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Cheryl Howard watches her son and sees her father. His name was James Black, a hulking lefthanded slugger who played first base and the outfield, powerful but nimble for a man his size. He starred in a sandlot league at Birmingham's famed Rickwood Field, where he faced Willie Mays—and Willie Mays Sr. Cheryl was a year old when her father gave up baseball to work in the coal mines, so she doesn't remember much about his game, but descriptions have been passed down through the years. He was a player from the Josh Gibson school, who swung for the fences and often connected. He homered, and whiffed, with force and regularity. Standing next to the batter's box at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia last week, moments after the Phillies clinched a return trip to the World Series, Cheryl said, "It does sometimes feel like he's here."
James Black died of a heart attack in 1979, two weeks after Cheryl gave birth to twin boys, one of them Ryan James Howard. Her father never had a chance to play major league baseball—the sport was segregated when he was coming up—but given his affinity for the long ball, he would have been eager to see this year's World Series. Each team, the Yankees and the Phillies, led its league in home runs during the regular season. Both teams' ballparks, Yankee Stadium and Citizens Bank, allowed the most homers in their respective leagues. The Yanks and the Phils combined for 468 home runs, the most ever by World Series foes, according to homer historian David Vincent. Nearly 10% of those blasts came off the bat of Black's grandson, another enormous but agile lefthanded first baseman whose prodigious power numbers more than make up for his violent swings and misses.
Howard has played four full seasons in the major leagues, amassing 45 or more home runs in each. He has always been among the top three in homers as well as strikeouts. At 6'4", 242 pounds, he is a classic slugger in an era that, at times, has tried to distance itself from the home run. After the fall of Sosa, McGwire and Bonds, it was safer to celebrate the game's more subtle arts—the sacrifice bunt, the double steal, the walk—rather than its feats of strength. General managers vowed to build their teams around pitching and defense, maybe even speed. In 2007 and '08, home run totals fell under 5,000 for the first time in a decade. Smaller ball was back. It wasn't a revolution, but something undeniably had changed.
In Philadelphia and New York, they practice a more well-rounded style too—these Phillies, in fact, are one of the great baserunning teams in history—but not at the expense of the heavy lumber. Four Phillies hit more than 30 home runs. Eight Yankees hit at least 18. Even the second basemen, Philadelphia's Chase Utley and New York's Robinson Cano, combined for 56 homers. The major league total once again crested 5,000. The Phillies scored 45% of their runs by way of the homer, most in the majors. The Yankees scored 41%, fourth most. They discovered what everyone from James Black to Earl Weaver already understood: The long ball does not simply entertain. It wins.
"You knew it couldn't go away forever," says Phillies outfielder Matt Stairs. "I realize teams want to build around speed and defense these days, but the best way to score is still to put a couple of guys on base and have somebody come up and hit one out. That's how the game is supposed to be played."
Yes, the big fly is back, and this week it returns to the big stage. The Phillies may not be quite as muscled as the Yankees, but they are an American League team that just happens to fall on the National League ledger. Their 5'8" shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, hit 21 home runs this season. Their 5'9" centerfielder, Shane Victorino, has three in the playoffs. Even 65-year-old manager Charlie Manuel insists that not long ago he too could've reached the McDonald's sign that fronts the third deck at Citizens Bank Park. But of all the Phillies' mashers, nobody goes deeper than Howard.
"He hits the ball a thousand feet," says Mariners pitcher Ian Snell, a close friend of Howard's who has faced him since the minor leagues. "He can intimidate you because he's so freaking huge, he doesn't fit in the batter's box, and then he swings that big old tree." Howard's bat measures a stout 35 inches, 34 ounces, but in his hands it looks like a toothpick.
Those hands, big as a middle infielder's mitt, are what former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick noticed the first time he saw Howard play six years ago in the Arizona Fall League. When Gillick is scouting a player, he looks forward to shaking the player's hand. A strong handshake portends home run power. "That's where the evaluation begins," Gillick says. When he thinks back on the strongest handshakes he has felt in more than 40 years of scouting, he rattles off some formidable names: Eddie Murray, George Bell, Alex Rodriguez and Howard. (After shaking this reporter's hand, Gillick said, "Didn't hit many home runs, did you?" So true.)
Teammates compare Howard's drives to golf shots because they backspin out of the ballpark and don't stop rising until they're out of sight. "When you hit one flush, you don't feel a thing," Howard says. "You just hear the pop." Howard, though, does not want to be thought of as a home-run-hitting caricature, preferring to see himself as a complete player. In the minors he stood off the plate more and sent line drives to the opposite field that often carried over the wall. But after Howard racked up 58 home runs and won the National League MVP Award in 2006, his first full season, he became more distance conscious. As he gained weight, he'd swing at pitches outside the strike zone and try to yank them into the rightfield seats. His home run totals did not suffer much, but his batting average fell from .313 in '06 to .268 in '07 to .251 in '08. He was becoming that caricature.
After the Phillies won the World Series last year, Howard headed to a training facility called the Athlete's Compound, at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa. He worked out from 7 a.m. to noon every day, then drove to the University of South Florida, where Phillies infield coach Sam Perlozzo hit him ground balls. "I picked up very quickly that this is a guy who doesn't want to be known as just a slugger," Perlozzo says. Howard changed his defensive footwork, his mechanics and his diet. He ate high-protein, low-fat meals every two to three hours but never after 6:30 p.m. When Howard reported to spring training, he was 20 pounds lighter, able to grab grounders in the hole that used to skip past him. This season, he cut his errors by more than 25%.