Series squads used to view from the top
Defending champs battle perennial power in epic Classic
NEW YORK -- Two opposing sets of truly lofty expectations are about to collide. Both sides have the talent and the track record that support their ambitions. Ability, confidence, pride, determination; neither team is anything like short in any of these qualities.
You don't have to be a fan of either the New York Yankees or the Philadelphia Phillies to appreciate what is going to happen next. As the World Series opens Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees will be trying to regain the level of greatness that only their franchise has known. The Phillies, the defending World Series champions, will be trying to create their own generation of greatness.
When you get to the level these two teams have reached, there is no viable alternative to aiming high. The meek shall not inherit the World Series rings.
The first media feeding frenzy of this World Series occurred after Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins predicted on Monday night's Jay Leno Show that Philadelphia would win the Series in five or six games.
The way this works is that numerous reporters carry these comments to various Yankees at the next possible opportunity, hoping that one or more players will make an incendiary comment regarding Rollins' comment. Most of the players, being entirely too smart/experienced, elude this trap with very few problems.
On Tuesday, the workout day for both teams, the Yankees were all gathered in new Yankee Stadium's Great Hall for interviews. When the Rollins comment was brought to outfielder Johnny Damon, he responded: "Well, what did you expect him to say?"
World Series repeats
Exactly. When the Philadelphia shortstop was confronted with the question of what was going to happen in the World Series, there was an excellent chance that he was not going to say: "We're going to get swept and we're already down about it."
Yankees game 1 starter CC Sabathia also took a sensible approach to this topic. "Jimmy is a confident guy, man," he said. "He's always been. They're the champs, so we have to take it from them. What can I say? They won it last year, and it's up to us to prove that we're better than them."
During the Phillies' interview sessions, Rollins was asked if he was concerned about his comments backfiring. "Not at all," said Rollins, who then basically reiterated his original position. "The Series could go seven. It's possible. But if we execute and play our brand of baseball, then we should win."
For those who want to dismiss Rollins as a windbag or a braggart, it ought to be remembered that he declared, "We're the team to beat" (in the National East), at a time when the Phillies hadn't won anything and the Mets were in the divisional driver's seat. Rollins was widely scorned at the time, but his primary audience for these remarks was not the outside world, but the guys in his clubhouse. Since Rollins made the "We're the team to beat," remark, the Phillies have won three straight division titles and one World Series.
The players in the veteran core of the Yankees don't have to say "we're the team to beat," because they can all remember a time when they beat everybody. That was just the way of things.
Closer Mariano Rivera, with numbers so good in the postseason that he has no viable rival in this category, has been on six previous World Series teams. Four of them won the big prize. So how does he feel on the eve of No. 7?
"This is like the first one," Rivera said.
"Because it's the World Series," he said with a smile.
That's the spirit.
These Yankees have been around this block several times. They know that nothing is won by underestimating the opposition, particularly at this level.
"The [Phillies] are the current champions, and they're fighting for the championship again, so that tells you that they're a special team," Rivera said. "Therefore, they're going to do whatever it takes to retain the crown. We have to do whatever it takes to take it away from them. We have a little advantage because we're starting at home, you know what I mean?"
Championships once seemed like the exclusive province of the Yankees. They have been eight years without a World Series title, and, until the recently won AL Championship Series, six years without a pennant. But the tradition remains intact, and the fact that major contributors from the most recent championship era are still making major contributions creates a direct line to that tradition.
"When we start Spring Training, I always think that we have a chance to go to the World Series," Rivera said. "But it's hard to get into this position. So definitely when you're here, you want to do anything -- whatever it takes -- to win."
Will this team regain the supremacy those Yankees teams held one decade ago?
"In the late 1990s, all those teams, they won," Rivera said. "We haven't won yet. We're here, but we haven't won yet. We have similarities in pitching, hitting, defense, offense ... but again, we have to prove it, we have to do it. I believe that we have a great team, so it's up to us."
On the other side of it, the Phillies have nothing like the tradition the Yankees do, but neither does anybody else in baseball. That's not the point for the Phils. They are defending champions, they have won back-to-back NL pennants, and they hope to become the first NL team to win back-to-back World Series since the Cincinnati Reds in 1976.
They have tremendous confidence and justifiably so. Veteran outfielder Raul Ibanez, a major contributor in his first season with the Phillies, has never seen anything like it.
"Even when you're down by quite a bit, late in the game, in the dugout, you always believe that that guy, whoever is up at the plate, is going to do it," Ibanez said. "You have that feeling, that expectation. And then it happens and you grow accustomed to it happening. I think it's pretty rare, having everybody feel the same way. And everybody legitimately cares only about how the club does."
So it will be lots of history against recent history in this one. This is the most intriguing matchup the game could have for its 2009 Fall Classic. Weather permitting, it ought to be terrific.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.