Howard finding the sweet spot

When Ryan Howard hits one of his tape-measure blasts, you don't forget the sight. You don't even forget the sound, writes Jayson Stark.

Originally Published: April 7, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The ultimate tip-off that Ryan Howard is headed for serious stardom isn't that Rookie of the Year trophy sitting on his shelf back home in Missouri.

And it isn't those 86 home runs he's whomped over the last two seasons, as he climbed the escalator from Double-A to Triple-A to the big leagues.

It isn't even the fact that it's his picture -- not Bobby Abreu's or Jimmy Rollins' or Pat Burrell's -- on the front of every pocket schedule the Phillies will hand out this year.

Nope, here's the real tip-off -- the best measure, in fact, of just how good any young player is going to be:

Just listen to the way other players talk about him.

TRIVIALITY
Ryan Howard hit 22 home runs last year at age 25, even though he played in the big leagues for a little more than half the season. Only five other NL hitters who were 25 or younger hit that many homers (or more) last year. Can you name them? (Answer at bottom.)
Not even 400 at-bats into his career, Ryan Howard -- the man who propelled Jim Thome right out of Philadelphia -- is already as hot a clubhouse topic as Hummers, tax write-offs and centerfolds.

"You ever picked up his bat?" asks his buddy, Rollins. "Wheee-ooooh. Are you kiddin'? Let me go get one."

A few seconds later, Rollins is back, dragging what looks like half a forest.

"Look at this," he says. "This thing's 35 inches, 34½ ounces. But look how small it looks in his hands. We say, 'Is it really that big? Or is it just that big when we pick it up?' This thing is like a tree. But it's like a toy to him."

Yeah, how does he manage to swing that bat? That's just one of the great Ryan Howard debates that seem to erupt in the Phillies' locker room about every 10 minutes.

Then there's this fun little topic: In a spring in which Howard crunched 11 titanic home runs, which of those swats was the most ridiculous/awe-inspiring/gargantuan?

Was it the Apollo shot in Clearwater against the Yankees that cleared the fence, and a 30-foot grass berm, and a walkway behind the berm, and the back wall of the stadium -- and came down in a retention pond between the ballpark and the highway?

"With two strikes," says hitting coach Milt Thompson with a laugh. "Against a lefty [Ron Villone]."

"And he had a 103 fever," Rollins says with a chuckle.

Or was it the meteor at Disney -- the one Howard's teammates claim was still going up when it left the park, just to the right of straightaway center, on its way to Splash Mountain?

"That ball," Thompson says, "was three-quarters of the way up the light post. If he'd hit it to dead center, it would have been over the batter's eye."

Ryan Howard
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesHoward hit 25 home runs in his first 110 big-league games.
Or was it the satellite in Lakeland that whooshed over the Tigers' bullpen, about a thousand feet out there in deep, deep right-center? (Want to take a look? Click here).

"Somebody's car alarm probably went off when that ball came down," Rollins says. "I've never seen a ball hit that far. That was the beauty of it -- 'cause there was no stadium to catch it. It was just, 'How far is it gonna go?' And it was far.'"

"And the wind," says Mike Lieberthal, with a shake of the head, "was blowing in."

These men have all spent the last three years around Thome, remember. So they know what an official home-run monster man looks like.

But when Thome arrived in Philadelphia (in 2003) at age 32, he was already in his 47-homer-a-year prime. In Howard, on the other hand, they are watching a 6-foot-4, 260-pound, 26-year-old masher in a tight end's body who is just starting to figure it out.

So this guy's career has barely left the runway. But his manager casually drops Howard's name into the same sentence as the greatest hitters he has ever managed or coached. And let's just say they're not names you'll have to look up to recognize.

"He's right there with any of them," says Charlie Manuel, a man whose previous coaching and managing stops came with the Indians and Twins. "He's there with Thome, with [Manny] Ramirez, with all those guys. I'd put him with [Kenny] Lofton, with [Kirby] Puckett. He's there with all of them, man. He's got that kind of potential."

He is less than a week into his first full big-league season. But Ryan Howard hears this buzz everywhere he turns -- in the seats, in the scout section, around the cage, in dugouts everywhere. Well, he'd hear it if he were actually listening, anyway.

But do you think he's even aware of it?

"Negative, negative," Howard says, "because all I did all spring was come in, do my work, play baseball, go home and sleep. And that's it. It hasn't been hard to tune it out. I just try to stay focused on what's going on on the field, and not on everything else. To me, that's all [the other stuff] is -- is everything else. So I just leave it that way, because if you're worried about everything else, you're not focused on what matters."

This is a guy who has always focused on what matters. His father is an executive at IBM. His twin brother, Chris, is an associate athletic director at LSU.

"His family is all high achievers," says Phillies assistant GM Mike Arbuckle, who presided over the scouting department that drafted Howard in the fifth round in 2001. "They expect themselves to succeed."

Well, from the look of things, the ballplayer in the family isn't going to disappoint. Just consider Howard's career path since he arrived in Double-A in 2004:

Two years ago, Howard cranked 46 home runs and drove in 131 runs between Double-A and Triple-A, making him only the fifth player since 1957 to pile up that many homers and RBI in a minor-league season.

Last year, at the point the Phillies called him up to stay on July 1, he was leading the International League not in homers, but in batting (.371), on-base percentage (.467), slugging (.690) and OPS (1.157).

