Last time we spoke you were on deck next to the batting cage in Three Rivers Stadium before Game 5 of the 1992 NLCS against the Braves. You were in your Clark Kent body then. Superman was still a year away. "Aren't you on that dumb-ass Sunday morning ESPN show?" you asked pleasantly. "Yeah," I replied as you eyeballed my press credential. I had a sinking feeling you remembered me picking the Braves in five. You confirmed it while jumping in to hit. "What a bunch of [bleeps]." I thanked you. Nobody else in the herd of grazing media was favored by a personal word from you. Better to have failed a Wasserman Test than never to have loved at all. You were 2-for-5 with a double and RBI. Veteran righthander Bob Walk pitched a complete game, 12 years after winning Game 1 of the 1980 World Series for the Phillies. The two hits raised your NLCS average to .188. Too bad about Game 7, your last one as a Pirate. You won your first MVP that season. By the next time I saw you, you had added considerable bulk - or should that read BALC?
But I digress . . . One of the first Ryan Howard stories of this spring training was the revelation that you spent a January week in Tampa working with the player Charlie Manuel calls "The Big Piece." I was excited to hear that. It had to be a hitting version of Aristotle studying at the feet of Plato. A torch-passing by the greatest slugger of the past generation to his heir apparent.
Ryan called the opportunity to work with you, "a dream come true . . . He was one of my idols growing up. I really wanted to pick his brain."
I envisioned him with a new stance, like the one you used the night you hit No. 756, a cannon shot to almost dead center in AT & T Park, the toughest yard for homers in the NL. A yard you turned into a personal Williamsport. Standing close to the plate in a slightly closed stance, knees slightly bent, that stubby bat looking even shorter the way you choked up slightly on top of a rubber knob. Guarding a strike zone the size of a place-setting mat. Never swinging at a bad pitch. Patiently accepting walks. Never missing a pitch in your zone.
For the past month, Ryan Howard has looked more like he took Batting 401 from James Bond. Before last night's two-run bomb to left-center, the last time he came close to a wall, he was entering the ballpark. Look at his batting average, you'd be tempted to say, "Hey, the big guy must have listened to Barry, he's making better contact."
Yeah, we always wanted him to lead the league - just not in singles.
"Daddy, how many balls like that does Ryan Howard have to hit to count as a home run?"
"Oh, maybe four or five, son."
OK, Barry, here's how bad it is. Today is June 9. On June 9 last year, Howard was batting .259, but had raised his average 50 points from the start of June and led the league with 18 homers and 48 RBI. After going 2-for-4 last night against the Marlins, the first baseman was batting .290, which is probably what you had in mind. Increase contact and his average will rise - even against the shifts both of you faced almost every at bat.
Well, uh, no . . . This brute of a man with power on loan from Father Nature has just 10 homers. Ah, but he does have 43 RBI, thanks, of all things, to 47 singles. Forty-seven singles, Barry . . . Rich Ashburn is watching somewhere and saying, "Be careful with those singles, Ryan, if you hit them too far they'll be outs."
In 2001, your greatest season, Barry, you had 107 extra-base hits, including the record 73 homers. Your 156 hits included just 49 singles. Do you find it just a little odd that you mentored a guy who needs three more one-base hits to pass your 2001 singles total? At the same time, he's on a 173-strikeout pace.
Ironically, while writing this, I'm watching Ryan Howard's amazing 2006 Home Run Derby victory in PNC Park, where he turned the Allegheny River into a freshwater version of your McCovey Cove.
I guess the unvarnished truth is that a week just wasn't enough for you to teach pitch recognition, plate discipline and all the intangibles that mingle with swing and strength to make a hitter great.
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