Ford: Goodbye to Ryan Howard, and a Phillies era for the ages

The last receding wave of the longest ebbing tide will slip into the cold depths of history on Sunday when Ryan Howard walks off the field at Citizens Bank Park for the final time as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

All the others are already gone, all the links to arguably the best sustained stretch of baseball ever played by the franchise. The position players from 2011, when the Phils won 102 games and their fifth straight division championship, but were headed for disaster none could have anticipated, drifted away before him one by one.

Raul Ibanez, Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, and Placido Polanco - the supporting actors - were gone by the end of 2012. The core group took longer to pry from the withering vine, with Jimmy Rollins departing in 2014, Chase Utley in 2015, then Carlos Ruiz this season. That left only Howard, and not as much of him as there used to be. He will finish batting lower than .200, and having experienced a season in which his manager struggled to keep putting him in the lineup.

It wasn't a dignified conclusion to what had been an era of greatness, but it was the ending baseball chose for the slugger who is the last one out the door, the one most responsible for the winning and the one whose injury was a cymbal clash that signaled its end.

The Phillies have now been out of the postseason for just as long as they were part of it during that amazing run. It's remarkable that all the playoff memories were crammed into just five years, and more remarkable that five seasons have passed since those became nothing more than memories.

You could argue that the seasons from 1976 to 1983, when the Phils were in the playoffs six of eight years, were just as good or better than the more recent era. That stretch was also built around a slugger, also included two World Series and one title, and also ended with a slide into mediocrity. What can't be argued is that those are the only two eras worth mentioning in franchise history, containing 11 of the team's 14 postseason appearances. Considering the legacy of a team that has several times gone decades without doing much of anything, the most amazing thing might be that they happened at all.

Howard and Mike Schmidt form an interesting comparison, if only because Howard was never questioned before he lost his skills, and Schmidt was never embraced until after he did. Howard's obvious importance to the team's success far outweighed his many strikeouts when the Phils were winning. Schmidt was never given the same pass. But on the flip side of their careers, where Howard's recent flailings at the plate were viewed as pathetic, Schmidt's late failures were almost heroic, an aloof demigod become mortal whose sword increasingly betrays him.

Maybe the money was the difference, which certainly wasn't Howard's fault. He wanted to keep playing baseball - he still wants to play baseball - and the contract chained him to the Phillies and they to him. Schmidt is often praised for walking away in the middle of a season, announcing his retirement at the end of May in 1989, hitting .203 and after a 72-at-bat stretch without a home run. It's worth mentioning that he was 39, however, had been scuffling for more than a full season, and wasn't leaving $25 million on the table.

Comparing individual players and full teams across the wide sea of time is impossible, and usually overlooks the more distant shores. No one is still around to argue that Gavvy Cravath, who carried the Phillies to the 1915 World Series, leading the league in runs, home runs, runs batted in, walks, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, was more important to his team than either Schmidt or Howard. Could be true.

Regardless, none of them, not Schmidt, not Cravath, not Del Ennis from the 1950 team, not pick-your-star from 1993, had to go through the exit Ryan Howard has endured. Yes, he got paid for it, but being the last guest from the great party, the one still lingering after the dogs have eaten the fallen hors d'oeuvres and the paper lanterns have tumbled into the pool, is an uncomfortable spot.

Howard probably deserved better. He kept the memory alive, stretching his right arm straight at the pitcher with the club upraised and lethal. It looked the same, even though everything else was different, and he could bring back the moments with a quick, unexpected flick of that bat. The era ends now. You can turn out that last light, wave that final goodbye, and focus on what might lie ahead. The hard-learned truth, however, is that it probably won't be as good.

There aren't that many successes to sort through in franchise history, not that many displays of true greatness. The one that takes its final steps on Sunday was just a short time here, but it will be a long time gone.