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Thank You, Philly

Sep 4 2018
Photo by
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Photo by
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Sep 4 2018
I

t’s been 14 years, almost to the day.

September 1st, 2004 — that was the first time that I set foot inside the Phillies’ clubhouse: home against the Braves, during Citizens Bank Park’s inaugural season, for my Major League debut.

There were a thousand different thoughts swirling around in my head at that moment, but none of them more than this: I just didn’t know what to expect. For one, I wasn’t really that close with any of the guys on the team yet. But then besides that?

There was also the whole “Philly” thing.

I’d been hearing for years about how famous the fans in Philly were for being hard on their own players. And about how, if I didn’t meet expectations, and meet them quickly, well, those fans — they were going to let me hear about it.

It was basically the same advice from everyone, over and over: Philadelphia’s tough. And if you want to survive there? You have to get tough, too.

But you also have to understand: Things were a little different back then. The “drought,” man, that was real. When I came up, it had been over two decades since a Philly team had won a title in a major sport. There’d been more than a few heartbreakers over the years. And so those fans, you know…. to me, I’d always thought they were maybe a little misunderstood. Because if there’s one thing that I was always able to relate to as a player, it was hunger. From Little League, to college ball, to the Draft, to my path through the minors, and feeling like I was ready for my shot at the majors before that shot would come: I came up as a player with a sort of permanent hunger inside of me. The hunger to prove people wrong.

And the hunger to win.

So when I’d hear that Philadelphia was “hard on its players,” it’s funny — I’d just be like, Alright, well, that’s my kind of town. I related to that. Because as much as I was this big, quiet, laid-back kid from St. Louis, at heart….. I was also hard on myself, in a way, you know? And I mean that in the best sense possible. To me, “being hard on yourself” — it’s just another way of saying “having passion for the game.” It’s just another way of saying “high expectations.” It’s that hunger to win, shining through.

And I saw Philly as having that hunger to win — same as mine.

Susan L. Angstadt/Reading Eagle/AP Images

But no matter how much you think things through, going into your call-up, and no matter how ready you feel to get out there…. there’s still nothing that can prepare you for when it actually happens.

And there’s even less that can prepare you for your number getting called up to the plate.

I’ll never forget it.

I was sitting in the dugout, trying to focus on the game — but mostly I was just.… well, mostly I was just waiting. Mostly I was just sitting there, minding my own business, and sticking to that rookie mantra of being seen and not heard. But then as the top of the fifth was ending, our bench coach, Gary Varsho, came right up to me.

“Big man — next time up, you’re going to hit for Padilla.”

It’s hard to explain the mix of feelings passing through me in that moment. Part of me, of course, was just like, ALRIGHT — LET’S DO THIS. It’s like I said, you know?? I was hungry, man. I was hungry for that call-up, hungry for this opportunity. So I definitely had that natural confidence working — that sudden surge of adrenaline that comes with being young and jacked and ready.

But I’ll tell you what.

Don’t let that fool you. I was also nervous. I mean, how could I not have been? That’s the thing with your big-league debut: You can prepare for it all your life, you can do all the right things, you can plan it all out in your head, second by second. But it isn’t going to matter.

When it’s time — when it’s actually time? There’s going to be nothing like it. And the nerves are going to be there.

I step onto the gravel, make my way toward the field. Grab the pine tar, grab the pine tar stick. And as I walk up to the on-deck circle, I just sort of take a look around. Man, there are so many people here. So.… many.… Phillies fans. And all of a sudden, you know, my mind’s kind of racing again: Are they going to cheer me? Are they going to know me? Are they going to just be silent — maybe they won’t even care?? It was like meeting 40,000 new people, for the very first time … all at the same time. I genuinely had no idea what to expect.

And then they called my name.

“Pinch-hitting for Vicente Padilla……. number 12…. Ryan Howard!”

And the crowd?

Man….. the crowd just ROARED.

I mean, I’ve never heard anything like it. Those fans at Citizens Bank — they erupted for me. It really felt like all of Philly was there.

This might sound weird, but it honestly felt like they were trying to tell me something, that day, in a way. Like they were telling me, You think YOU’VE been waiting for this moment?! Well, now you know how much WE’VE been waiting for this moment, too.

It’s like they were telling me, You’re family, now. You’re one of us. And this special thing that we’ve got going here — starting tonight, you’re a part of that.

Howard Smith/USA TODAY Sports

And that was it.… my Major League debut. Fourteen years ago, almost to the day.

And now here I am, 14 years later, writing you this letter.

I’m officially announcing my retirement from the game of baseball.