From July 2 on, Howard hit .296 with 21 homers and 65 RBI. The only National League players who hit more home runs in that span were Andruw Jones and Derrek Lee. But Howard had a higher slugging percentage (.585) in that period than Paul Konerko, a higher OPS (.950) than Vladimir Guerrero or Gary Sheffield, and more intentional walks (eight) than Manny Ramirez.

Which brings us to his outrageous spring: .341, 11 homers, 23 RBI. Since 1993, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one other player has had that many home runs in any spring training -- Sammy Sosa (12 HR, 23 RBI) in 1999.

Not too bad -- especially for a player the Phillies were trying to trade (or at least were dangling) as recently as two winters ago.

That wasn't because of anything they didn't like about Howard, obviously. It was simply because they already had a human power plant at first base, and a $14-million-a-year version at that, in Thome.

Back in November 2002, when the Phillies threw $85 million over six years at Thome, Howard had just turned 23, was coming off his first full season in the minor leagues and was only a distant blip on the Phillies' radar screen. So even Howard felt a jolt of adrenaline when he heard the big news of that Thome signing -- for about four seconds, anyhow.

"My first thought was, 'Wow,'" Howard says now. "The fan in me was, like, 'Wow, they got Thome.' But then the baseball player trying to get up to Philly was more like [his voice getting noticeably softer here], 'Oh ... they got Jim Thome.'"

So he may not have led the cheers. But Howard was smart enough to know the Phillies had a new ballpark rising, Thome was an attraction who could help fill it and there was still a lot a kid first baseman had to learn.

"I said, 'Let me just get focused on what it is I've got to do,'" Howard says. "I just thought, 'When the time is right, my goal is to get to the big leagues, whether it's here or somewhere else. So something will happen.'"

What happened, though, wasn't something that anyone saw coming.

While Thome was pounding 89 homers in his first two years in Philadelphia, Howard started racking up crazy numbers himself. So his agent, Larry Reynolds, issued two different "requests" for the Phillies to trade him.

The Phillies listened a little, debated and tried a brief experiment to move Howard to the outfield. Where he didn't quite remind anybody of Andruw Jones. So this story appeared bound for an uncomfortable, pick-one-but-which-one conclusion.

But as uncomfortable as it may have looked from the outside, Thome was too classy to let it get messy on the inside.

"Thome and I -- we were good," Howard says. "Everyone always thought there was animosity there, but we were good. I knew what the situation was. He knew what the situation was. So all we could do was go out, play and just take care of it on the field."

Even when Thome's back and elbow knocked him onto the disabled list last season, however, it still wasn't clear -- at first -- how this tale would turn out ... until Howard did something that a guy called up on July 1 couldn't possibly do:

Win the Rookie of the Year award.

TRIVIALITY ANSWER
Albert Pujols (41 at age 25), Adam Dunn (40 at 25), Miguel Cabrera (33 at 22), David Wright (27 at 22) and Chad Tracy (27 at 25).
No team in history has ever traded a Rookie of the Year between seasons. And by November, the Phillies knew they couldn't become the first.

But suppose they couldn't find a taker for Thome, because of money or health? Imagine a spring in which these two guys had to divide the playing time, as the trade rumors crash-landed on their heads. Could easily have happened.

"I try not to think about that," Howard says. "I heard a lot of questions about it even before [Thome got traded], actually even back in '04. So I knew, going into the offseason, I was going to hear a lot of stuff about it after what I'd done. So my whole goal was to go home and relax and not pay a lot of attention to it, because whatever happened was going to happen."

Well, we know what happened. The White Sox dealt for Thome before they'd even flipped the calendar to December. And that real estate around first base in Philadelphia finally became all Ryan Howard's -- for at least the rest of this decade.

So what could have been an awkward spring turned into the spring that Howard appeared to use as his own personal launching pad. He had more homers, RBI and total bases than any player in baseball. But he also tied Robinson Cano and Jeff Zimmerman for the most hits in baseball. So he is more than just a masher.

But when he mashes, you don't forget the sight. You don't even forget the sound.

After his 480-foot rocket in Lakeland, Tigers catcher Vance Wilson quipped: "Tell him I'm going to send him my ear-doctor bill, from the sound of that bat."

The sound. It's funny he should bring up the sound when Howard's bat meets ball, because it's Ryan Howard's favorite part of home-run bashing.

"People always ask, 'What does that feel like?'" Howard says. "Well, that's the one thing I always talk about: It gets loud. ... When you really square one up, it's just the loudest sound ever. You just kind of get that ROOOAAAH. Aw, I can't even do it. It's just loud, man."

And it's a sound you're going to be hearing a lot of as Howard gets his prodigious act together over the next few years. Oh, he still has work to do -- on hitting left-handers (against whom he hit .148 last year) and cutting down the whiffs (100 in 312 AB). But he already has something irreplaceable -- that innate feel for the big moment.

Twelve of his 22 homers last year tied games or gave his team the lead. He hit .321 in the late innings of tight games. And, as one scout put it this spring, "the biggest thing that's changed on that team is that Howard and Chase Utley have replaced Burrell and Abreu as the centerpiece guys in that lineup. They're the guys you want up there with the game on the line."

And they're the guys you hear other players buzzing about. Which brings us to our final Ryan Howard clubhouse topic: Who would play this guy in the movie?

From Randy Wolf: "After [that near-brawl this spring with Josh Beckett], how about Larry Holmes?"

From Rollins: "Gotta be that guy from 'The Green Mile' -- Michael Clarke Duncan, because he's a big, gentle guy."

Finally, from Pat Burrell: "Who would play Ryan Howard? Man, that's easy. Godzilla."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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