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Home Run Derby

Ryan Howard is posting MVP-type numbers and has the Phillies in playoff chase

September 21, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — As he speaks, Ryan Howard does little half circles in his chair, spinning left and right, not impatient but not concealing that he'd rather be someplace else.

The line at his locker, a guy from L.A., another from New York, the usual handful from Philadelphia, all requesting the same few minutes, runs a little deeper these days. The Phillies, dead in July, have life in September, and Howard, their husky, 26-year-old first baseman, is the man with the paddles.

He has 57 home runs and 140 runs batted in, all from a sudden, violent, left-handed swing that is uncommonly efficient. Consequently, the Phillies are tied with the Dodgers in the National League wild-card race, with a roster that is, to be kind, in transition.

There are appointments to keep, as a teammate, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, reminds him with a handful of candy.

"Ooh, Swedish Fish?"

"Mmm-hmm," Rollins says. "Keep your mouth from getting dry in the interviews."

"Hitters' meetin'?"

"Same as every day," Rollins says.

And the half circles broaden to three-quarters.

"It's a little taxing," Howard says. "It is a little taxing, but it's all expected. That's the other side of what you do. When you come and play this game, that kind of comes along with it."

In his first full major league season, he is four home runs from Roger Maris, which, eight years ago, would have been a pretty big deal.

And he could become, if one is to believe the various reports since, the first to reach 62 home runs without having shared a bathroom stall with Jose Canseco, accepted designer ointments from a rogue chemist, or had his body radically change within months of discovering his first weight room.

He has never testified before Congress, and his personal trainer has never been imprisoned. And not once has he played a professional baseball season without handing over at least one cup of urine to a testing administrator.

Aesthetically speaking, at 6 feet 4 and 250 pounds, he is thicker than a Pujols, slighter than an Ortiz. For the discussion of whether America is emotionally prepared to embrace another run at Maris, Howard probably can thank the commissioner, the players' union and players who preceded him, some probably in his own clubhouse.

Not a few months before, Albert Pujols had been backed into the same dingy corner before a muscle strain stalled his home run momentum. Howard waves off the question.

He hit home runs as a 12-year-old just outside St. Louis, including one legendary shot a Philadelphia writer went back and stepped off at 430 feet. He hit home runs at Lafayette High. He hit them at Southwest Missouri State. He hit 46 in one minor league season. He came to the big leagues, hit 22 home runs in 88 games last season and was the National League rookie of the year.

It would make sense in any era of baseball but this one, where the affable and seemingly qualified Howard has become the bystander clipped by crimes against the pastime.

"I can tell you he doesn't like it," said Phillies relief pitcher Geoff Geary, who shares a locker wall with Howard and was his roommate in the minor leagues. "But he can't control it.... It's part of the deal, the card he's been handed. He's done a great job dealing with it."

Jim Thome, traded last November by the Phillies to the Chicago White Sox because there was no holding off Howard, shook his head gravely.

"We get tested," he said, firmly. "That's never crossed my mind with him. And I know him.... He's done it the right way. He's a good kid. You should get to know him and learn that. People should."

The chair spins this way, then that way. The Swedish Fish are disappearing in short leaps from his hand to his mouth.

Howard grew up a Cardinals fan, he says, but worshiped the great left-handed hitters of his day: Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Tony Gwynn. He was drawn by the power and speed of Bonds and Griffey, the ingenuity of Gwynn.

Of them, the Gwynn influence is perhaps the most apt, for Howard has hit about half of his home runs to the left of center field. When his swing gets untrustworthy, it is that fundamental -- tracking the pitch longer, staying inside the ball, redirecting the outside sliders and fastballs -- that rights him.

"Slow down," Manager Charlie Manuel will remind him. "Stay on the ball."

So the home runs arrive, five in April, 13 in May, nine in June, eight in July, 14 in August (when he also had 41 RBIs), eight in September. He is batting .312. His on-base percentage is .414. He won the home run derby at the All-Star game in Pittsburgh with ridiculous ease, mostly driving the ball to center and right fields.

"Unbelievable power," said a major league scout. "Absolutely unbelievable power. It's as good as anybody in the game. Incredible torque in his swing, the ball jumps off his bat, and sounds different when it does."

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