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A look back at Ryan Howard's Phillies legacy

The veteran first baseman, who signed a minor-league contract Thursday with Atlanta, was the Phillies' last link to the 2008 World Series championship.

Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard.
Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Note: Ryan Howard signed a minor-league contract Thursday with the Atlanta Braves. This article was first posted in late September.

Ryan Howard marched to the plate. It was five minutes past 11 on a crisp October night when every pitch here mattered. He clutched his bat with two hands and stretched his arms above his head. He took two practice swings while he stared at the dirt. He patted his right elbow. He reaffixed his white batting gloves. He put his left hand to his mouth, and then his chest. There were two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run elimination game.

Think about this moment again but not in the way you have thought about it for the last five years. The moment when everything was still possible with one swing, before Howard's left Achilles tendon snapped, and the rest of his life began.

The fans stood inside Citizens Bank Park for a nervous lull. How many times had he amazed you before? That day he slugged three homers, and a man intruded onto the Citizens Bank Park grass to bow at his feet. The incredulity in Harry Kalas' voice with a crack of the bat: "Oh, that's . . . Could this be another one? Could this be? It is! Way outta here, into the Braves bullpen! Number 51 for Ryan Howard." There were seven more in 2006. Fifty eight. Say that ridiculous number aloud. And the dog piles, all of the dog piles. "Get me to the plate, boys," he said, and you believed in it.

He is the last link to 2008. No one before him received the kind of formal farewell that Howard, 36, will this weekend. There is irony in that; Howard is the most complicated figure from those halcyon days. He is less defined now in his current state by 58 homers or MVP labels than by five years and $125 million.

The general managers who drafted him and signed him to the contract extension were fired. His manager was fired. His teammates, discarded and traded and retired, used newspaper ads and highway billboards for their goodbyes. He is the last Phillies player born in the '70s. His current general manager is younger than he.

The greatest first baseman in franchise history was booed, benched, the target of a beer bottle. He was awkwardly stuck between eras of Phillies baseball.

"If anyone can take it, it's Ryan Howard," Charlie Manuel said last week. "I believe that. Really. Ryan Howard is mentally tough. We can say anything we want to about him. He can handle all of that."

Five years ago, Howard planted his feet in the batter's box. He looked up and stared ahead. He pointed his bat toward Chris Carpenter and whirled it back above his head. A fresh roar flowed through the ballpark.

The sound. When Jerry Lafferty was a young scout, Buck O'Neil told him about the sound of the most powerful swings. The sound he had heard three times in his life. Babe Ruth. Josh Gibson. Bo Jackson. In the modern game, there is a number for everything, and the sound is measured in exit velocity. The sound, then, is reduced to antiquated scout talk. A mere anecdote in a story like this.

"His sound was quite different than other players," Lafferty said about Howard. "It's difficult to describe, but the thing about it was, it's what I call a sharp, loud quickness. When that occurred, the baseball traveled a great deal of distance at a very high rate of speed."

Lafferty is 70 now, a part-time scout for the Kansas City Royals with a strong Midwest twang, and often fights memory loss. The Phillies fired him after the 2009 season, soon after they flew Lafferty and his son to Citizens Bank Park to see a World Series game.

Years before, a former 49th-round pick by the Phillies whose professional career lasted nine games for the 1987 Utica Blue Sox called Lafferty. Corey Smith became part of the scout's network. "You better come see this guy," Smith had said about Howard, a sophomore at a suburban St. Louis high school.

Lafferty watched. He heard the sound.

"Just grow up, son," Lafferty said. "It's a matter of time."

The old scout admits to a little egoism. He has championship rings, rings that will forever be in his family because he believed in the sound. Howard, Lafferty said, was always gracious. They have not spoken in years. That is fine.

"Ryan Howard provided for me, and I'm deeply appreciative for things like that," Lafferty said. "It provides me a legacy for my children and my grandchildren. Especially with my children and my wonderful wife, when they ask, 'What were you doing all this time you were gone away from us?' "

Howard's high school coach, Steve Miller, says, "If you talk to his parents, it will help you understand Ryan. They're such supportive people, of their kids, of this school. It's such a good family."

You ask Ryan about it and he says, "What do I carry most from them? From my mom, it's common sense. Everything is about using your common sense, being courteous, stuff like that. From my dad, I get my aggressiveness, that fire to want to be the best."

You tell this to Ron and Cheryl and they are proud and embarrassed simultaneously. They clearly do not want to talk about themselves. Their focus, instead, is on a son doing what he always wanted to do - and drawing national attention in the process.

- Daily News, Aug. 28, 2006

The pings of aluminum bats on baseballs penetrated a gentrified block. The sun had set on a quiet weeknight at 17th and Fitzwater Streets, in the heart of this now-desirable neighborhood filled with $410,000 rowhomes.

Opposite them, Marian Anderson Recreation Center has not changed much since it was built in 1953. Twelve years ago, when the push for a Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy began, officials protected the land adjacent to the rec center. It was christened earlier this year as the Ryan Howard Training Center. He donated essential money and showed interest in the project.

