The sky over St.Louis looked as gray and uninviting as cold oatmeal when Ryan Howard hit themost memorable moon shot of his career. He was 12, and his Little League teamwas playing a squad from Jefferson City. Howard, then known simply as Hurt,already had prodigious power from the port side. "When he made contact, itwas like, Wow!" recalls his twin brother, Corey. "His home runs wereloud."
Late in the game, Hurt turned on a chest-high heater. According to family lorethe ball soared over the infield, over the outfield, over a 20-foot chain-linkfence 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 aRed Lobster sign's red lobster.
Thirteen yearslater Howard still savors the swat. "It was my first actual bomb,"recalls the Philadelphia Phillies' first baseman. "I watched it with alittle awe." An equally awed sportswriter recently paced off the distancebetween home plate and the building. If the yarn is true, Ryan's blast traveledat least 430 feet.
Laid end to end,Howard's homers this season have traveled an estimated 4 1/4 miles, the longestgoing 491 feet. He had a major-league-leading 56 to go along with amajor-league-leading 138 RBIs, including 41 in August, the most by any playerin any month since Frank Howard had 41 in July 1962. He also pounded 14 homersand hit .348 last month to single-handedly launch the Phillies into wild-cardcontention. If Howard reaches 60 homers, he'll become only the sixth player toaccomplish the feat. "To hit 50 is really something," says Philadelphiacloser Tom Gordon. "Sixty is almost beyond comprehension. It'smagnificent."
To date, theMagnificent Five includes Babe Ruth, who hit 60 in 1927, and Roger Maris, whose61 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 suspectedsteroid use. Should Howard pass Maris's 61, a crusade is afoot to anoint himKing of the Juiceless Dinger. Asked if he would take pride in such a title, hesays, with a hint of diffidence, "I would."
Then again, Ryanis dispassionately modest about his chances of even attaining 60. "If ithappens, it happens," he says with a small shrug. "If I were to dosomething like that and then wake up and reflect on the season one day at homein the off-season, I wouldn't believe it."
Baseball hasseldom seen anything quite like Howard. The hulking 6'4" 250-pounder lookslike he was poured into his uniform and forgot to say when. As if stanchionedto the bag at first, he often seems as animated as the William Penn statue atopPhiladelphia's City Hall. "Ryan does get excited," insists Philadelphiareliever Geoff Geary. "His excitement is just not extreme." To prove apoint, Geary shows a video he filmed surreptitiously on his cellphone. Facinghis locker before a game, wired into an iPod, Howard, arms akimbo and hipsswiveling, does a wobbly rumba. "That's Ryan's groove dance," saysGeary. "He gets down to get loose."
Howard is onlytruly loose in the clubhouse, where he greets teammates with a dozenhandshakes. "He's got big old Mice and Men hands," says Philliesshortstop Jimmy Rollins. "You know, like the ones Lenny had. There's a lotof strong in those hands."
You need stronghands to dispatch fastballs into the troposphere. "Ryan uses an inside-outswing for wallburners to left, but his homers to center and right have atrajectory unlike anything I've ever seen," says pitcher Jamie Moyer, aveteran of 20 seasons. "They start out like routine flies and carry andcarry and carry until they land 30 rows back in the bleachers. They'reabsolutely majestic."
At Citizens BankPark, Howard's most regal blasts alight in the upper deck in right, a veritablepetri dish of costumed Phillies fan clubs, from Flash Gordon's"Superheroes" to Chase Utley's "Utley's Uglies." Three clubsvie for Howard supremacy: the leonine-garbed "Ryan's Lions," the HomerSimpson--masked "Homer's Homers" and "Howard's Howards," whosport bowl cuts like Moe Howard of Three Stooges fame. All chant"M-V-P!" when their hero steps to the plate.
"Philliesfans go crazy for the shut-up-and-play type," says Jerry Getz, a Phillysports-radio gadfly known as Jerry on the Mobile. "Howard seems like aquiet, clean-cut John Kruk, an accessible, almost jolly guy who plays the gamelike he loves it. He's the anti-T.O."
In the Phillies'dugout Howard is called everything from Rhinoceros to Man-Mountain to One-ManGang. The consensus favorite, however, is John Coffey, after the gentlegargantuan in The Green Mile. "John Coffey was a big guy and a good, kindperson," says Howard. "I act like that sometimes, too, just to throwpeople off."
By most accountsit's no act. "Ryan has always been even tempered," says Corey, hisfraternal twin. "The only thing that sets him off is hearing people say hecan't do things. They've said he can't hit lefties, he can't hit off-speedpitches, he can't hit for a high average. Whatever they've said Ryan can't do,he's gone out and done."
Their father,Ron, a project manager for IBM in St. Louis, forbade the word can't in hishome. So Ryan set out to show his old man he could. At Lafayette High he playeddefensive end, power forward, first base and trombone in the marching band. Heplayed each of them ably but baseball best. Two years ago Howard, who wasdrafted by the Phils in the fifth round of the 2001 draft out of SouthwestMissouri State, hit 46 homers for two farm teams. All that stood in his way inPhiladelphia was power-hitting first baseman Jim Thome and his six-year, $85million contract. "I'd heard Ryan hit bombs," Rollins says. "But Ifigured there were 85 million reasons I wouldn't see him anytime soon."
The followingspring Howard auditioned in left, flunked and was sent back to Triple A."The Phillies traditionally give you one shot," Rollins says. "Ifyou're demoted after that, you might as well cancel Christmas."
For Howard,Christmas came in July. When Thome's season was cut short by injuries,Howard--the International League leader in hitting (.371), on-base percentage(.467) and slugging (.690) at the time--got another chance. He made the most ofit, mashing 22 homers (10 in the final month) to help propel the Phils towithin a game of the playoffs.
Last November thePhils settled their first base question by trading Thome to the White Sox.Questions about Howard, however, remained to be settled. Though he was Rookieof the Year in 2005, for example, he batted only .148 against southpaws. Atweek's end he was up to .283 and had hit 15 of his homers off lefties. "Twoyears ago he had raw power, but he tried to cover the entire strike zone,"says Astros third base coach Doug Mansolino. "The difference now ispatience and selectivity: He only swings at pitches in his strike zone."(His strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved from 3 to 1 last season to under 2 to1 this year.)
Pity the pitcherwho trespasses in Howard's zone. Last week Houston's Russ Springer tried tobust him with a cutter up and in. Howard swatted the righthander's pitch offthe face of the second deck. "Lefthanded batters are supposed to foul thatoff or hit it on the ground," says Astros infielder Aubrey Huff. "Idon't think there's another big leaguer who could have hit it out."
The crack ofHoward's 34 1/2-ounce bat was easy on Rollins's ear. "When he connected, itwas loud, like somebody had turned up the volume," says Rollins. "Itwas a beautiful sound, and I knew the ball would be leaving the yard."
Franz Lidz has more on Ryan Howard's monstrous finishat SI.com/baseball.