How a Midwestern kid with a goofy sense of humor — and a gift for punishing baseballs — made it safe to believe in heroes again.
HE’S THE FUTURE of the Phillies. Scratch that — he’s the future not just of the Phillies, but of baseball, a 265-pound jolt of power and innocence that our national game seems in perpetual need of, a great player and a wonderful guy, everyone says so, risen up not a moment too soon.
On a late-February morning, however, Ryan Howard is sitting in a corner of the spring-training clubhouse in Clearwater kidding around about … well, you don’t want to know. Let’s just say he’s having a very big laugh with his teammates. He’s in his element, he’s relaxed, he’s happy, let’s cut him a little slack after the ride he gave us last year. Don’t care what they’re cutting up over, Ryan and Shane and the others. They’re kids. Let’s let them be.
Well, they’re not kids. They’re Phillies. They’re ours. And this one shocked us, coming out of a minor-league purgatory as the affable reincarnation of Babe Ruth himself, although black and missing the Bambino’s bull-in-a-china-shop style. He’s free also of the body-sculpting drugs that the recent bevy of home-run record bashers ingested — in fact, he sports a Ruthian paunch, and furthermore breaks out an electric smile whenever he feels like it, which is often. By God, an actual person, playing the game and having fun. And he is a great hitter, not only a great hitter but a great home-run hitter, the hardest thing to do in all of sport. The question is, is that possible, these two things together … a great player and a nice guy? Is that possible in Philadelphia? In … anywhere?
This is why we need to know what he’s really like. Find the crack before it finds us. So there they are, checking out a laptop, Ryan and his cronies, studying some graphic on Chris’s computer with the focus of day traders … giggling day traders.
We could cut him a break. It’s late February, the beginning of a new season, we could actually wait until he starts whaling away at pitches again. But that’s not our way. So here we have Ryan Howard, 27 years old — he really isn’t a kid, in fact he’s got a six-year-old son — commanding his end of the clubhouse, the savior of the game he plays as if his life depends on it and, at the same time, as if it is actually a game, which is not a paradox but the essential answer to why he is so good. We zero in, on the day before the official start of spring training — the laptop’s been put away, but Ryan is still holding court, still making his buddies giggle over …
Panties. They are cracking up over … underwear.
“I know how it is with Shane Victorino,” Ryan Howard announces. He references a night at a club when suddenly the ladies were sharing their lingerie. “I mean, I got hit in the face with a couple pair of panties. A little large.” Ryan’s corner erupts. “It was one of those things, I just walked up, an accident, supposed to hit Shane” — his Phillies teammate — “I know they didn’t get them at Victoria’s Secret.”
Shane, Ryan explains, is a babe magnet. He’s not. No, not at all, but he’s got his finger on which Phillies are: “Chase, Cole, Shane and Jimmy.” Is nothing sacred? “Oh — and Ryan Madson,” he adds. Well, he reveals nothing, at least, on the size of the lingerie the others on his list prefer. But who’s he kidding? Big sluggers do just fine with the ladies, and you challenge him on this point as you’re thinking, Jeez, pretty juvenile. But then Ryan Howard takes it a step further. He turns in order to show off his back, as if he’s wearing his uniform instead of warm-ups, the uniform with his name and number 6 sewn on, huge, his calling card. Howard intones somberly: “My name will get me whatever I want.”
Oh, boy. But wait — you realize that he’s kidding. He’s playing you. The panty thing, anointing the babe magnets — he’s making fun of the whole oversexed bad-boy thing. A joke. Philadelphia’s — nay, the country’s! — great sports savior, exposed for what he is: a flat-out goofball. An ironic goofball, playing with the supposed spoils of stardom.
“Sha-ane,” he sings admiringly in falsetto. He laughs. Ryan Howard loves to laugh.
There really is, in other words, hope.
YET NONE OF THIS — the ability to hit baseballs often and long, the most affable fool-around Philadelphia athlete since Charles Barkley — lets anybody off the hook, least of all Ryan Howard. It might be a toss-up, what’s harder: hitting big-time home runs, or being a big-time home-run hitter. Which means the savior business is going to be sorely tested, especially in this town. As old-time player Leo Durocher once famously said: “Nice guys finish last.” Or get chewed up in the celebrity game. “You pick your nose in the dugout, it’s on TV now,” longtime Phillies adviser Dallas Green laments. And if you happen to get pissed and smack your wife around on the street, as Phils pitcher Brett Myers did one night in Boston last summer, those annoying judgments of prosecutors and reporters and Howard Eskin start seeing the light almost before the hangover fades. In Green’s heyday, a few decades ago, it was all different; a club’s two or three beat reporters would drink and play around cheek-to-jowl with players. But now players are so rich, so large, so different — we’re always watching, ready to pounce.
