AT THIS POINT in my life the strongest evidence I have seen of the existence of God is the relationship between humans and dogs. Of all of the animals that inhabit the Earth, only dogs have been able to build a strong, cohabiting relationship with us. I can't believe this was an accident, so I have concluded that God gave us this gift because he knew that, as we went down the road of life, almost all of us would need a 100 percent loyal, devoted friend. (You may remember that Harry Truman famously said, "If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog!")
In forging this relationship, God made only one mistake. He gave our canine friends a lifespan barely one-sixth of ours. If you are a dog owner, you know the agony of saying goodbye to your favorite pooch. It is a horrible, gut-wrenching feeling.
The same principle holds true for our favorite sports players. The best will play for no more than 14 or 15 years and then we have to wave goodbye. When I was a kid, some six decades ago, there was no free agency and, for the most part, the stars of the team stayed in the same place for their entire careers.
That is not the case anymore, and fans of the Phillies are painfully aware of that, because eight years later, only Ryan Howard remains from our 2008 World Series Championship team.
And on Sunday, we say goodbye to Howard.
Ryan Howard has had an incredible career. In 13 years, he has hit nearly 400 home runs and driven in nearly 1,200 runs. He had the best year of any Phillies hitter in history in 2006, when he hit 58 home runs, scored 104 runs and drove in an incredible 149, while hitting for a .313 average. In 2007, when the Phils reached the NL Division Series, Howard proved that he was not a one-year wonder, by hitting 47 home runs, with 136 RBI. In 2008, he had 48 homers and 146 RBI; in 2009, when the Phillies returned to the World Series, he had 45 homers and 141 RBI.
Despite these gaudy statistics and incredible achievements, which included Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, Howard never got the credit he deserved, in part because he supplanted popular slugger Jim Thome. Although Thome played only two-plus seasons in Philadelphia, he had become one of the most popular Phillies ever. In both 2003 and 2004, Thome surpassed 40 home runs and helped turn around the franchise. But Thome's presence at first base and the fact that the NL has no designated hitter kept Howard in the minors, despite having hit 46 homers and driving 131 runs that season, between Double A Reading and Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Phillies fans surely appreciated Howard's awesome power and the fact that with him in the lineup, no lead against the Phils was safe. Despite his greatness, fans also carped about his fielding, his strikeouts and the perception that he could not hit lefthanders.
My most vivid memories of Howard will be the game he played on May 14, 2006. He was sick that day and did not start. The Phils trailed by one run, and, late in the game, manager Charlie Manuel asked Ryan whether he felt well enough to hit. Ryan said yes and hit a home run off lefthander Brandon Claussen to tie the game. Manuel asked him to stay in the game and Howard, sick as a dog, grabbed his glove and went out to first base. In the 12th inning, he hit a walkoff homer, again against a lefthander, Chris Hammond, for a 2-1 victory. That game typified Ryan Howard. He was a good guy on the field, in the clubhouse and off the field. He always represented the Phillies well and was an enduring credit to Philadelphia.
The years from 2008-2011 were magical. The Phils won 92, 93, 97 and 102 games, respectively. They drew more than 3 million fans each season to Citizens Bank Park. The reason was not solely because the Phillies were a great team but because they were fun to watch. It seemed that the Phillies were never out of a game, no matter how many runs they were behind.
Incredible comebacks became almost the norm. And one man - one man only - made the Phillies the most feared offensive team in baseball: Ryan Howard.
The spectacular things he did almost became routine, and, in some ways, we took him for granted.
They say you never know what you have until it is gone, and, with Howard, that is probably true. But let the record show he had an amazing career here, he made baseball fun, and he was a great representative of all of us.
Ryan, thanks for the memories!