Howard wins wet-and-wild HR Derby

Originally Published: July 10, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- It was a Home Run Derby only Admiral Dewey, Charlie the Tuna and the star-studded cast of "The Little Mermaid" could have loved.

It wasn't the most spectacular Home Run Derby in history. But it was definitely the most waterlogged.

Any time you're better off bringing a kayak to the ballpark than a glove, you know something bizarre and nautical is going on. And that was Home Run Derby 2006, held at scenic PNC Park, located at the confluence of the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers. (And there will be a geography quiz on those names later in this column. So pay attention.)

Ryan Howard makes quite a splash in his first-ever Home Run Derby.

Your winner Monday was Phillies bash-a-maniac Ryan Howard. He dunked two home runs into the Allegheny on the fly. He skipped four more into the water on the bounce.

"I was hoping he was going to kill some fish out in that river," said the man who served up all 23 of his home runs, Phillies bullpen coach Ramon Henderson. "And he did."

But Red Sox launching pad David Ortiz pounded even more baseballs into the armada than Howard -- two on the fly, six on the carom. And Houston's Lance Berkman completed the assault on the seas of western Pennsylvania with a river shot of his own.

So it wasn't quite "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." But it was 15 baseballs under the kayak fleet. And as kayak fleets go, this one was about as unruly as a Steelers crowd.

"It was getting kind of crazy out there," said Howard afterward. "Guys were jumping out of canoes and flapping all around."

Asked if he could remember the last time he'd inspired anyone to jump out of a boat, Howard scratched his head and said: "Never. That's a first for me."

Well, that Home Run Derby title was also a first for him, by the way. The last time he took part in one -- before an Eastern League All-Star game in landlocked Bowie, Md. -- I "took the goose egg," Howard confessed.

"But the conditions were not home-run-derby friendly in Bowie that year," he alibied. "It was a little foggy out and everything."

This time around, however, there was no fog, although we did think we heard a couple of foghorns. So with that excuse down the drain, Howard had no choice but to stomp out there with his mini-tree trunk of a bat and put on a show that made him look like the reincarnation of Pittsburgh legend Wilver D. Stargell.

Ryan Howard
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesHoward defeated NL East rival David Wright to become the second Phillie in as many years to win the contest.
He cranked six balls that came down in the H2O, three that clanked off the Baseball Tonight tent in deep right-center, a 455-footer that cleared the 30-foot batter's eye in dead center and two more Venus probes that left the premises just to the right of that batter's eye.

"He's a freak," said his teammate, Chase Utley. "I'm glad he's on my side."

Howard's legend was already starting to build before he did his human NASA launching-pad act Monday night. But after this, his career may never be the same.

He's just 26, and this is his first full season in the big leagues. But he owns 52 career homers already. And enough of them have landed in spots where no baseball had traveled before that he could be ready to morph into a major tourist attraction.

He's Big Mac, Reggie Jackson and Frank Howard rolled into a wholesome, relentlessly upbeat package. In fact, he reminds Ortiz so much of himself that Big Papi said afterward he needed to look into Howard's "undercover genes," whatever that means.

But for everything Howard has done in his brief career, one thing he said he'd never done was hit a baseball that came down in a body of water. Any body of water.

So what, he was asked, was the weirdest thing he had ever hit with a home run?

"Boy, I don't know," he said. "I hit a barn or something, back behind one field one time. Back when I was younger. Probably like 18 or 19, when I was in college [at Southwest Missouri State]."

Hold on. He hit a barn?

"Well, actually," he confessed, "it was like a field house."

So it wasn't a barn?

"No," he backtracked. "It wasn't a barn."

So no animals went scattering, scaring hundreds of nearby schoolchildren?

"No, there were no animals anywhere," he said. "There was no agricultural school or anything. It was a field house."

OK, not that there's anything wrong with hitting a home run off a field house. But we're betting what he did Monday was a way better show than that.

And what made it particularly good theater is that Howard almost didn't make it out of the first round. He ripped off eight outs in his first 10 swings, and nine in his first 13. So with one out remaining, he knew he needed to bop four straight homers, or he was done.

So naturally, 1,777 feet worth of home runs later, he was roaring off toward the second round.

"He knew he needed four homers, and he locked it right in," Utley said. "And after that, it was pretty much 'game over.' "

Well, not quite. Howard still had to contend with the Mets' David Wright, who had taken over Round One with an Abreu-esque 16-homer rat-a-tat, which included 14 bombs in 17 swings at one point.