A dozen teenagers recently took batting practice across three pristine indoor cages as Wale and Lil' Wayne blasted from a speaker. The turf still smelled new.

"This building means a lot," Jahli Hendricks said.

When Howard rode a flatbed truck down Broad Street, Hendricks went to the parade as a 7-year-old kid from East Oak Lane. Now he is 15, a veteran of the fruitful Anderson Monarchs youth baseball program. He tasted Little League fame two summers ago with Taney. He wants to play college baseball. His favorite player is Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips. This winter, when it is not possible to practice outside, Hendricks will come to 17th and Fitzwater.

The building's existence, dedicated in a lengthy July ceremony filled with politicians and congratulations, is convoluted. Its construction was delayed for years. Some promises remain unfulfilled; the facility does not compare to academies commissioned by MLB in other cities. Steve Bandura, a city employee who runs the Monarchs program, has planned fund-raisers to add elements to the academy.

That's later. On a weeknight earlier this month, Bandura threw batting practice. A nearby iPad filmed the teenage hitters' swings. Bandura would later sync the tablet to a flat-screen TV and dissect the good and the bad with his players.

Before that, a volunteer coach grabbed the remote and flipped channels as the workout concluded. Three miles south, the Phillies played a meaningless game with Howard on the bench. The coach found the Yankees-Red Sox game. "Oh, Yankees winning?" one of the Monarch hitters said. A few gathered to watch.

Above the screen, on the wall, a silhouette of Howard pointed his bat toward an imaginary pitcher.

By late 2011, Ryan had become concerned with whether Corey and his other family members were really working to protect his financial interests or were attempting to enrich themselves at his expense. Ryan told his father he wanted to take over his own affairs and have his family just be family. Ron Howard replied that, if Ryan wanted him to walk away from Ryan's business affairs, Ron should receive $5 million himself and Cheryl should receive another $5 million.

- Paragraph 48 in a countersuit filed Jan. 27, 2014, by Ryan Howard against his twin brother, Corey, who sued for $2.8 million. The brothers settled out of court in September 2014.

For years, Jayson Werth watched from the on-deck circle. "The best seat in the house," Werth said. The Washington Nationals outfielder reclined earlier this month inside the visitors clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park and thought about Howard's at-bats. The most vivid one, a double on a cold 2009 night in Colorado when a postseason legend was born.

But Werth's mind wandered to 2010, when another sellout crowd in South Philadelphia thinned because the game against Houston slumbered into its fifth hour. Howard checked his swing in the 14th inning of a tie game. A minor-league replacement umpire named Scott Barry said he went around. Strike three.

"A big spot," Werth said. "All these games meant so much to everybody. So they were all high strung."

Howard, enraged, chucked his bat. The inexperienced Barry issued a swift ejection. Howard charged toward third base. He had to be restrained by a coach, a player and another umpire. It was just his second career ejection, and it forced the Phillies to insert pitcher Roy Oswalt in left field. They lost the game in 16 innings.

"You never see him act like that, right?" Werth said.

In the 24 hours that followed, Werth said, Barry received threats from Phillies fans. "It wasn't good for him," Werth said. The late-August series continued. Two nights later, Barry was the first-base umpire. His teammates wondered how Howard would handle it.

"The biggest teddy bear there is," Werth said. "He smoothed the whole thing over. You could tell he just put Scott Barry's mind at ease. He made him feel OK. That's how Ryan is. He can roll with any situation. He can make everything OK."

Werth paused.

"No one would have handled this situation that he's going through now as well as he did," Werth said. "He's been a total professional. A stand-up guy. That's Ryan. I don't know why I thought of that story."

The night everything changed for the Phillies and Howard, he took four steps and crumbled. He pulled himself up, hobbled for 11 more steps and collapsed 60 feet from first base, where the Cardinals celebrated. He had made the final out for the second straight season.

"It was so painful to watch, to see him take the final swing," David Montgomery said. "The game's over, and there he is trying to get up and run it out."

Montgomery, as the team's president, did not often visit the clubhouse. He had an office; so did the players. But, on Oct. 7, 2011, Montgomery felt compelled to head downstairs. He walked back to the trainer's room and found Howard splayed on a table.

"I'm sorry," Howard told Montgomery.

"What do you mean you're sorry?" Montgomery said.

"I let you down," Howard said. "I let the Phillies down."

As Montgomery withstood jaw cancer in recent years, he watched Howard's subsequent decline with remorse. For him, those five words are profound.

"He obviously didn't know all the challenges that lay ahead of him at that point - between his leg, the infection, and the knee," Montgomery said. "But it changed his whole career. And here he was that night saying, 'I let the Phillies down.' "

Time, Montgomery said, will be good to Ryan Howard. Philadelphia saw the best of Howard, and it cringed at the worst. He bore so much for us to see. He hid still more beneath that familiar pose, his outstretched bat an exclamation point before every pitch.

"To me," Montgomery said, "he was the consummate man to be in the middle of the lineup."