Elite teams not settling for second best
Clubs are going all out to win baseball's biggest prize
NEW YORK -- There is no room at the top in Major League Baseball. This is the way it should always work.
For a long time, there has been the notion of a double standard in terms of expectations. That notion was that the New York Yankees would consider anything less than a World Series championship as a failure. Meanwhile, the other 29 clubs would happily settle for maybe getting into the postseason and winning an occasional individual award.
The first part of that notion has generally been true. The Yankees, by dint of both attitude and wealth, have been an extremely demanding group, as well they should be. But the second part of the alleged equation sells a lot of other franchises short.
You can't be too sure about the standards applied, for instance, by the Pittsburgh Pirates. If you trade every established player you have, this doesn't appear to be a Vince Lombardi-like commitment to victory. But you can say that among the current group of elite teams, nobody is happily settling for second best.
Now, more than ever, there are teams which are not willing to accept something less than the biggest prize. This is one of the plusses resulting in the era of increased parity. In the past nine seasons, eight different clubs have won the World Series. There is no reason in a situation such as this not to dream big.
And you have seen the very pointed comments issued from the Philadelphia Phillies recently. These World Series defending champions are making it clear that nothing less than back-to-back championships will do this autumn.
Good for them. No National League team has won consecutive World Series since the 1976 Cincinnati Reds. The Phils are aiming high, and why not?
The Philadelphia club will take on the winner of the AL Championship Series, in which the Yankees currently hold a 3-2 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Halos are another fine example of legitimately increased aspirations.
This is a team that has been routinely successful in the regular season, winning five of the past six AL West titles. But it had stumbled in three AL Division Series against Boston, losing nine out of 10 games to the Red Sox.
This year, the Angels swept the Sox in three games. That was a significant turnaround, but the Halos didn't want to stop there. The evidence that they are still pushing hard came in the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 5 of the ALCS. They had lost a four-run lead and trailed by two. They were seven outs away from elimination. They came back with a three-run rally that indicated clearly that they weren't done trying and they weren't done winning.
The Phillies and the Angels have every right to consider themselves championship contenders, or perennial contenders, if that is how they feel about it. They are clubs from baseball's upper-middle class. They are nothing like the Yankees in revenue or in the ability to have a $200 million payroll without blinking. But they are not operating on a shoestring, either. If they maintain highly productive farm systems and fill in astutely with the right free agents at the right prices, they can win, too.
The Boston Red Sox made that formula work twice so far in this millennium. They don't have to settle for merely being competitive, either, even though the Angels made them settle for far less than they wanted in this October.
You can add the name of your favorite franchise to this list, too, although it might not have quite as much evidence on its side as the above-mentioned examples. The current game invites high expectations, even as the more clubs there are with high expectations, the more clubs will be disappointed in a single season.
The Yankees may have the longest track record in demanding championships, but they haven't won one of those since 2000. Their pursuit of excellence is operating at full speed once more this autumn, but they are far from being alone in not wanting to settle for something less than the best.
Michael Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.