Ryan Howard earns his millions by driving baseballs 400 feet. To understand why he deserves his enormous new contract, though, you need to know about a ground ball to shortstop.

It was three weeks ago, opening day in Washington. Howard came to the plate in the top of the eighth with the Phillies leading, 11-1. He topped a ball that rolled slowly over the pitcher's mound. Shortstop Cristian Guzman charged, scooped up the ball and fired it to first.

Too late. Howard was safe.

Think about it: 10-run lead over the Nationals, 161 games left in a long season, and here comes Howard, busting it down the line to beat out an infield single. Sure, in a perfect world every professional athlete would go all-out on every play. But in the real world, there are times when even the most dedicated players ease up. This was one of those times, yet Howard hustled as if the World Series depended on his being safe.

The big home runs are what he does. That little single shows who he is.

"Ryan's earned this contract with what he's done," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Monday night in San Francisco. "He's kind of set the market for himself. We're blessed as an organization, especially at the major-league level, with guys who take pride in their craft. Ryan is one of those guys. He's worked on his defense, he's worked on his body to make himself a complete player. He continues to try to work to be a better player."

This kind of talk galls those who worship the almighty stat to the exclusion of all else. Howard's entire career rattles their cages, which is one more reason to enjoy his work. The advanced stats prove that Howard isn't as productive, on a hard drive somewhere, as several dozen other players.

He strikes out too much. He doesn't get on base enough. He doesn't draw enough walks. Wade into the sabermetrics and you'd wonder why the Phillies didn't just go ahead and put their big first baseman on the waiver wire.

And the stat guys - trust me on this - howled at the notion that you can learn anything about a baseball player by an otherwise meaningless infield single on opening day.

But it is precisely because it was meaningless that it tells us a great deal about Ryan Howard. This easily overlooked bit of hustle was consistent with his improved fitness and his dedication to better defensive play and his off-season master class with Barry Bonds. After beginning his career with historic power numbers, Howard has continually worked hard to improve every facet of his game.

Three months after celebrating the franchise's first World Series title in 28 years, Howard came to Clearwater, Fla., early to work on his defense with new coach Sam Perlozzo. This past off-season he spent time getting inside Bonds' unnaturally large head in an effort to cut down on strikeouts and be a more complete hitter.

There is always a risk in guaranteed contracts for athletes. Reward many players for what they do, or for their height or speed, and they reach the logical conclusion that what they do is enough. Those are the good guys. The not-so-good guys conclude that they've broken the bank and they can take the rest of their careers off.

The great ones get paid and then go back to dominating their sport.

Howard is a great one.

"We think this is a good risk," Amaro said.

His first full season in the big leagues, when he was named National League MVP, was 2006. In four full seasons with Howard, the Phillies have won three division titles, two NL pennants and a World Series title. He hasn't done this by himself, of course, but there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between Howard's presence and the Phillies' success.

For a franchise that never had a player hit 50 home runs in a season, Howard has averaged 491/2 over four full seasons. He drives in 140 runs or so per year. He gets better in the latter part of the season, when division titles are won or lost. Ask the New York Mets whether that matters.

With this contract, the Phillies erase the nagging worry that springs from Philadelphians' innate sense of doom: Sooner or later, all our best players will leave us. Surely a player of Howard's accomplishments would eventually wind up with the Yankees or Red Sox.

But no. Howard will be a Phillie until 2016 or so. Better still, he wants to be here. Imagine that.

"I knew I wanted to stay in Philly," Howard said in San Francisco. "I've grown so accustomed to the fans. It's a special relationship with the fans. That wasn't a very hard decision."

Everybody wins. Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up Ryan Howard's time here.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.