It’s almost like I blinked, you know? It’s almost like I blinked — and suddenly, September 2004 … it became September 2018.

But I also know that I didn’t blink. I know that it happened. I know that every up, every down, every high, every low … it all happened.

And that’s definitely something I’ve learned, one way or another, over these last 14 years: How, in baseball, man…… you truly do have to take the all of it. You truly don’t get your share of the sweet, in this game, without taking your share of the sour.

One night, you’re going 0 for 4 against a guy you know you can handle … another night, you’re hitting three homers in a single game off of Tim Hudson. One minute, you’re getting your butt swept by the Rockies, in the Divisional Round of ’07 … another minute, you’re holding up that big, shiny trophy, after winning the World Series in ’08.

And I think, in many ways, that was just sort of the arc of my entire career: some tough setbacks near the beginning, with that long wait in the minors, and those trade rumors before I got called up……. and then — I’ll be frank: a pretty disappointing setback toward the end, with that loss to the Cardinals in ’11, and tearing my achilles.

My career, man, it had some interesting bookends.

But in between? During the heart of it all?

I’ll tell you what — it was a dream come true.

There was my first home run: pinch-hit, two runs, at Shea on September 11th in ’04. Caught a 2–0 pitch to right center, real good. And I mean, real good. Pretty much a no-doubter. But it’s funny, because, as soon as it left my bat, the great Mike Cameron started giving chase to it….. and, man…. listen: no matter how many homers you’ve hit at other levels? There’s still that little bit of hesitation before your first big-league bomb goes over the fence. There’s still that tiny part of you, inside, that’s like, Hang on. I got all of that, definitely, right? Or at least I think I think I got all of that. Or, wait. Did I get all of that?? So I remember seeing Mike turn on the jets, and for a second just having this bit of panic — almost like my whole career was flashing before my eyes.

But of course…… it ends up clearing the fence, and I finish my run around the bases. Then I get back to the dugout, and Jimmy’s there waiting for me — and he’s got one of these classic Jimmy Grins on his face. Like he knows exactly what just happened. So I’m standing there, all sheepish, like, “Wow…. for a split second, when I saw Cam going back, I didn’t think I got all of it.” And Jimmy just looks at me, and he’s like, “Ryan — you just hit that into the batting cages. Into the batting cages, man. I’m pretty sure you got some of it.”

And then he shakes his head and walks away.

There was the Home Run Derby, in ’06, in Pittsburgh. And what was special about that one, for me, you know, it wasn’t just the winning. It was also having my son, Darian, out there.

Darian has played such an important role in my life, and such an important role in my career. He was born in 2001, only a few months before I was drafted. And, man.…. that meant it all for me. Because there’s so much, in those early days of your career, that could potentially get you down — whether it’s being drafted later than you think you should have been, or not moving up through the minors as fast as you think you ought to be, or going through a slump, or even just making it through the overall grind of things…. it’s all tough. But for me? Having Darian — and knowing that I wasn’t just playing for myself, I was playing for my little guy as well? That I had no choice but to make something of this opportunity? I mean, like I said, that was it for me. That was everything.

So then to have Darian with me, five years later — old enough where he kind of knows what’s going on with things — at the Home Run Derby?? Seeing his daddy on top of the baseball world, hitting homers in front of tens of thousands of people??? That was a feeling. Man, I’ll never forget this one moment, when — at some point during the Derby — I look over, and Darian’s behind me..…. and he’s playing with Albert Pujols’s kid….. and I can just see it on his face: He’s having the time of his life. Running around on the field, watching these balls zoom through the sky in total wonder — I’ve never seen him so happy. And I’ve never felt such pride, such pure satisfaction in what I’ve been able to accomplish in my career, as I did in that moment.

I wanted to pick Darian up, right then, and just tell him about everything. Tell him about getting drafted in the 5th round. Tell him about working my way through those years in the minors. Tell him about how the entire grind of those last five years — it had been for him. But then I figured, you know what….. that can wait for another day. So instead I just scooped him up, gave him the biggest Dad Kiss in the history of the world, and let him go back to having fun. And then I went back to work, and won the Derby. For both of us.

AP Images (2)

And then of course there was 2008 — and it’s funny how memories work. Do I remember the pitch, the swing, the miss, the strikeout, the sprint, the pile-on, the celebration, the champagne, the rings, the White House…… all of that??? Man, like it was yesterday. But the moment that I remember the most vividly — it’s the moment before the moment. It’s the top of the ninth, two out, the Rays pinch-hitting Hinske for Bartlett….. and we see Dubee coming out to have his talk with Lidge.