But first things first. Baseball players and coaches and trainers and video guys all love to invoke the “impossible” physics of hitting: round ball meeting round bat, comes at you from 60 feet away at 95 miles an hour, or not quite that fast, or much slower, from all sorts of angles, with different spins, day or night. But none of that’s the big problem. The big problem is failure.
Every hitter fails, mostly. Not mostly, overwhelmingly. You walk up to take your singular spot in front of a packed house — plus all those people at home waiting anxiously for the nose-pick — and you swing and miss, or hit it badly, or let balls go by that you should swing at, 90 percent of the time, which is a kind estimate.
The dilemma is in your head. Hitting the ball well requires mechanical perfection — otherwise, you have no shot. So you spend hours in batting cages and watch endless video of yourself and others and worry about your hips and hands and feet and head and shoulders and wrists whipping into the right position, and you talk about all this all the time with coaches and other players, and think about it when you aren’t talking about it, all in the pursuit of stepping up before the watching world with the express goal of thinking absolutely … nothing. Of simply doing it. Which is why Ryan Howard emerges, capless, from a batting-cage session in late February, the real games still over a month away, staring up at a white sky — his swing doesn’t feel right. It’s early, too early, to feel right. You have to build toward it. He knows this. But he’s obsessive. “You always want it now,” he says.
To hit a baseball, your mind must be … empty. See the ball, hit the ball. Then something easy and pure might occur. Maybe once, that day. Twice, you’ve had a great game. But you’ll go a week — sometimes longer — with nothing.
All of which makes Zen philosophers of baseball players. Hall of Fame hitter Tony Gwynn says that he didn’t try to get a hit when he went up to the plate. No, that would have been too desirous. He merely tried to do things the right way every time. And if you do things right, “Who you are is going to come out.”
“I think that hitting is so simple it’s complicated” is how Howard puts it. He doesn’t try to hit home runs when he practices; he hits the ball straight, on a clothesline, working his technique. You build your body’s knowledge, let that take over, shut the mind down at the right moment. His teammate Jimmy Rollins mentored him when Howard came up to the Phillies two years ago. Ryan believed he had to be perfect, so he was trying too hard — he was thinking out there. Rollins took him aside: “If you show that you’re good for one month, who cares? If you show that you’re bad for one month, who cares?” Well, of course everybody, especially Howard, cared. But Rollins was trying to get Howard’s mind off good and bad. He was snowing him, teaching him that the way to do really well was to talk himself into how inconsequential it all is, as if baseball — who’s he kidding? — is just a game.
Weird game, isn’t it?
“Yes,” Zen Master J-Roll avers.
Of course, Howard already understood what Rollins was saying — that’s how he got to the big leagues. In fact, he was stuck at least a year longer in the minors than he should have been, partly because nobody knew how good he could be, mostly because the Phillies had invested tens of millions of dollars in Jim Thome, another big slugger who played first base, the same position as Howard. He already knew patience.
But he had to relearn it. They all do. He went back down to the minors, and when he returned to the majors for good, two months later, after Thome got hurt, nobody had to say a word.
Ba-boom! Rookie of the Year, the best first-year player. Followed by last year’s Most Valuable Player award, when he was the best player, period. He whacked 58 home runs — Babe Ruth country. For good measure, he won the home-run derby at the All-Star Game, and when big-leaguers toured Japan last fall, he was the best player there, too. Last season, Ryan Howard ran the table, suddenly emerging — no, not emerging, but being, as if this was simply who he was and we were catching up to him. He made it all look easy.
Like all sneaky geniuses, he’d been working his whole life to become an overnight success. Jerry Lafferty has been scouting the Midwest for the Phillies for 27 years, and he had a bird dog on Ryan Howard in high school back in the late ’90s, in a suburb just west of St. Louis. Big kid, looked like he had some power. If hitting is based on feel, finding hitters is, too, given that nobody knows which kids will eventually pass baseball’s mind-over-failure test. Lafferty, who sounds like the second coming of Johnny Cash, met Ryan when Ryan was 16: “He had a confidence with you, looked you in the eye.” He came from a solid middle-class family; somehow he played football and trombone in the marching band, simultaneously. Good stuff. Though he was a bit of a late developer, he had to grow into that body; on the other hand, he was “a kid that had a good approach to life. You saw things that made you interested, and you wanted to come back.”
