MANY PHILLIES fans seem to be exuding a sense of dread that Ryan Howard will not be adequately rewarded for the most spectacular second-year slugging performance in baseball history.

On the face of it, there is room for fans with long memories to be concerned. This is, after all, the same franchise fined for signing a former Bahamian cricket player named Tony Curry to a contract calling for $500 less than the minimum of $6,000.

I think general manager John Quinn's basic rationale went something like this: If it weren't for the Phillies, this guy would be diving for quarters tossed from cruise ships in Nassau harbor.

If you're under 45, you probably don't remember when all but a very few elite ballplayers were treated like flannel-clad field hands. Language in the standard contract bound

a player to the signing club in perpetuity or

until he was traded to another club or granted an unconditional release.

Now, I'm going to shock you. Hell, it still shocks me when I think back on it.

When I became the Phillies beat writer for this newspaper

in April 1966, I was making more money - such as it was - than about half the players on manager Gene Mauch's roster. Thanks to my newspaper salary and a morning drive-time radio gig for WCAU (1210-AM), I made about $20,000. Dick Allen, who hit

40 homers that year, drove in

110 runs and batted .317, earned around $30,000.

A year later, when Marvin

Miller became executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, the average player salary was $16,000. Only four players in the game made as much as $100,000. In 1968,

Miller negotiated a raise in the

minimum salary to a princely $10,000. By that time, my

newspaper salary had

skyrocketed to about $15,000.

Hey, it was good to buy the lads a round once in a while. One night in Chicago, a mix of players, including infielder Cookie Rojas, and media were having dinner at Johnny Lattner's Pier Two - if you've seen the current TV commercial with an auto plunging about 15 stories off a circular parking ramp into the Chicago River, it lands just outside where Lattner's Heisman Trophy sat atop a baby grand

piano. When the check came, Cookie picked it up with an

expansive wave. "This one's on me, guys," he said, flashing a roll of meal money.

In the Wrigley Field clubhouse the next morning, Cookie approached me and said, "You owe me $28.50, Bill. I wasn't

buying for the writers."

In December 1975,

a federal arbitrator named Peter Seitz drove the caretakers out of baseball's asylum and gave both the money and the control to the inmates. Everything changed

forever when Seitz ruled that

unsigned pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith were free agents. The reserve clause was history. New York Daily News baseball columnist Dick Young called Seitz a "terrorist."

The inmates have been in charge going on 32 years now, not that the asylum owners have had to apply for welfare. Alex

Rodriguez makes $25 million a year. A career turkey named Gil Meche just got $55 million for 5 years from the small-market Kansas City Royals. Meche's

salary will be paid mostly by the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets, the teams most penalized by a luxury tax that subsidizes trailer-park franchises and teams with high stadium debt service like the Phillies.

Ryan Howard played on a split contract in 2005 and was the

National League Rookie of the Year. The Phillies renewed him last season at $355,000, a small raise over a minimum that has since been raised to $380,000. Ryan isn't even eligible for

arbitration until after the

coming season.

It is never hard to beat up the Phillies. They have screwed up enough over the years to be a permanent target of opportunity. But stiffing their stars has not been a failing of the Giles-Montgomery-Teflonics partnership. The Phillies have almost manically overpaid stars since the Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen

botchwork left them in a fog of paranoia and denial. But those notorious forced trades were more about lack of commitment to winning than actual money. Rolen wanted nothing less than an organizational makeover, starting with manager Larry Bowa and adviser Dallas Green.

GM Ed Wade overpaid the lukewarm market for David Bell and bid against himself to lavish a long, club-record contract on Jim Thome. Top prospect Gavin Floyd, who brandished a scholarship to South Carolina, scored $4.2 million in the amateur draft.

If Floyd, then 18, had put that $4.2 million in an annuity at 8 percent with a 50-year payout, he would be getting $317,888.89

a year until age 68. Nice no-work in case the pitching didn't work out.

Ryan Howard is on the verge of becoming Philly's most popular athlete since Doctor J. He

defines affability, geniality and getting-it.

After Hughie, Louie and

Dewey - Pat Gillick and his

assistant GMs - have made Brett Myers unhappy and

settled with the bottom end of the roster, they will give their franchise star the best 1-year deal any 1-year plus 145-day

player has ever signed. Something between $1.75 million and $2 million should do it for the back-to-back Rookie of the Year, MVP and Noble Prize candidate.

Next year is when Ryan will

become the highest-paid man named Howard in Missouri history. That is when he will become the richest Howard ever who is not named Howard Hughes. *

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