So then obviously the whole infield comes in.

And now we’ve got ourselves a little party of seven: Myself, Chooch, Chase, Jimmy, Pedro, plus Dubee and Brad. At first we’re going through a little rundown, you know, the usual stuff: If he’s going to beat you, make him beat you away. That sort of thing. But then, after a certain point, that’s it for strategy, and you’re really just there to talk about what matters. That gut-level stuff.

Dubee looks at Lidgey, real cool, real calm. “Hey — how you feeling, big boy?” And Lidgey is in his zone, you know, quiet but focused. “Good. I’m good.”

And at this point, I mean, you really have to know Brad. Lidgey has this reputation as a serious guy, this stone-cold killer on the mound, and all that. But he’s also got some of the best, subtlest comedic timing of anyone I’ve been around. It’s that sort of barely-there sarcasm that goes over 95% of guys’ heads….. but when you get it (and sometimes you won’t get that he was joking until much later) — Lidgey’s the kind of guy who’ll have you laughing for days.

So anyway, Dubee, he turns to Brad, and he’s like, “You ever faced this guy before?”

And Brad, real flat, real collected, he’s like, “Yeah.”

Dubee goes, “How’d that work out?”

Then Lidgey looks up, and gives the six of us the quickest look. I’m telling you: the quickest look. The whole six of us. Then puts his head back down. And then in the calmest, most deadpan voice I’ve ever heard in my life, he goes: “He waffled me.”

Waffle was our word, as a team, for when someone totally destroyed you — whether it’s in a game, or in practice, or even at cards, or just, whatever. So when Brad’s saying that Hinske waffled him, he’s saying that the last time he faced Hinske, Hinske got him good. But it was also kind of like … this … joking term. You have to understand that about the moment. Or to put it another way: Waffle wasn’t the kind of word that you were used to hearing in the top of the ninth, with two outs, one batter away from clinching the World Series.

So now we’re all standing there together on the mound, in silence, trying to keep our cool, trying to stay composed or whatever. But then we’re also all clearly thinking to ourselves the exact same thing: Uhh, wait, what?? Did he just say — did Lidgey just say he got waffled?? Did he really just say that…. on the mound …. right now?? On the inside we’re part laughing, part nervous. It’s anyone’s guess what we’re like on the outside. And now we have to go put a bow on this thing.

You already know the rest.

We left the mound … Lidgey got Hinske with the slider … and everything else is history: The sprint, the pile-on, the celebration, the champagne, the rings, the White House…… all of that. History, and the best kind. But still, when I look back on why that team was so special? — and man, I mean really special? My thoughts usually end up at that minute or two on the mound, with one out to go. When we had it all on the line, the most do-or-die moment of any of our careers.

And we may or may not have cracked a smile.

Al Tielemans/SI/Getty Images

But like I said: I can’t even begin to make a list of all the memories. From the early days, getting advice from veteran guys … to Jimmy letting me live with him as a rookie … to my MVP year and 58 homers in ’06 … to Charlie and us kids finally winning the East in ’07 … to Chase — “World F***ing Champions!” — becoming a legend forever at the parade in ’08 … to us becoming the first World Series winners to shake the hand of a black president, in ’09 … to us becoming this all-time pitching juggernaut in ’10 and ’11, with Cole, and Doc, and Cliff, and Roy … to the All-Star games I played in, and the no-hitters I was a part of, and Doc’s perfect game … man, I’m not lying — there really are too many memories to count.

So for now, in the interests of time, I think I’ll just leave it there. It’s been a wild ride … and I’m glad that I got to stay on it for as long as I did. Which I guess has really also kind of become my overall perspective on things: How, when it’s come to these last 14 years of mine — nothing has ever been easy for long, and nothing has ever been perfect for long.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Because that’s just..… baseball, right? Baseball isn’t a blink. It isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. It’s long. And you can’t expect sustained perfection from it.

All you can hope for in baseball, I think, is a moment of perfection every now and again. You can hope for a few, perfect moments — moments that belong to you, that are yours. And then you can hope for them to matter.

And if it’s cool with everyone reading this … I’m going to feel like my moments did.

So thank you to the entire Phillies organization. Thank you to my teammates turned brothers. Thank you to my beautiful wife, Krystle, our two daughters, Ariana and Alexandria, and my son, Darian. Thank you to the crazy game that I’ll miss, and the crazy city that I love. And thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to the most passionate group of fans in the world.

Y’all took a chance on this big, quiet kid from St. Louis — and for that I’ll always be grateful.