It was the start of a long idea, a projection: Put this kid in the big leagues, 50,000 fans hot and bothered, BB-throwing Randy Johnson on the mound. How does he react? Lafferty really had no idea. Which is why scouting is all about failure, too.
But the hints grew. Howard went to Southwest Missouri State to play ball, down in the corner of the state. Lafferty kept track. The fall of Ryan’s junior year, Lafferty drove to Springfield to watch practice. It was the off-season, a good time to check out players, see how hard they work, how dialed-in they are to getting better, because it’s always about getting better. One crisp afternoon, Ryan was taking extra batting practice; Lafferty stood behind the protective cage with Andrew Jefferson, a pitcher. Pitchers and hitters, for obvious reasons, are normally about as friendly as gorillas and snakes, though Howard and Jefferson were buddies; Jefferson was busting on Ryan, telling him how much better he could do, that for a big strong guy Howard wasn’t worth a goddamn. Suddenly, Ryan stopped hitting. He laid his bat down, walked to the back of the cage, and said, calmly, “Would you please be quiet. I’m trying to work.” Then he turned around, walked back, picked up his bat, and started hitting again.
Lafferty was pleased. If that’s his approach on this beautiful fall day, during the off-season, then every day forward …
That’s the way baseball guys think, that it’s a long road, constant baby steps up. Ryan was a true believer, too. If you’d asked him at 15 what he wanted to do, well, play major league ball! His father built a batting cage in the basement for him. His buddy Chris Mac, who lived down the street, would call him to go bowling or grab something to eat, and Ryan was always making him wait — “Dude, just another half-hour!” — always whacking away, trying to pound balls through the net and off the concrete walls down there. At Southwest Missouri State, Ryan got a key to the gym, would take his boom box and teammate Dante and hit into the wee hours. After his rookie year with the Phils, Ryan called Tony Gwynn, who now coaches San Diego State. Howard had read Gwynn’s book on hitting, and wanted to fly out for a lesson. When he got there, Gwynn placed a Wiffle ball on a tee and said, “Attack it.” Ryan attacked. Gwynn’s players watched, dumbstruck. The rookie of the year whaling away at Wiffle balls. For three days, just like a five-year-old. Gwynn was impressed for another reason: Howard put so much backspin on the ball that when it hit the net it would hover, still spinning, as if a hair dryer was blowing under it, holding it there. Tony Gwynn, one of the best hitters ever, had never seen this before. It told him that Ryan’s technique was very good. And that he was a very strong man.
RYAN HOWARD’S PARENTS, Cheryl and Ron, were high-school sweethearts. They went to the same high school, down in Birmingham. In 1963, when they were in ninth grade, Ron spent two weeks in jail. He was 14. Martin Luther King was in there as well.
Birmingham was unique in the South, more like Pittsburgh than an old antebellum city. Blacks had, Cheryl says, three job choices: the coal mines, the steel plant, or teaching. Her father, who had played sandlot ball with Willie Mays and Mays’s father in the ’40s, picked the coal mines, ignoring the feelers from Negro League scouts — he had a family to support. Ron’s father was a mechanic.
The steel plant and coal mines had drawn whites who had washed out of farming; down they had come, post-WWII, from the Alabama hills, creating a toxic competition for jobs with the city’s 150,000 blacks. There were 50 bombings in Birmingham between 1947 and 1963 — churches, homes and so forth. None of them was solved.
Ron marched — as many students did — against segregation. Children were let out of school to man the front lines because their parents could lose their jobs, or be beaten; marching was against the law. The spring of 1963, the marches lasted several days. Ron was arrested the first day — “I was taken out of the action early,” he says now, able to laugh at the craziness — and ended up in the city jail with many other students. That’s where King wrote “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which called for an end to segregation. Meanwhile, Ron learned how to make jailhouse coffee — a wire stuck in to heat it. The food was eggs and “unmentionables.” The hardened guys they were thrown in with treated the boys — children, really — well, out of respect for what they were trying to do.
After high school, Ron Howard would enlist in the Air Force to avoid Vietnam, and serve eight years, including a stint in Athens, Greece. Eventually he got an IT degree, a career at IBM. Cheryl is an accountant — in fact, she manages Ryan’s money. They’ve lived in a comfortable suburb 30 miles west of St. Louis for 18 years; that’s where Ryan grew up.
And very differently from his parents, not only because the Midwest of 1980 onward was a different world from the segregated South, but because Ron Howard ran with the new possibilities. His family would do their best, and their best would be very good. Ryan’s older brother Chris remembers cleaning the garage. When he finished, his father would ask him if he was sure the garage was clean — completely clean.
