Ryan Howard trying to make the most of his final days in Philly

PHILADELPHIA -- As the years and months dwindle down to precious weeks and days for Ryan Howard in Philadelphia, the signs are trending in a positive direction. Howard is hitting the ball with enough gusto to think he might have a spot on a major league roster somewhere in 2017. The mere suggestion would have seemed ludicrous in late June, when Howard was underwater to the tune of a .140 batting average and a .531 OPS.

Phillies fans might even be getting sentimental on him as the end draws near. Last weekend, on Jim Thome Wall of Fame Night at Citizens Bank Park, the crowd summoned Howard from the dugout for a curtain call in response to a grand slam against the Colorado Rockies.

Viewed in this context, the latest news out of Major League Baseball was just another item to check off the box in Howard's farewell-to-Philly valedictory.

At noon Friday, the commissioner's office cleared Howard and Washington's Ryan Zimmerman of any wrongdoing in MLB's investigation of an Al Jazeera report on performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Both players were absolved of any violations of MLB's drug program, and they released statements saying they're looking forward to a resolution of their ongoing litigation against Al Jazeera.

As the Phillies prepared to play St. Louis on Friday, Howard expressed a sense of relief over baseball's decision.

"I'm just glad it's behind me," Howard said. "That's about it. The process is the process. I'm glad it's behind me and I can move forward and just focus on playing baseball."

The MLB investigation was just another obstacle in a trying season for Howard. Boos abounded during his early struggles, and he hit rock-bottom in early June when a miscreant fan threw a beer bottle in his direction. A few days later, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin told Howard that Tommy Joseph was the team's new starting first baseman and Howard would have to adjust to coming off the bench.

Howard had two ways to go: He could wallow in self-pity and become a negative force, or continue to plug away and maintain a positive attitude in a clubhouse filled with young players. Howard's conscious choice to take the high road was a reflection of his character and professionalism.

In June, Howard appeared at Citizens Bank Park with his wife, Krystle, for a children's book reading before a game. A month later, he opened up a 7,500-square-foot youth training center in Philadelphia through his foundation. His underwhelming stats and the injuries show that Howard hasn't lived up to his $125 million contract by any stretch of the imagination. But he's never brought his baggage into the clubhouse or lost sight of the responsibilities that come along with being a longtime star athlete in a community.

"It's been a tough year, and I'm sure it's weighed on him a lot," said Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp. "It's the last year of his contract, and I'm sure there were many things going through his mind with the way he was treated here by the fans. But he handled it with nothing but professionalism and stayed with it. To see him bust out of it and kill it for the past month, it's been fun to watch.

"This is the Ryan Howard everybody saw when he was winning (the MVP) and hitting 50 home runs a year. This is the Ryan Howard they grew to love, and they stayed with him for the most part. He hit some rough patches. That's part of the game. But he never got out of being Ryan. For all the stuff he's gone through off the field, you'd never know."

The numbers, even in a small sample size, are startling. In August, entering Friday's game, Howard is hitting .419 (13-for-31) with a .968 slugging percentage and a 1.422 OPS. With his recent hot streak, he moved into a tie with Carlton Fisk for 75th place on MLB's career list with 376 home runs. Next up: Norm Cash and Jeff Kent at 377.

As the Phillies play out the string en route to their fourth straight sub-.500 season, it's only natural to wonder if an American League team in need of a power bat off the bench might consider trading for Howard in August. He won't have any trouble clearing waivers, so that's one potential impediment out of the way. .

"If he keeps hitting like he's hitting, somebody's going to want him," Mackanin said. "I'm happy for him. I didn't like telling Howie he's not going to play as much. It's not fun doing that kind of thing. But the bottom line is, I pull for him. He's a great guy. I'd like to see him succeed and go on to play as long as he'd like to play."

Barring a surprise of cosmic magnitude, Ryan Howard won't be back in Philadelphia in 2017, but at least he has a chance to go out on positive terms. There will be a few more standing ovations before he says goodbye.
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