Few could have predicted the extent of Howard's early success -- his 58 homers in '06 established a new Phillies single-season record -- but by that point the first baseman had substantial experience in the field of shattering expectations. After being selected by Philadelphia in the fifth round of the 2001 Draft, Howard embarked upon a methodical ascent of the organization's farm system. He put up impressive numbers every step of the way, but it was with Double-A Reading in 2004 that he really started to raise some eyebrows.
Over just 374 at-bats in Reading, Howard bashed 37 homers and drove in an Eastern League-leading 102 runs. His .647 slugging percentage also led the circuit, while his .297 average proved he was more than just a one-dimensional masher. Howard's manager that season was Greg Legg, who now serves as the hitting coach for the Class A Lakewood BlueClaws. To say that Legg was effusive in his praise would be, if anything, an understatement.
"He was just awesome," he said. "With [Howard] on our team we were never out of the game, because there was always that possibility of a three-run home run. It was just incredible how hard he could hit the ball, and he could go the other way, too. ... He was just the ultimate pro, and I'm glad I got the chance to work with him."
Double-A is considered to be a crucial stop in any player's professional career, as it is at this juncture that the wheat is separated from the chaff (so to speak). Putting up gaudy numbers on the lower rungs of the Minor League ladder is commendable, but Double-A success is a signifier of legitimate Major League potential.
"He was a man on a mission, you could tell he could smell [the Major Leagues]," said Legg, who played in the Phillies system for 13 seasons before embarking on a coaching career. "[In Double-A], the pitchers are on the plate more, and they're going to challenge you. [Howard] took advantage of that and just put on a show. He put on a show that year and he's been putting on a show ever since."
Howard's ability to put on a show in '04 quickly got him to "The Show." On July 30, he received a promotion to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he hit nine homers and drove in 29 runs over 29 games. This gave him 46 home runs and 131 RBIs on the season, marking just the fifth time since 1956 that a Minor League player has been able to post such lofty numbers. But Howard wasn't quite done as he received a September callup to Philadelphia and hit .282 with a pair of dingers.
And while Howard was impressing on the field in 2004, he was impressing in the clubhouse as well. Reading is just 60 miles from Philadelphia, and media interest increased right along with his power numbers (particularly due to the fact that the Phillies had superstar slugger Jim Thome entrenched at first base at the time). R-Phils media relations coordinator Rob Hackash has served as a liaison between Reading prospects and the press for the past 13 seasons, and he could not recall a player who handled the attention better than Howard.
"I remember asking Ryan towards the end of a particularly busy media week how he was holding up. He smiled and said 'great,'" Hackash said. "He was at a point where I thought answering the same questions every day should have been getting to him and I was planning on building a break into his schedule. It wasn't getting to him, though. ... He was just going with the flow, taking it all in stride, focusing on the right things at the right time, managing his time perfectly and enjoying his role. He was living it.
"I'm not at all surprised today to see him be such a fan favorite or a successful national pitch man on top of his MVP-caliber play. He has maximized every opportunity he's had and you can't do that by only being a great baseball player. You have to be great, period."
Howard spent a total of five seasons in the Minor Leagues, hitting .299 with 11 home runs and 393 RBIs over 507 games.
2001: After being selected in the fifth round of that season's First-Year Player Draft, Howard made his professional debut with Class A Short-Season Batavia. He hit .272 with six home runs and 35 RBIs over 48 games, while his slugging percentage of .456 remains a career low. Howard was the only member of the '01 Batavia ballclub to later spend time in the Majors.
2002: As a member of the Class A Lakewood BlueClaws, Howard made his presence felt on the South Atlantic League leaderboard. He ranked third in the circuit in games played (135) and home runs (19), while his 87 RBIs and 145 strikeouts ranked fourth (yes, Howard has always been prone to the strikeout). Howard returned to Lakewood in 2007 while on a rehab assignment, and he drove in four runs over two games. This gave him 91 RBIs as a member of the BlueClaws, catapulting him into a first-place tie with Randy Ruiz for the most in franchise history.
2003: Howard's .304 average, 23 home runs and 82 RBIs might not seem particularly imposing, but in the offense-deprived Florida State League these numbers made him a Triple Crown challenger. Howard did lead the circuit in home runs and average, but his 84 RBIs fell five short of the league-leading mark. Nonetheless, Howard was voted league MVP, marking the first of three he has won on the professional level. "To me, Ryan is still the same kid I had in Clearwater," said long-time Phillies coach Roly deArmas, who managed Howard that season. "He has not forgotten his roots from the Minor Leagues and all of us who worked with him. ... Being in the game a long time, I remember when Ryan reported to mini-camp after the Draft in a coat and tie. I still remember Larry Rojas [a veteran Phillies coach who passed away in 2008] saying 'This kid is going to make it!'"
2004: The breakout: 46 home runs and 131 RBIs over 131 Minor League games. His 37 home runs with Reading surpassed the previous single-season record of 33 (set by Greg Luzinski in 1970). Howard was named Eastern League MVP and also garnered the Paul Owens Award for the second straight season (given annually to the best player in the Phillies farm system).
2005: Howard had nothing left to prove in the Minors, but started the year with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre due to the presence of Jim Thome on the big league club. He hit a scorching .371 with 16 homers and 54 RBIs over 61 games in Triple-A, and an injury to Thome led to an opportunity to play every day in Philadelphia. Serving as the Phillies' regular first baseman from July 1 through the end of the season, Howard hit 22 homers and drove in 63 runs over 88 games and was named the National League's Rookie of the Year. Thome was traded to the White Sox that November, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.