But it would not be, not completely, not perfectly. Nor would a B on a report card otherwise crammed with A’s sit entirely right with Ron — a B was not bad, nice job, Ron wasn’t over-the-top about it; in fact he’s a guy Ryan’s early coaches call “very professional,” meaning he wanted the best for his children and at the same time let the coaches coach, the teachers teach, his children compete. But a B meant that there was room for improvement. That’s the lesson Ryan learned growing up. The old Birmingham stories would “come up every so often, but that wasn’t the main focal point about things,” Ryan says. “They would try to teach us to go out, earn your keep, treat people with respect.” A complex past made direct and simple, for the next generation.
All the Howard children got it; Chris is a lawyer and an assistant athletic director at LSU, Roni a social worker, Ryan’s fraternal twin Corey has an IT degree. Ryan, in fact, is the only one of the four without a college degree — he left Southwest Missouri State for the Phillies’ farm system after his junior year, in 2001, the same year his son was born. Mom and Darian live in Kansas City. “He’s as goofy as I am,” Ryan reveals. “I don’t know where he gets it.” Howard took Darian to the All-Star Game last year; sometimes Cheryl and Ron bring their grandson to Philly for a visit.
Ron says that Ryan will get his degree, in communications. Ryan concurs. “I want to get it,” he says. Even this is believable, from a guy who in a year or two will sign a deal for $100 million plus.
WE LOVE SLUGGERS, so strong, so dominant — a home run is an act that stops everything, an end in itself — and then we get to watch him trot slowly around the bases on his way … home. Power and release. High-fives all around, in the stands, at home plate. The big guy allows himself a little helmetless smile in the dugout, we sip our beer in the sun.
Suddenly, the best bopper, the top slugger, is our guy. And we gotta know — what’s he made of?
Because if we don’t love home-run hitters, we hate them. It’s not pretty, what we put them through. Bigness in the biggest way we can imagine — Babe Ruth! — or they sit throned in their clubhouse armchairs as evil incarnate: Hello, Barry Bonds. Race is part of that divide, but only part. Roger Maris, a smallish, white Midwesterner, was so unnerved by the attention he got chasing the Babe’s single-season record in 1961 — some of it boos and hate mail — that his hair fell out in clumps. Maris just wasn’t large enough, good enough or Babe-like enough to suit us. Hank Aaron, chasing the Babe’s career mark in the early ’70s, got death threats. Hammerin’ Henry had made the mistake of being black. The last decade gave us Bonds and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa; we’re convinced all three cheated with steroids.
Oh, what it does to them, the attention and pressure. In Philly, everyone knows Mike Schmidt was a great home-run hitter except Mike Schmidt. Most of us cling to our pillows at night dreaming of success, but more than 15 years after he took his last swing, Schmidt is openly admitting that he’s living vicariously through Pat Burrell’s strikeouts. Even a casual observer can see that Burrell, the Phillies outfielder who a few years ago looked like he was becoming the next great home-run hitter, is lost, that he’s thinking too much up at the plate. Failure, in turn, has made him withdrawn, moody, and now simply talking to him is downright eerie: a bubble of tobacco under the lower lip, nothing in his eyes or face, as if he doesn’t have a thought in his head. The poor kid has it backwards: All the boos and media noise and advice from every corner is rattling around at the precise moment when his mind needs to be empty and free.
Home runs are a pure thing, a perfect moment. And so it’s appealing to leap back over the recent steroid-addled sluggers to make a connection between force-of-nature Babe Ruth and Ryan Howard, given that Howard, free of both drugs and asshole-itis, is the first pure home-run record-chaser since woebegone Maris — and much better than Maris. So let’s bring on the Babe! There’s a small problem with that: Ruth was no picnic of a person. Roger Angell, the New Yorker baseball writer who as a boy saw Babe Ruth play, sets the record straight in that direction: “He was such an animal, a very gross guy — the clubhouse guy said he never flushed the toilet.” Ruth, Angell says, was a created phenomenon. “The thing you have to remember is that we made him into whatever he was.”
And we tend to destroy what we create. Ryan Howard will pick his nose on camera, or witnesses will see actual panties hit him in the face, or something truly profound will occur, such as a batting slump, and then we will watch him even more carefully, see how he deals with trouble, see how he straightens out either his life or his swing. He might emerge from danger hitting homers again but hating the world.
In the end, the surprise isn’t that Barry Bonds is such a jerk or Mark McGwire so clueless, or that Schmidt is so neurotic and Burrell now lost, or that the Babe, the guy who started it all, was barely human.
