Howard was getting fat. Not just a wee plump, either. Between the long 2008 season and the celebrations for Philadelphia’s championship, Howard was carrying around 275 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. He knew the history of fat hitters, too. Mo Vaughn and Cecil Fielder and countless others faded in their early 30s, waistlines expanding and hitting zones contracting. Howard turns 30 in November. He refused to peter out like the others. So Ryan Howard, the one legitimate threat to the single-season home run record, the man who hit 200 faster than anyone in history, did something drastic.

And it might just save his career.

Some mornings Howard was told to show up with an empty stomach. Though it sounds like the beginning of a horror workout, the remaking of Ryan Howard is as rooted in science as anything, and Jason Riley advised Howard to do so intentionally: Early in the day, food was replaced with plenty of liquid and a belly full of amino acids, which would increase the fat-burning capability of his workouts.

Riley is the guru behind the Athletes Compound at Saddlebrook Resort, a boutique workout facility in Tampa, Fla., that caters to elite athletes who want to maintain their fitness or, in Howard’s case, overhaul it. In order to have lasting relevance – to be not just the first to 200 homers but 300 and 400 and beyond – he needed to evolve. He could hit home runs the rest of his career, content being one-dimensional, and that would be enough to make him beyond wealthy. Only that didn’t motivate him. Albert Pujols(notes) did. Howard saw the acclaim Pujols received for his glove and told his agent, Casey Close, he wanted to be like that. Close pointed Howard to Tampa.

“The biggest thing was Ryan knew something wasn’t going right,” Riley said. “That’s how Casey got him to commit. His energy level was low. He was constantly battling fatigue. Getting up was a struggle, let alone playing 162 games. We made it apparent that he can get through a season and feel good.”

After on-and-off workouts at the Athletes Compound before the 2008 season, Howard fully committed this offseason. In early January, he went to Tampa for a full-bore evaluation: a biomechanical assessment, a body-composition analysis, joint manipulation, conditioning tests and a nutritional breakdown. In the last category, Howard failed spectacularly. His heft wasn’t because he was lazy and didn’t work out. He just ate like any 29-year-old bachelor: poorly.

So he stayed in Tampa until spring training. He let the facility cook his meals. He ate organic for the first time. He cut out fat. He feasted on lean meats and whole grains. He ate chicken covered with an almond crust instead of bread. It was a million miles from Subway.

“I’m trying to play as long as I can,” Howard said. “To do that, I need to be in shape. I can’t be getting fat. It won’t work that way. And if I don’t start now, then by the time I’m supposed to go downhill, I will. I want to be able to maintain this shape. If I tackle it now, stay in front of it, I can beat it.”

The reason is twofold. Howard wants to continue contributing to a Phillies team that believed in him even as he toiled as a 25-year-old at Triple-A behind Jim Thome(notes), gave him a chance and watched him hit at least 45 home runs and drive in 135 runs in each of his four full seasons. Just the same, Howard wants to remain relevant once his current contract expires after the 2012 season. Were Howard to inflate, he’d run the risk of pigeonholing himself a designated hitter. That would cut free-agent suitors in half, and if the deepest-pocketbook teams already have a DH, Howard would find himself in career limbo.

The rare fat guy stays in baseball uniforms well into his 30s. Most are pitchers. Babe Ruth was an exception. And perhaps Howard could be, too, though he’d rather not risk it, especially in an environment where getting any sort of long-term deal in your 30s necessitates an act of God.

“More and more clubs are looking at that line of demarcation,” Close said. “Anything you can do to keep Father Time away, you have to. Ryan and Derek [Jeter] look as good as I think they ever have. They’ve shaved three or four years off their bodies.”

Jeter, the Yankees’ shortstop, is another of Close’s clients. He trains with Riley as well, and a few times this offseason Jeter and Howard ended up at the gym simultaneously. In Jeter, Howard saw another paragon, someone who found his game fading as he hit baseball’s version of Social Security age – 35 – and resolved to make himself great again. Jeter’s greatest bugaboo was lateral movement, and his defense was as good this year as any this decade.

While Howard honed his footwork and other pieces of his game, his diet was the great equalizer. Gone were all fried foods. His body adjusted quickly. By the time spring training started, Howard had lost 20 pounds. His second chin disappeared. He looked three, four years younger. The trainers at Athletes Compound started calling him Calvin Klein, because they were convinced he could model. The Phillies treated him like one, handing him a three-year, $54 million extension in February.

“You could notice right away how good he looked,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.

Howard didn’t stop at 255 pounds. The Athletes Compound agreed to call every hotel the Phillies stayed at this season and instruct the on-site chef to cook meals tailored specifically to Howard. During a trip to Washington, D.C., this summer, Howard talked nutrition with Sam Kass, the White House chef. This wasn’t about losing weight anymore. Howard had changed his life.

And if he were to step on the scale today, a year after he rumbled around the Phillies’ victory celebration, the readout might shock everyone else around the clubhouse but would merely make Howard grin: 242.

He gritted out the means, and the end is a beaut: Ryan Howard is in the best shape he can remember, in the World Series for the second straight year, playing the greatest first base of his career, hitting better in October than anyone not named Alex Rodriguez(notes) and even legging out a triple.

No, tectonic plates did not shift and the earth’s gravitational pull did not get jarred out of whack during Howard’s head-first slide into third base during Game 3 of the NL Championship Series. He wanted to punctuate it right, boldly and with some audacity, two more RBIs among the eight that helped him win the NLCS MVP award.

He’s not fatigued anymore. Not close.

“The guys that are good do it when it matters most, and his Septembers and Octobers have been ridiculous,” Phillies reliever Chad Durbin(notes) said. “The guy got hot, and whether guys were tired or not, it didn’t matter. He was going to carry the load. This postseason’s just another indication he’s going to keep doing it.”

For how long is the question. Howard’s metabolism continues to change. The temptations for a hamburger remain. And when all of those conspire to break Howard, he thinks of his career, what it means, how he can do anything – he came into this spring vowing to first-base coach Davey Lopes that he planned to steal bases, and he quadrupled his previous career total with eight – and plans on coming into spring training next season even lighter. Perhaps close to the 235 pounds he touched at one point this summer.

“I knew I could lose the weight,” Howard said. “It was a matter of doing it. And I knew I had to, because it’s tough to survive playing baseball.”

Back to that instinct again. Howard survived all of his strikeouts because of his run production. He survived a steady diet of breaking pitches and grew into single most productive major leaguer against sliders in 2009. He still hasn’t conquered his inability to hit left-handed pitching. He’s sure he can survive that, too.

Because this was the biggest test of Ryan Howard’s baseball career, and he stared it down, confronted it and continues to win. He even got a new wardrobe out of it.

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