CLEARWATER, Fla. - Ryan Howard's first spring-training home run of 2008 was hit harder than his $10 million arbitration award hit the Phillies. It got caught in a chilly jet stream hawking off the Gulf of Mexico.

With a similar wind howling Wednesday, Greg Dobbs launched a prodigious three-run homer against the Reds that short-hopped the second fence in dead right that sits about 75 feet behind the wall. Howard's three-run launch against the Pirates yesterday was so high, so deep and so unplayable it might have short-hopped U.S. 19 had it not landed in the swamp behind rightfield. PETA is advised no alligators were harmed by the baseball. A half-dozen fans scrambled to the fence to gawk at the distant landing spot.

Home runs like that are sometimes said to trail sparks.

I swear this one trailed a contrail of dollar signs. It had enough lift and velocity to haul a banner proclaiming, "You Ain't $een Nothin' Yet."

It was an oblique look at the Phillies future as a major player in the man's game of keeping up with the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets, three financially dominant franchises able to throw good money after bad because . . . because . . .

Because they can. The Yankees have a cash cow called the YES Network. The Red Sox have NESN. The Mets have SportsNet New York - owned jointly by the Mets, Time Warner and, yep, Comcast.

The Phillies do not have their own cable TV network. They get a nice piece of change from Comcast SportsNet and CW Philly (Channel 57), with NBC-10 airing the home-opener. But it is chump change compared with what the Big Three rake in.

So . . . To sell or not to sell?

That apparently is not the question at this time. Various Phillies representatives, including current president and CEO Dave Montgomery and his predecessor, Small Market Giles, deny persistent rumors that the club is or will be for sale anytime in their lifetimes. At least two investor groups, one assembled by Mr. Feelgood, Pat Croce, are said to be in the wings should the Teflonics change their minds.

While the Phillies have kept stiff upper lips following their $3 million arbitration hit, the feeling around baseball is that Howard bursting through barriers established by Albert Pujols and Carlos Lee and emulsifying existing service time guidelines will lead to the pastime's next major payroll spike. Few clubs will be willing or able to play in that league. A 15-to-18 win season by Cole Hamels could help the Phils to the Promised Land this season, but the thought of both their young lefthander and Howard lined up at the arbitration trough next February has to have the Teflonics bathed in soaking night sweats. What if Hamels wins more games than $137.5 million Met Johan Santana?

A normal Howard year - 45 homers, 125 RBI - looks like Phils offering $12 million, agent Casey Close and Ron Howard countering with $15 million. And while the Phillies like to say, somewhat smugly, "We have him for 4 more years," by then Ryan would be 32 years old, probably up to the $25 million range and could be rendered untradable by an injury or sudden erosion of skills. And somewhere in this costly process, a recent MVP shortstop named Jimmy Rollins might conclude that in 3 years, when his friend and teammate is making an insane amount of money, his own 2011 salary of $8.5 million might be considered a pittance. Chase Utley is due to make $15 million that year. Even with the third-base salary and the third baseman undetermined, Rollins, Utley and Howard could be earning a combined $48.5 million. As recently as 2001, the Phillies entire payroll was $41.67 million.

The peril there, of course, is that while both franchises share pinstripes, the difference between the Phillies and Yankees is like a Big Mac and a filet mignon. No matter what the economic climate and regardless of attendance spikes caused by unexpected bad results, the Yankees could always count on George Steinbrenner doing whatever it took to reload, restock and reorder the champagne. By contrast, when the

2005 Phillies improved to 88-74 but suffered a 585,000 attendance hit in the second year of the Money Pit, Montgomery reluctantly fired GM Ed Wade.

Speaking of Big Macs, this is what a committed baseball owner does when he has his eyes on the prize. When chided by a fellow owner for overspending, Padres owner Ray Kroc, who founded McDonald's, said this: "Shut up. I told you to shut up. If I want to spend $4 million on a ballplayer, I will. If I want to spend $12 million, I will. It's my [damn] money and I'll do what I want."

I think this Phillies ownership should buff up the "For Sale By Owners" sign because they are not structured to take a big hit under their unwieldy limited partnership structure. No. 3 shareholder John S. Middleton has an enormous amount of money available from the sale of his cigar business for close to $3 billion, but that windfall is apparently not a factor in any of this group's year-to-year budgets. A Democratic administration rolling back the capital-gains tax break could make some of the Teflonic financial planners very nervous.

When Bill Giles infamously characterized the Phillies as a "small-market team," he was merely misquoting what he intended to say: "We're a small-market ownership."

Big-time ownerships spit red ink in the eye of the bottom line when there is a possible pennant to be had. They treat the business of sport as the sport of business. Steinbrenner goes all in. The Red Sox pay a fortune just for negotiating rights to a Japan League star.

The Yankees would kill to have a Rollins, Utley, Howard, Hamels and Brett Myers nucleus. But you knew the game was up for the Braves' dynasty when Time Warner came in and started brandishing the books. Soon, Tom Glavine was gone, Greg Maddux was gone and Andruw Jones was going, going.

The burning question now is how long will current Phillies ownership be willing and able to afford a very expensive nucleus and the stars to come while this window of opportunity is open? *

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

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