseason. While Cole Hamels went to Texas and Shane Victorino went to Boston, Chase Utley to Los Angeles and Jayson Werth to Washington, and so on, Howard rode out the last five years with a team that never finished with a winning record after he ruptured his Achilles’.

But while those players all received hearty ovations upon their returns to South Philly – with the exception of Werth – none of them received anywhere near the emotional goodbye.

“It was awesome,” Joseph said, saying the day was the best highlight of his season, aside from making his major league debut. “A salute to the fans for doing that because that man deserved it. That man earned it.”

“The last few days, we could see that coming back again, those days when everyone was yelling his name,” Galvis said. “It was pretty good. And I think that’s how you should remember him and this team. A person who has done everything for this team. That’s how he has to be remembered in Philadelphia.”

Howard may not be checking into Clearwater, Fla., with Galvis, Joseph, and others in fourth months, But he doesn’t plan on the 2016 season marking the end of his playing career.

The final three months of the season recharged him.

“I still want to play and I know there's more in the tank,” said Howard, who turns 37 in November. “I tell my wife all the time, ‘I'll know when it's time when there's no more to put out there, lay out there.’ I just want to get it all out of the tank and have no regrets. I don't want to sit at home and be like, I wish I could still go out there and play. I don't want to have those kinds of thoughts.”

But in the top of the ninth inning on Sunday, Howard’s Phillies career came to a ceremonial end.

Following his at-bat in the eighth inning, Howard took the field with his teammates in the top half of the ninth. But before Hector Neris threw a pitch, Joseph came out to take over for Howard at first base.

“Just to be on the receiving end of that, that’s a special thing,” said Joseph, who was in the somewhat uncomfortable position of taking Howard’s job three months ago.

“I never felt uncomfortable being able to go to him and talk to him about anything, Joseph said. “He never made me feel like he was the man on top and I was still trying to hunt him. … That guy just made me feel like another one of us, like we were on a level playing field when in reality we’re not. That guy is a special player and a special human.”

And on Sunday, that special player got a much-deserved special goodbye.

“Amazing,” Howard said. “The appreciation from the organization and the fans, you can’t ask for it. When I came here, I was looking at it as trying to go out here and just do a job and play baseball and do it to the best of my ability. To go out today and be recognized for it in the way it was recognized, it will be with me forever.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21