Cheryl Howardwatches her son and sees her father. His name was James Black, a hulkinglefthanded slugger who played first base and the outfield, powerful but nimblefor a man his size. He starred in a sandlot league at Birmingham's famedRickwood Field, where he faced Willie Mays—and Willie Mays Sr. Cheryl was ayear old when her father gave up baseball to work in the coal mines, so shedoesn't remember much about his game, but descriptions have been passed downthrough the years. He was a player from the Josh Gibson school, who swung forthe fences and often connected. He homered, and whiffed, with force andregularity. Standing next to the batter's box at Citizens Bank Park inPhiladelphia last week, moments after the Phillies clinched a return trip tothe World Series, Cheryl said, "It does sometimes feel like he'shere."
James Black diedof a heart attack in 1979, two weeks after Cheryl gave birth to twin boys, oneof them Ryan James Howard. Her father never had a chance to play major leaguebaseball—the sport was segregated when he was coming up—but given his affinityfor 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 theregular season. Both teams' ballparks, Yankee Stadium and Citizens Bank,allowed the most homers in their respective leagues. The Yanks and the Philscombined for 468 home runs, the most ever by World Series foes, according tohomer historian David Vincent. Nearly 10% of those blasts came off the bat ofBlack's grandson, another enormous but agile lefthanded first baseman whoseprodigious power numbers more than make up for his violent swings andmisses.
Howard has playedfour 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. At6'4", 242 pounds, he is a classic slugger in an era that, at times, hastried to distance itself from the home run. After the fall of Sosa, McGwire andBonds, it was safer to celebrate the game's more subtle arts—the sacrificebunt, the double steal, the walk—rather than its feats of strength. Generalmanagers vowed to build their teams around pitching and defense, maybe evenspeed. In 2007 and '08, home run totals fell under 5,000 for the first time ina decade. Smaller ball was back. It wasn't a revolution, but somethingundeniably had changed.
In Philadelphiaand New York, they practice a more well-rounded style too—these Phillies, infact, are one of the great baserunning teams in history—but not at the expenseof the heavy lumber. Four Phillies hit more than 30 home runs. Eight Yankeeshit at least 18. Even the second basemen, Philadelphia's Chase Utley and NewYork's Robinson Cano, combined for 56 homers. The major league total once againcrested 5,000. The Phillies scored 45% of their runs by way of the homer, mostin the majors. The Yankees scored 41%, fourth most. They discovered whateveryone from James Black to Earl Weaver already understood: The long ball doesnot simply entertain. It wins.
November 2, 2009
"You knew itcouldn't go away forever," says Phillies outfielder Matt Stairs. "Irealize teams want to build around speed and defense these days, but the bestway to score is still to put a couple of guys on base and have somebody come upand hit one out. That's how the game is supposed to be played."
Yes, the big flyis back, and this week it returns to the big stage. The Phillies may not bequite as muscled as the Yankees, but they are an American League team that justhappens to fall on the National League ledger. Their 5'8" shortstop, JimmyRollins, hit 21 home runs this season. Their 5'9" centerfielder, ShaneVictorino, has three in the playoffs. Even 65-year-old manager Charlie Manuelinsists that not long ago he too could've reached the McDonald's sign thatfronts the third deck at Citizens Bank Park. But of all the Phillies' mashers,nobody goes deeper than Howard.
"He hits theball a thousand feet," says Mariners pitcher Ian Snell, a close friend ofHoward's who has faced him since the minor leagues. "He can intimidate youbecause he's so freaking huge, he doesn't fit in the batter's box, and then heswings that big old tree." Howard's bat measures a stout 35 inches, 34ounces, but in his hands it looks like a toothpick.
Those hands, bigas a middle infielder's mitt, are what former Phillies general manager PatGillick noticed the first time he saw Howard play six years ago in the ArizonaFall League. When Gillick is scouting a player, he looks forward to shaking theplayer's hand. A strong handshake portends home run power. "That's wherethe evaluation begins," Gillick says. When he thinks back on the strongesthandshakes he has felt in more than 40 years of scouting, he rattles off someformidable names: Eddie Murray, George Bell, Alex Rodriguez and Howard. (Aftershaking this reporter's hand, Gillick said, "Didn't hit many home runs, didyou?" So true.)
Teammates compareHoward's drives to golf shots because they backspin out of the ballpark anddon't stop rising until they're out of sight. "When you hit one flush, youdon'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 theplate more and sent line drives to the opposite field that often carried overthe wall. But after Howard racked up 58 home runs and won the National LeagueMVP Award in 2006, his first full season, he became more distance conscious. Ashe gained weight, he'd swing at pitches outside the strike zone and try to yankthem into the rightfield seats. His home run totals did not suffer much, buthis batting average fell from .313 in '06 to .268 in '07 to .251 in '08. He wasbecoming that caricature.
After thePhillies won the World Series last year, Howard headed to a training facilitycalled the Athlete's Compound, at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa. He worked outfrom 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 pickedup very quickly that this is a guy who doesn't want to be known as just aslugger," Perlozzo says. Howard changed his defensive footwork, hismechanics and his diet. He ate high-protein, low-fat meals every two to threehours but never after 6:30 p.m. When Howard reported to spring training, he was20 pounds lighter, able to grab grounders in the hole that used to skip pasthim. This season, he cut his errors by more than 25%.
Changes in thebatter's box were more subtle but just as significant. Howard got lower in hisstance and crept closer to the inside corner. He saw more pitches per plateappearance than he did in '08 and took a few moments before every at bat torelax on the bench with his eyes closed—"my chill time," he calls it.In the last two months of the regular season he batted .301, and in theplayoffs he batted .355 in nine games, winning the NLCS MVP and becoming thefirst player since Lou Gehrig to drive in a run in eight straight postseasongames. In Game 4 of the NLDS, against Colorado, the Phillies trailed 4--2 inthe ninth, and Howard was due up fifth. He told his teammates, "Just get meto the plate, boys." He batted with two outs, doubled in the tying runs andthen scored the game-winner to clinch the series. "I used to play with BigPapi," says Phillies pitcher Pedro Martinez, thinking back on David Ortiz'stheatrics in 2004. "Now I play with Big Sexy."
There is only oneway to pitch Howard, and unfortunately for him, everybody in baseball knows it.Against righthanders his OPS is 1.086, better than Joe Mauer's. Against leftiesit's .653, worse than David Eckstein's. "When there's money on the table,you need a lefty facing him," says one pitching coach. "And you need tothrow him breaking balls." According to Inside Edge, a baseball scoutingservice, since 2008 Howard has hit .169 against curveballs and sliders fromlefthanded pitchers. In Game 4 of the NLCS he crushed a fastball from Dodgerslefty Randy Wolf for a home run. The next two times he came up with runners onbase, Wolf and lefty reliever George Sherrill fed him eight straight breakingballs.
Manuel, himself alefthanded power hitter in his playing days, believes lefties have aparticularly hard time against other lefties because they see so few of them ontheir way to the big leagues. This week the Yankees will greet Howard withsouthpaw starters CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, who could start as many asfive of seven games. "I'm ready for action," Howard insists.
This World Seriesis certain to be a boon for ball hawks and television ratings. Even Dodgersthird baseman Casey Blake, who usually ignores the World Series, said he mighttune in. Two years after Bonds's last at bat, 11 years after the summer of Sosaand McGwire, the time has come to dig the long ball again.
The Phillies are an American League club that justhappens to fall on the National League ledger.