Donnellon: Thanks for the memories, Ryan Howard

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Phillies slugger Ryan Howard earned the nickname "The Big Piece."

A decade ago, on a sunny September Sunday not unlike the one currently predicted for nine days from now, Ryan Howard hit three consecutive home runs off Atlanta Braves starter Tim Hudson, each to a different part of the field, each hit farther than the previous one - the last, according to the pitcher, "a four-seamer up and away, off the plate . . .

Hudson, who was in the prime of a 17-year, 222-win career, called it "impressive."

Howard was in his first full season, and his best one. He finished with 58 home runs and 149 runs batted in and batted .313 and when it ended, he was named the National League's Most Valuable Player.

He made $355,000 that season.

He was already 26, a few months short of 27, but he looked and acted much younger. When a fan sought an autograph as Howard entered his car later that afternoon, he obliged on the condition that the fan race his brother on foot.

"The Big Piece," as manager Charlie Manuel would soon enough dub him, served as the finish line.

This is my favorite Ryan Howard memory. Not the 500-foot shot into Ashburn Alley that season, or any of those many other interstellar moments. Not the two-homer, five-RBI Game 4 of the 2008 World Series. Or the time in June 2009 when he bashed a pinch-hit home run after being hospitalized with a 104-degree fever earlier in the day; he went back to the hospital later that night.

Those are the supersized moments that earned a nickname and a lot of money and, unfortunately, a lot of heartache, too. We got a pretty good deal in 2006, and again in '07, when the Phillies gave him a bump to $900,000. But that was understandably forgotten over the last few frustratingly overpaid seasons or, in the case of teenage fans who barely remember that guy, never recorded.

So one week from today, Howard will play the first of his last three home games as a Phillie. With no Eagles game scheduled and the wild-card-contending Mets in town, there were already likely to be more fans in the stands at Citizens Bank Park than might be expected, but this last hurrah, arranged by his current, appreciative manager, makes that a virtual certainty.

It was on Pete Mackanin's watch that Howard became a part-time player, pinned to the team and to the National League by a contract that seemed excessive at its start, and ludicrous by its end. We will always wonder what might have been without it, whether Howard long ago would have made it to the other, more accommodating league where only his bat would be used, whether the Achilles' tear that triggered his rapid decline from messiah to pariah would have even occurred in the absence of playing the field for all but a handful of games.

What we don't wonder is how, after living among the gods for the second part of the last decade, he would handle his imminent humanity. He swallowed his bitter pills with dignity mostly, the bubbling over of frustration more rare than recurring - something not lost on one of the major sources of that frustration.

"He's been so good about the whole thing," Mackanin said last week. "I want to give him something."

We all do. Or we all should.

There will undoubtedly be ovations, especially each time he comes to bat on that final Sunday. There will be a thankful absence of vitriol as there has been for most of his appearances this season, a season that will end with him as the last man standing from a team that nightly buzzed the new building.

From the September day in 2004 when he first joined the team, to that fateful October day in 2011 when he crumpled to the ground a few feet from the batter's box, the Phillies recorded winning seasons, winning some type of a title over the last five, including a world championship in 2008.

For three seasons from 2007 through 2009, they bludgeoned teams more than just beat them. They swaggered and strutted, and they supplanted the Mets and the Braves as the team that other teams' fans loved to hate.

Above all, they created a generation of young baseball fans in these parts, people now in their 20s and early 30s.

People who don't just hope the current crop of prospects brings another era like that one.

They expect it.

Well, here's the sobering news for those folks. They will need to find another big piece if this next era is to even slightly resemble the previous one. Maybe not as big as the one who will cast one last, long shadow upon us next weekend.

But at least someone good enough that we reflect on that time The Big Piece hammered Hudson's waste pitch over the leftfield wall, or blew off a 104-degree fever to once again blow our minds.


donnels@phillynews.com

@samdonnellon

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