And there was still Big Papi -- the Vegas favorite, the people's choice and a guy whose stroke seemed uniquely designed for the left-handed, bopper-friendly PNC confines.

Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesHoward hit a total of 23 home runs but struggled to advance to the second round.
When someone mentioned to Ortiz beforehand that last year's winner, Bobby Abreu, seemed to have screwed up his home run stroke permanently in that Derby, Ortiz sounded about as worried as he gets when Shawn Camp comes in to face him in the ninth.

In other words: not at all.

"It won't affect me," he laughed. "I swing from my butt all the time anyway."

What made the Ortiz-Howard duel even more riveting was that they were sharing the same pitcher. That would be Henderson, a longtime friend of Ortiz from the Dominican who had thrown BP to Big Papi throughout the World Baseball Classic.

But that, Howard said magnanimously, was cool with him. Then again, he chuckled, if Henderson wanted to "throw that cutter, or that sinker, or that slider, hard in on the hands," that would be cool, too.

Henderson, however, was taking his responsibilities seriously. For one thing, he was the defending Derby gopherball champion -- the man who had served up all 41 homers to Abreu last July in Detroit. For another, he also was asked to pitch to yet a third entrant (Miguel Tejada) in this Derby.

So Henderson wound up giving up 39 (count 'em, 39) Derby homers to the three of them (bringing his two-year total to a whopping 80). And of the 15 balls that got swallowed by the Allegheny, Henderson tossed up 14 of them.

When he was kidded afterward that nobody had been responsible for getting this many baseballs wet since Gaylord Perry, Henderson quipped: "Nobody's been responsible for more balls hit in the stands, either. I've become very expensive for Major League Baseball. I lose all their baseballs."

By the time Henderson's day was done, he estimated he'd thrown close to 350 pitches -- counting a batting-practice round in the afternoon. So it was no wonder he reported: "I don't remember being this sore last year."

But Howard didn't sound particularly anxious to pay for Henderson's next rotator cuff surgery.

"Hey, we've got ice," he deadpanned. "We've got doctors. We've got guys who can pick him up back in Philly. We've got some of the best physicians around."

Howard and Ortiz weren't the only Derby-ites with a famous BP pitcher, though. Wright actually recruited his buddy, Paul Lo Duca -- your starting NL All-Star catcher, ladies and gentlemen -- to be his personal gopherballer.

But afterward, Wright intimated it was Lo Duca who had run out of premium unleaded.

"I guarantee you," Wright kidded, "I'll walk in that clubhouse, and he'll have ice on his arm, and he'll be complaining about it."

But guess what? Lo Duca then showed up at his locker without a single ice cube -- even in his postgame Gatorade.

"No, no, no," he said. "I don't need ice. I am bleeping out of gas, though. I'll tell you this: I'll never get on another BP thrower. It's tougher than it looks."

But Lo Duca was so proud of his 22-homer performance, he joked: "I told [Wright] that when my career's over, I'm going to come back as a special Home Run Derby BP thrower."

One thing Lo Duca couldn't do, however, was throw any home runs that tried to drown themselves. That was for those left-handed bashers only.

So you'd think they'd have shown more reverence for the nautical majesty of that feat. But it turned out none of them could even correctly identify the rivers floating around out there beyond the foul poles.

"I have no idea," Wright admitted. "You want to talk about some rivers in New York, I can help you out. But Pittsburgh, not so much."

Berkman at least knew there were three rivers to choose from. But when he was asked if he could correctly identify which was which, he replied: "Not really. The only one I can even pronounce is Allegheny."

Hold on, we interrupted. He couldn't pronounce, "Ohio?"

"Oh," he gulped. "I forgot about that one. I can pronounce that. But what's the other one?"

Monongahela, he was told.

"Oh yeah," he laughed, backtracking from any further pronunciations. "That one."

In the end, though, the big excitement had nothing to do with any of those rivers. It came down to one final swing of the bat -- Wright and Howard tied at four homers each in the final round, Howard at the dish.

Then he finished off the proceedings with one of the most spectacular Derby shots ever -- a 463-foot monster that splattered off a sign in right-center that read: "Hit It Here."

So it wasn't a walk-off. It was a fly-off, because it won one lucky fan 500 free flights to the destination (or destinations) of his choice.

"Five hundred flights, huh?" Howard said afterward. "You know, I could use some of those flights myself."

Use them? Heck, he could launch them. All the way to the waterfront.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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