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Listen to His Bat
Franz Lidz
September 18, 2006
Two springs ago, he was banished to the minors, but now Ryan Howard has turned the stretch drive into one booming blast with his epic home run binge
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September 18, 2006

Listen To His Bat

Two springs ago, he was banished to the minors, but now Ryan Howard has turned the stretch drive into one booming blast with his epic home run binge

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In the Phillies' dugout Howard is called everything from Rhinoceros to Man-Mountain to One-Man Gang. The consensus favorite, however, is John Coffey, after the gentle gargantuan in The Green Mile. "John Coffey was a big guy and a good, kind person," says Howard. "I act like that sometimes, too, just to throw people off."

By most accounts it's no act. "Ryan has always been even tempered," says Corey, his fraternal twin. "The only thing that sets him off is hearing people say he can't do things. They've said he can't hit lefties, he can't hit off-speed pitches, he can't hit for a high average. Whatever they've said Ryan can't do, he's gone out and done."

Their father, Ron, a project manager for IBM in St. Louis, forbade the word can't in his home. So Ryan set out to show his old man he could. At Lafayette High he played defensive end, power forward, first base and trombone in the marching band. He played each of them ably but baseball best. Two years ago Howard, who was drafted by the Phils in the fifth round of the 2001 draft out of Southwest Missouri State, hit 46 homers for two farm teams. All that stood in his way in Philadelphia was power-hitting first baseman Jim Thome and his six-year, $85 million contract. "I'd heard Ryan hit bombs," Rollins says. "But I figured there were 85 million reasons I wouldn't see him anytime soon."

The following spring Howard auditioned in left, flunked and was sent back to Triple A. "The Phillies traditionally give you one shot," Rollins says. "If you're demoted after that, you might as well cancel Christmas."

For Howard, Christmas came in July. When Thome's season was cut short by injuries, Howard--the International League leader in hitting (.371), on-base percentage (.467) and slugging (.690) at the time--got another chance. He made the most of it, mashing 22 homers (10 in the final month) to help propel the Phils to within a game of the playoffs.

Last November the Phils settled their first base question by trading Thome to the White Sox. Questions about Howard, however, remained to be settled. Though he was Rookie of the Year in 2005, for example, he batted only .148 against southpaws. At week's end he was up to .283 and had hit 15 of his homers off lefties. "Two years ago he had raw power, but he tried to cover the entire strike zone," says Astros third base coach Doug Mansolino. "The difference now is patience and selectivity: He only swings at pitches in his strike zone." (His strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved from 3 to 1 last season to under 2 to 1 this year.)

Pity the pitcher who trespasses in Howard's zone. Last week Houston's Russ Springer tried to bust him with a cutter up and in. Howard swatted the righthander's pitch off the face of the second deck. "Lefthanded batters are supposed to foul that off or hit it on the ground," says Astros infielder Aubrey Huff. "I don't think there's another big leaguer who could have hit it out."

The crack of Howard's 34 1/2-ounce bat was easy on Rollins's ear. "When he connected, it was loud, like somebody had turned up the volume," says Rollins. "It was a beautiful sound, and I knew the ball would be leaving the yard."

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