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In the mid-to-late 1990s, there was this oasis of bliss. The currency was tokens, the soda-fueled inhabitants were on an unwavering sugar diet and the speed limit was whatever you could possibly get your go-kart to go, as you slammed your Nike AirMax 97s into the accelerator.

A kid would ask: Is this heaven?

No, it’s Ellisville.

As a student at Lafayette High, Ryan Howard worked at The Infield Fun Center, which featured everything from a miniature golf course to batting cages.

“Still have the T-shirt,” said the retired Phillies slugger, who turns 40 this month and will be inducted Monday into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame. “It was great. In the day of age we live in now, you have all these different facilities that kids go to and work out and train and hit. We didn’t really have a whole lot of those. For me, I can go there and get six tokens for $5 and hit close to 200 balls. And for me it was more about the training aspect of it, seeing the speed.”

It worked. He became a Philadelphia sports legend, winning the World Series in 2008 — hitting three homers in the series — and played in another in 2009. Howard reached 100 homers faster than any player ever. Fastest to 200, too. He won the 2005 rookie of the year and the 2006 MVP, when he hit 58 homers with 149 RBIs and a 1.084 OPS.

His career mirrored the evolution of an era. He began as a hitter shoving tokens into a batting cage machine. By the time he retired, sluggers were referring to their “exit velocity” via technological studies of their swings.

His baseball trajectory has brought him to where he currently is — an investor in baseball trajectory. Notably, technology to help hit homers.

Howard is a partner in a sports-tech venture capital firm called SeventySix Capital. The company’s focus is in esports, sports betting and sports tech, and one of their portfolio companies is Diamond Kinetics, which is changing the game of the game. Diamond Kinetics recently inked a deal with USA Baseball to become the organization’s official player development partner — utilizing the SwingTracker bat sensor and PitchTracker smart baseball technologies.

“Remember those baseballs that used to have a little radar gun that was built inside, and you throw it about eight or nine times and all of a sudden it would stop working?” Howard said. “Or you’d get all different kinds of crazy reads on your velocity? Well, they found a way to be able to put a sensor on the ball that’ll be able to tell you what your velocity is, tell you what your spin rate is. … So now you get that instant feedback, that instant gratification on your phone.

“Hitting-wise, same thing – you get the feedback about your launch angles, your exit velos, bat path, everything you need to be able to understand your swing. Sometimes you try to swing harder, and you don’t get the exit that you want. So I think it kind of helps you understand your swing speed. It’s about trying to become more under control and getting to the consistent contact points.”

They’ve come a long way since The Infield.

Howard and his company do some fascinating stuff, merging modern technology with modern sports trends. And their focus is on investing in entrepreneurs who are “passionate, smart and nice,” which is nice.

One of the sports betting companies is The Vegas Stats and Information Network (VSiN), which has made a name for itself with its own famous name, Brent Musburger. The longtime sports announcer is now part of the Vegas-based network.
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“We classify them as the CNBC of sports betting,” Howard said. “So if that’s your world, a lot of great information, great insight in the world of sports betting. … The casinos can kind of look to try to gather some of that information as well. … Things on the sports betting side are looking up.”

Howard lives in Georgia with his wife, Krystle – the two write children’s books when they’re not busy taking care of their children, ages 5, 3 and two months. Their most-recent gender reveal went viral, when Krystle “pitched” an object, and as the slugger swung a bat, it sprayed the color pink. Howard also has a son who is a freshman in college, playing baseball at Alabama’s Wallace State Community College.

Ryan Howard plans to return to St. Louis for Monday’s ceremony, and he’ll forever be part of local lore — he came from a generation that also gave us David Freese and Max Scherzer.

“St. Louis, that’s ‘the house,’ man. That’s home,” Howard said. “That’s where it all began for me, born and raised St. Louis you know. So to be able to be recognized in that facet and kind of go down and be enshrined in St. Louis sports history is something that always sits well — it’s a great honor.”

Howard’s career is under-appreciated by some — consider that he was the fulcrum of those Phillies teams that made the playoffs every season from 2007 to 2011. Only 12 players ever hit more homers per at-bat than Howard’s 14.94. He struck out a lot and battled some injuries. But he finished with 382 homers, 69th-most all-time. And his career slugging percentage is .515.

And though he’s out of the game, he’s still influencing the game with his technologi

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