No, the surprise is that Ryan Howard, who at the moment is a very, very good home-run hitter and a nice Midwestern kid, is going to keep up both ends of that deal for us. If we let him.
THOUGH GOOFY MIDWESTERN kid is more like it. It’s a late-February afternoon in Clearwater, the field and stands empty, a raw wind blowing. It’s cold, as Howard has his picture taken — dozens of times — wearing a $2,500 cashmere-and-wool suit shipped in from New York. Instead of complaining, he riffs with Phillies media guys Greg and K.G. between shots, on, well, anything. The game now is to throw out whatever comes to mind, see if it sticks. They wonder about the alligators in the estuary beyond right field. “What if somebody went in there, looking for a ball?” Ryan says, laughing — so awful it’s funny. “If dogs go back there, forget it,” Greg says. Or, consider earrings:
Ryan: “I got one in my left ear, my brother got both ears, so I got both.”
Greg: “You know, an earring in the right ear means you’re gay, but both is okay.”
Ryan: “In both ears — does that mean you’re bisexual?”
Greg: “Doesn’t [new Phils pitcher] Freddy Garcia look like the Rock?”
K.G.: “I read that Diddy and Jay-Z met Brian Roberts and discussed a hip-hop urban channel.”
Ryan: “I can be down with that.”
Greg to Ryan: “You look like Ben Affleck when he played that gangster.”
Ryan, in an English accent: “Six four five.” Everyone looks confused. “That’s from All About the Benjamins.”
And so it goes, on and on in that scattershot vein. As Howard does his job for an hour in the cold in a thin suit, playing catch with junk culture, free and easy, teasing the photog’s assistants about how sexy he is, something becomes clear: Ryan Howard knows exactly who he is. Hence the easy fooling around, the openness that surprised the Phillies brass just as much as the torrent of home runs: “I’ve never met anyone quite like him,” longtime owner Bill Giles gushes. And then, shivering, you come up with a theory: Ryan Howard has come out the other side of his parents’ history, and he just might be together enough to overcome baseball’s trail of fallen stars, too.
If you ask Ron and Cheryl Howard, or Ryan, about his importance as a black star, nobody wants anything to do with that. “He plays the game he loves,” Ron says. “It’s as simple as that.” That’s something Ron says over and over: It’s as simple as that. As simple as freeing your mind to be in the moment to crush a baseball. And maybe he’s talking about us, too, that this town is finally past its legacy of being the last one in the league to integrate.
Ron Howard’s demand for his family, for his children, for security and success — when we get to Ryan, it’s evolved from a story about race to an American story. Our American Dream of a player. That’s Ryan’s release — Ron demanded work, so Ryan spent hours and hours down in that basement hitting balls though the net, pinging off the walls, and zeroed in with that focus every stop along the way. Ryan’s not annoyed by race metaphors, he’s oblivious to them. He’s beyond them. Baseball has always been so connected to our racial history — Jackie Robinson broke the game’s color line in 1947, and came to Birmingham to speak in 1963, the year Ron Howard spent two weeks in jail. Jackie’s widow, Rachel, shared the dais with Ryan at an awards dinner in New York last December. Of course Ryan knows who she is; he had made a respectful nod to Jackie Robinson when he won the Rookie of the Year award that’s named after Jackie. But really, to him that’s ancient history. Just like his parents’ past. Ryan Howard lives in the present. That’s how you keep bashing home runs.
Also up there on that dais — in fact next to Ryan — was Arlene Howard, no relation. She was married to Elston, the first black Yankee. Elston happened to sit next to Roger Maris in the clubhouse in 1961, the year Maris’s hair fell out in clumps because the ghost of Babe Ruth was way too much to handle. Elston came home after games and told Arlene how awful it was, what Roger was going through. The pressure! Lord! But that doesn’t matter to Ryan, either — in fact, he had no idea about any of it, Roger and his hair problems — pressure? What pressure? Ryan’s in control of that: “No one can put more pressure on me than me.” Up on that dais, Arlene and Ryan discovered that they’re both from St. Louis — that’s it. “A nice young man,” she reported later.
A nice young man in love with teasing the idea of himself, this big kid with a burn of hair on his chin, a tickle under his lower lip, sideburns that come to a point, a right upper arm and shoulder crammed with tattoos he certainly did not start getting until he left Ron and Cheryl’s house for college: “Is this hot, ladies?” he asks two female photographer assistants, after taking off the suit coat, and his shirt, and working a dumbbell K.G. has brought him to max out his massive bicep as the camera clicks away.
No answer — though everyone knows what it is.
“I gotta appeal to the ladies,” he grins. It’s all part of playing with the idea of being Ryan Howard.