Howard broke into the big leagues as a 24-year-old in 2004. The Phillies were rebuilding then. He ended his time in red pinstripes at Citizens Bank Park as a soon-to-turn-37-year-old. The Phillies are rebuilding again.
Ah, but what wonders were packed into the years between. There were unbelievable highs. The National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2005. The franchise-record 58 home runs and NL MVP in 2006. The string of five straight division titles that began the following year, including that championship season of 2008.
And yes, there were lows. Making the final out of the 2011 NL Division Series against the Cardinals, crumpling to the ground as his Achilles popped. He would never again be the player he was while averaging 44 homers and 133 RBIs with a .927 OPS for the six previous seasons.
What if, indeed.
Through it all, Howard was constant. He showed joy and elation when the occasion called for it and stayed on an even keel, at least publicly, when things weren't going as well.
They played a baseball game at the intersection of Broad and Pattison on Sunday. The regular season ended with a 5-2 win over the Mets, and that's all well and good. The crowd totaled 36,935, a good number helped along by the Fan Appreciation Day promotions and the fact that the Eagles had a bye and the rain that stayed away, but in large part, too, because it was the last chance to see Howard in a Phillies uniform.
This didn't officially end the long goodbye, of course. That won't happen until the announcement is made that the franchise will pay a $10 million buyout to the best first baseman it has ever employed and extends best wishes in all his future endeavors.
Everybody knew, though. The air was thick with sentiment. The front office tacitly acknowledged the obvious by honoring Howard before the game. In the days leading up to these sepia-toned moments, the man of the hour remained outwardly unmoved. He betrayed little emotion as a video of his career highlights played on the giant board high above left field and when his charitable works -- the Phillies' Urban Youth Academy bears his name -- were mentioned.
He didn't blink when it was announced that a marker commemorating his 58th home run a decade ago would be placed where the record-breaker landed -- Section 145, Row 7 -- even when presented a replica by Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. He stayed calm when owner John Middleton and chairman David Montgomery presented him with a first baseman's glove hand-painted with scenes depicting some of his greatest moments.
Then he walked onto the field with a microphone. And the longer he spoke, the harder it was for him to maintain his composure.
"We love you, Ryan," yelled a fan, clearly audible during a pause in his remarks.
"I love you, too," Howard said. "I want to thank you guys, the fans, again for making this all possible. For making it fun. We had some good runs, didn't we?"
He talked about the opportunity the city and its fans had given him. He noted, "I've grown with all of you."
And that's when his voice cracked.
He stopped, and after the crowd covered for him with yet another standing ovation, he recovered, but soon had to stop one more time.
"On behalf of my teammates, I want to thank you guys for coming out and supporting us all year. I know it's been up and down and crazy, but these guys have really worked their [behinds] off to try to be the best that they can each day and each night on this field," he said before breaking down again.
"I called him a crybaby," manager Pete Mackanin joked before turning serious: "I must admit I had a tear welling up in my eye, too."
Howard regained his composure, thanking the fans again, and then it was over. Except, of course, it wasn't. Not even close.
Howard was given the honor of taking the lineup card to home plate, the last one for the Phillies that will have his name on it. Throughout the game he was featured on the video board -- tributes and game action and funny moments.
He got a standing ovation each time he stepped to the plate. He was cheered when he struck out in the first, when he grounded out in the third. Fans held up cutout masks of his face. He was even applauded for fielding a grounder and stepping on first in the third.
It was that kind of day. The Phillies supplied statements from former teammates Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. Even Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the vice-president, tweeted about it.
"This is not a goodbye, @ryanhoward, but a thank you for being such an inspiration for so long and to so many in my hometown - Jill," it read.
This is not a goodbye, @ryanhoward, but a thank you for being such an inspiration for so long and to so many in my hometown. —Jill
Before the game, Mackanin conceded that he had given a lot of thought as to when might be the proper time to take Howard out.
Howard got a standing ovation when he stepped to the plate in the eighth, almost certainly for the final time as a Phillie. He got another when he popped out to shortstop on the first pitch from Mets reliever Jim Henderson, followed by a curtain call.
Howard took his position for the top of the ninth but, before closer Hector Neris delivered his first pitch, Mackanin replaced him at first with Tommy Joseph. That brought the crowd to its feet again as Howard stepped off the field for the last time. He embraced teammates as he navigated the length of the dugout, popped his head out one last time, waved his cap, and then he was gone.
Even the rival Mets clapped from their dugout. He hit his first big league homer against them 12 years ago. He hit his last one as a Phillie against them on Saturday night.
His postgame interview was broadcast throughout the ballpark for the thousands who stayed at their seats, unwilling to let go.
He insisted he wasn't surprised by his pregame reaction, even though it's a side he hasn't shown before.
"It was a roller coaster, man. I really didn't know what to expect, what the organization was going to do," he said. "But just getting out there, seeing the people, seeing the different videos. Everything just kind of hit me all at once.
"Looking at all the videos and just having all those memories come back and hit you all at once, it's crazy. It was just seeing the growth over the years. The different things, the different events, different times, different games just brought back a lot of different memories."
He still wants to play, somewhere, next season. Because he hit one homer per every 10 at bats in the second half of 2016, the second-best ratio in the Major Leagues, he could attract some interest.
After watching Rollins and Utley and Cole Hamels and Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth all leave before him, he was realistic about the ending of this chapter of his life. He was the only one who got to go out with this sort of sendoff.
"This day will live with me forever," he said. "These kinds of things come to an end. These guys now can start their own legacy and don't have to be under the umbrella of everybody talking about 2008. Now they can pave their own path. That's something I told a couple of the guys."
As the early autumn darkness settled over Citizens Bank Park, Howard was still in the clubhouse, packing his belongings, and having his picture taken in front of his locker along with wife Krystle, son Darian and daughter Ariana.
They were all smiles.
Paul Hagen is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.