Phillies, Howard have come a long way

There once was a time, not so long ago, when you never could have seen this day arriving.

Five years and $125 million for Ryan Howard, on top of the two years and $39 million the Phillies had already committed to? Who'd have thunk it?

It was only two years ago -- yep, two -- that the Phillies dragged this man all the way to an arbitration hearing because they were nervous about paying a third-year player a record amount of money.

It was only last year -- yep, as in 2009 -- that the Phillies balked at any deal longer than three years because they were nervous about how a man with this humongous a frame was going to age.

But a lot sure has changed in the 26 months since Howard and the Phillies found themselves in the same arbitration hearing room. And by Monday -- 96 home run trots, two World Series visits and 30 pounds of vanishing body fat later -- the Phillies decided there was no longer any reason to fear the prospect of making their first baseman the wealthiest player in franchise history.

Not to mention one of the wealthiest players in any franchise's history.

Before Monday, only one baseball player in history had signed a multiyear contract worth $25 million or more per year. That man was Alex Rodriguez.

Before Monday, no player had signed a contract extension, before he even got around to a little test cruise on the old free-agent seas, for more than $23 million a year. A fellow named Joe Mauer just signed his name to that deal last month.

And before Monday, no Phillies player had gotten a contract worth more than $85 million over any length of time. Chase Utley (seven years) and Jim Thome (six years) used to share that record.

So in the end, Howard got exactly what he had always told people he was going to get: (A) a historic deal and (B) A-Rod money.

This contract means that, over the first 10 seasons of his career, Howard will earn approximately $190.5 million. No player -- not A-Rod, not Mauer, not Derek Jeter, not Albert Pujols -- has equaled that number, in this or any other era.

"Pretty amazing," one GM said Monday, "for a guy who was a late bloomer."

It's quite a tale, all right, for a player who looked as if he was going to be blocked by Thome from ever playing in Philadelphia, who didn't get a chance to play every day until age 25, and who only got that shot because Thome hurt his elbow in July 2005.

But once Howard got his chance, he decided to turn himself into his generation's Babe Ruth at the plate. This man sent so many baseballs rocketing over so many fences that the Phillies ultimately concluded they had no choice but to hand him this deal.

He reached 100, then 150, then 200 homers in fewer at-bats than any other player who had ever lived. He averaged 50 homers and 143 RBIs in the first four full seasons of his career. And his four consecutive seasons of at least 45 home runs and 135 RBIs was a streak matched by only two mashers in history: the Babe and Sammy Sosa.

So Howard was setting himself up for a gigantic pay day, as his free-agent countdown clock ticked toward November 2011. And that meant that what the Phillies had to weigh was whether they were going to volunteer to be the team signing his paychecks -- because, clearly, somebody was going to help him hit this lottery if they didn't.

This has never been a team that hands out these kinds of deals, you understand. The Phillies have long -- like, forever -- been careful with their dollars. And committing those dollars for more than three years was never their favorite thing in life.

And with Howard in particular, they saw a man who wasn't going to hit free agency until days before his 32nd birthday. And a man who played his first three seasons at 275 pounds. And a man who, they feared, might not be able to play a position other than DH by the time he reached his mid-30s.

But then Howard took it upon himself to allay those fears. Between the end of the 2008 season and spring training of 2010, he melted away 30 pounds of flab. He also went to work to transform himself from a human E3 light to a vastly improved defensive first baseman.

And so, by this spring, the Phillies had a whole different vision of what he was, and what they thought he was going to become. So they approached his agent, Casey Close, about extending a contract they had agreed to only one year earlier. And after a month and a half of negotiating, the deal was done.

"Here's my question," one NL executive said. "I can't figure out what the Phillies gain from this. Usually, when you extend a guy with two years left on his deal, you at least get some kind of discount. This guy's getting $25 million a year."

He's absolutely right about that, of course. If this was the discount, we'd hate to see what the free-agent sticker price would have looked like in a year and a half.

But the truth is, from the beginning, Ryan Howard never did discounts.

That's why the Phillies wound up having to renew him, instead of signing him, after each of his first two seasons. It's why they got stuck paying him a record $10 million arbitration payout after that hearing in 2008. And it's why they had to hand him the staggering number of dollars they agreed to pay him Monday.

In the end, they came to understand that, if they were going to keep a special group of players together, they were going to have to pay this man at market dollars -- and pay him through his age-36 season.

Are they taking a serious risk by doing that? No doubt about that. But what, ultimately, were their alternatives?

First off, one baseball man said, "You can't say you want to build around a guy and then offer him a two-year extension." So the number of years in this deal just became the cost of doing this sort of business.

And beyond that, if the Phillies waved goodbye to Howard, how exactly were they going to replace him? With Pujols? They'd never get him out of St. Louis. With Adrian Gonzalez? How could they be sure he could handle a place like Philadelphia? With Prince Fielder? He's a Scott Boras auction waiting to happen.

So maybe the Phillies could have plugged this hole with a Carlos Pena here or a Paul Konerko there. But that isn't what they had in mind. That isn't where they see their franchise going.

They now are officially committed to keeping their core group of local heroes for as long as the dollars in their checking account, and the customers stampeding through their gates, will allow.

They now have Howard in place for seven years. They already had Roy Halladay and Utley tied up for four years. So they know what the center of their solar system is going to look like through 2013.

What they'll need to figure out next is how to juggle all the planets orbiting around those three. Jayson Werth can be a free agent after this season. There are already rumblings that Philly will now turn its attention to him.

Then it's Jimmy Rollins' turn after 2011. And between now and 2012, the Phillies will have huge decisions to make about Cole Hamels, Brad Lidge, Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino. Among others.

But the biggest decision of all has been made. If Howard had walked out that door after the 2011 season, that would have sent this team careening in a whole different direction. Now it's clear this group of Phillies isn't going anywhere.

Maybe they'll turn into the National League's next dynasty, the New Red Machine. Or it's always possible this will turn the other way -- and they'll get stuck with a bunch of rapidly aging players whose glory days are behind them.

But the Phillies have now made it clear that this is their cast of characters. And what Monday really told us is that where they go from here will be decided on a baseball field, not by who could stuff the most dollars in Howard's wallet around the 2011 Hot Stove.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.