The final and perhaps most telling test of Ryan Howard's career isn't about his ability to play baseball at an elite level with a professionalism and drive that few can match. Howard passed that exam a long time ago, and nothing about what will transpire between now and the end of the season can diminish his enormous role in the best sustained stretch of baseball in Phillies franchise history.
Ryan Howard's last test will arrive instead when manager Pete Mackanin announces that Howard is no longer the team's first baseman, with the exception of the occasional day off for Tommy Joseph. That announcement has to come shortly, and the test is whether Howard can be as great a baseball player when he doesn't play as he has been when he does.
Taking Howard out of the lineup is a momentous passage for the team, and many expect it will have to be accompanied by some dramatic action. Some think Howard would or should simply retire. Some think the Phillies should buy out the remainder of their contract with him - a figure somewhere around $28 million - or at least reach a settlement that allows Howard to keep face but still disappear.
The truth is that nothing very dramatic has to happen. Howard just has to keep coming to work every day. He has to prepare as he always has. He has to take extra batting practice and do his running and weight work. He has to show a young clubhouse what it takes to succeed at this level. He has to respect the decisions and authority of the manager. He has to sit on the bench and encourage the others, and be the first one on the top step of the dugout to greet a runner who scores. To sum it up, he has to be a big-leaguer.
Howard knows exactly how to do all of that, and if he does it for the next four months, he'll have earned every dime. And that's really a lot of dimes for clapping and taking BP.
Mackanin is forced to make this change. The numbers speak for themselves, but the overriding reason is that it is a lot more important to find out if Joseph can hit righthanders than it is to confirm further that Howard cannot hit lefthanders. It might be that Joseph isn't going to be the next thing, but he deserves the full shot at it, and Howard no longer deserves to receive charity at-bats because of what is on the back of his baseball card.
It's too late to change the fact that Howard will be remembered, at least partly, as a guy who played well beyond his peak years as the Phils waited out the terms of his $125 million contract. Since tearing his Achilles at the end of the 2011 season, when he had a career batting average of .275, Howard has hit .227. He averaged 38 home runs for every 500 at-bats to that point, and has averaged 23 per 500 at-bats since.
Despite those numbers and pages and pages of other statistics, Howard defiantly defended his place on the field during spring training.
"Last year is last year. This is a fresh year," he said. "Just as last year was bad, this year I can go out and hit .300 against lefties. Then what do you say? If I was able to go out and hit .300 against lefties, then what?"
It isn't a question anyone had to answer, however. Howard, who has hit .182 against lefthanders since the 2012 season, wasn't given much opportunity for further failure this season. He has two hits in just 15 at-bats against lefthanders. And, unfortunately, he hasn't done much against righthanders, either. After Howard got one hit in five at-bats as a designated hitter in Detroit on Wednesday afternoon, his overall average is .160, and he's hitting .105 in May.
The truth is that Howard would have been removed from the lineup a lot sooner if there had been a player who came along to push him out. Darin Ruf, who turns 30 in July, never fulfilled the promise of a 38-home run season in Reading in 2012. None of the others who have found themselves at first base aside from Howard since 2012 were serious contenders to move him off the spot. (The list: Andres Blanco, Emmanuel Burriss, Maikel Franco, Kevin Frandsen, Erik Kratz, Hector Luna, John Mayberry, Wil Nieves, Laynce Nix, Jim Thome, Chase Utley, Ty Wiggington, Michael Young.) Now, Joseph has come along, and Howard will have to step aside.
With an off-day on Thursday before the Phillies open a weekend series in Chicago against lefthander Jon Lester, the timing is right for Mackanin to make his move. Howard was the DH for three games against the Tigers, going 2 for 13, all against righthanders. It really is time.
That means Howard will take on the last test of his career. He'll be a good teammate. He'll pinch hit now and then. He'll get a very occasional game at first base. There will only be as much drama as he chooses to create.
Greatness can be defined several ways. Ryan Howard will get a chance for the rest of the season to redefine his own.