Howard hitting a high note

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Baseball's next great home run hitter was a band geek. Ryan Howard, 6-foot-4, 260 pounds and built like a bouncer, blew the trombone in high school. Instead of playing football on Friday nights, he played show tunes.

Howard does not volunteer this information, nor does he discuss his job flipping burgers at Hardee's or his summers spent mowing his father's meticulously kept lawn. In fact, Howard is reticent to offer much more than a quick analysis of his swing – "It's OK right now," he said – because then, heaven forbid, people might just begin to recognize him.

The whole anonymity racket won't fly anymore for Howard, the Philadelphia Phillies' slugging 26-year-old first baseman who leads baseball with 10 home runs this spring after hitting 13 over his final 33 games last season. That binge won him National League Rookie of the Year honors despite only 312 at-bats. In that time, he hit 22 homers, which projects to more than 40 and would put Howard in elite company. Then again, Howard's tendency to whack fat pitches a nautical mile already earned him induction into an even higher stratosphere.

"With No. 25 in red and white who's retired, No. 25 in gray, black and orange, No. 5 in red and white and No. 34 in red and white," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and David Ortiz. Only a handful of guys can hit the ball that far. Ryan can. He's scary.

"You should have seen it a couple days ago. It was in Lakeland. He hit one over every bullpen made for the major leagues. He's hit some high, and some higher, but this one was long. And high. It was ridiculous. It kept traveling. You really had to be there. I mean, I could try to describe it, but you can't possibly picture it. You had to see it."

Everyone around the Phillies' clubhouse can tell a story about Howard's prodigious power, introduced in a 48-homer minor-league season two years ago and displayed for everyone to see last year when he took over for the injured Jim Thome. Some gawk at how Howard flicks his wrists with the ease of swatting a fly and launches a ball over the fence, and others marvel at his ability to lean into a pitch with his left-handed swing and shoot it deep into the opposite-field bleachers.

"Oh, I remember," said Pittsburgh manager Jim Tracy, victimized twice last year by game-winning Howard homers while with the Dodgers. "Picture this. Bottom of the 10th. We had scored a run off Billy Wagner in the top of the 10th. Within three pitches, we lost. Second-pitch triple by Pat Burrell. And first pitch to Howard he hit up into the deep part of the ballpark, eight or nine or 10 rows up. Yeah. Hit a grand slam against us in Dodger Stadium, too. He's done his fair damage, thanks."

Players, managers and scouts talk so reverently about Howard's power that the stories sound apocryphal, like someone talking about an encounter with Bigfoot. Or, in Howard's case, 500-Foot.

"I don't know how about that," Howard said. "I'm not sure how far I hit them. You have to ask the Phillies. They bring out the tape measure."

The Phillies don't keep track during spring training.

"Well, that remains to be seen, then," Howard said. "But watch your head."

That's more like it. Some personality, swagger, bloviating. Ortiz flips his bat when he hammers home runs, and Bonds struts, and Pujols stares at his. Every great home run hitter needs at least a whiff of arrogance.

It's inside Howard. On Sunday afternoon, he stared at a well-hit ball off Josh Beckett a little too long for the Red Sox starter's liking. Howard said he lost the ball, which died before the warning track, in the sun. Still, Beckett did not appreciate the gesture, and he chirped at Howard from the dugout. Howard heard enough, dropped his mitt and stomped toward Beckett, who all of a sudden realized he might have picked the wrong fight.

Howard knows only haymakers. That's why he struck out 100 times last season, and that's why he hits home runs. One season at Lafayette High School outside of St. Louis, Howard hit a cheap home run against rival Marquette, and as he trotted, the third baseman said to him, "That would never get out at our ballpark."

Later that season, in a game at Marquette, Howard walloped a home run clear into the parking lot. Rounding third base, he looked at his adversary.

"That far enough for you?" Howard said.

"He's a competitor for sure," said Howard's twin brother, Corey. "When we played trombone, it was always who could hit the higher note, who could play the loudest, who could go the longest without messing up."

Always bigger, stronger, better, Howard's unspoken ethos.

"I just hit," he said. "I do surprise myself sometimes. Right now, though, my swing isn't exactly where I want it to be."

Ten homers with a bad swing? Scary. For pitchers because they've seen Howard succeed when his stroke isn't perfect. And for Howard because he won't be able to hide himself – or his trombone – much longer.

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