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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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The sky over St. Louis looked as gray and uninviting as cold oatmeal when Ryan Howard hit the most memorable moon shot of his career. He was 12, and his Little League team was playing a squad from Jefferson City. Howard, then known simply as Hurt, already had prodigious power from the port side. "When he made contact, it was like, Wow!" recalls his twin brother, Corey. "His home runs were loud."

Late in the game, Hurt turned on a chest-high heater. According to family lore the ball soared over the infield, over the outfield, over a 20-foot chain-link fence in rightfield, over a parking lot and, depending on the storyteller, struck the wall of a Red Lobster, the base of a sign outside a Red Lobster or a Red Lobster sign's red lobster.

Thirteen years later Howard still savors the swat. "It was my first actual bomb," recalls the Philadelphia Phillies' first baseman. "I watched it with a little awe." An equally awed sportswriter recently paced off the distance between home plate and the building. If the yarn is true, Ryan's blast traveled at least 430 feet.

Laid end to end, Howard's homers this season have traveled an estimated 4 1/4 miles, the longest going 491 feet. He had a major-league-leading 56 to go along with a major-league-leading 138 RBIs, including 41 in August, the most by any player in any month since Frank Howard had 41 in July 1962. He also pounded 14 homers and hit .348 last month to single-handedly launch the Phillies into wild-card contention. If Howard reaches 60 homers, he'll become only the sixth player to accomplish the feat. "To hit 50 is really something," says Philadelphia closer Tom Gordon. "Sixty is almost beyond comprehension. It's magnificent."

To date, the Magnificent Five includes Babe Ruth, who hit 60 in 1927, and Roger Maris, whose 61 came in '61. The rest of the roster-- Mark McGwire (65 and 70), Sammy Sosa (63, 64 and 66) and record-holder Barry Bonds (73)--is sullied by suspected steroid use. Should Howard pass Maris's 61, a crusade is afoot to anoint him King of the Juiceless Dinger. Asked if he would take pride in such a title, he says, with a hint of diffidence, "I would."

Then again, Ryan is dispassionately modest about his chances of even attaining 60. "If it happens, it happens," he says with a small shrug. "If I were to do something like that and then wake up and reflect on the season one day at home in the off-season, I wouldn't believe it."

Baseball has seldom seen anything quite like Howard. The hulking 6'4" 250-pounder looks like he was poured into his uniform and forgot to say when. As if stanchioned to the bag at first, he often seems as animated as the William Penn statue atop Philadelphia's City Hall. "Ryan does get excited," insists Philadelphia reliever Geoff Geary. "His excitement is just not extreme." To prove a point, Geary shows a video he filmed surreptitiously on his cellphone. Facing his locker before a game, wired into an iPod, Howard, arms akimbo and hips swiveling, does a wobbly rumba. "That's Ryan's groove dance," says Geary. "He gets down to get loose."

Howard is only truly loose in the clubhouse, where he greets teammates with a dozen handshakes. "He's got big old Mice and Men hands," says Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. "You know, like the ones Lenny had. There's a lot of strong in those hands."

You need strong hands to dispatch fastballs into the troposphere. "Ryan uses an inside-out swing for wallburners to left, but his homers to center and right have a trajectory unlike anything I've ever seen," says pitcher Jamie Moyer, a veteran of 20 seasons. "They start out like routine flies and carry and carry and carry until they land 30 rows back in the bleachers. They're absolutely majestic."

At Citizens Bank Park, Howard's most regal blasts alight in the upper deck in right, a veritable petri dish of costumed Phillies fan clubs, from Flash Gordon's "Superheroes" to Chase Utley's " Utley's Uglies." Three clubs vie for Howard supremacy: the leonine-garbed "Ryan's Lions," the Homer Simpson--masked "Homer's Homers" and " Howard's Howards," who sport bowl cuts like Moe Howard of Three Stooges fame. All chant "M-V-P!" when their hero steps to the plate.

"Phillies fans go crazy for the shut-up-and-play type," says Jerry Getz, a Philly sports-radio gadfly known as Jerry on the Mobile. "Howard seems like a quiet, clean-cut John Kruk, an accessible, almost jolly guy who plays the game like he loves it. He's the anti-T.O."

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