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01/01/10 9:00 AM EST

Bauman: Yanks' return takes lead in '09

Like it or hate it, the bully's comeback is good for baseball

Part of what makes baseball a completely unique undertaking is the presence of the New York Yankees. Like them, love them, envy them, hate them; their stature as a franchise is unparalleled in North American professional sports.

The diametrically opposed feelings the Yankees generate are a function of that singular status. Their fans believe that championships are a birthright of this operation, that anything less is a violation of the natural order. Yankees haters believe that the Yankees are "the evil empire," or a baseball Goliath, or just the biggest, richest, nastiest bully on the block. You just can't find this wide range of emotions when you contemplate, oh, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

So, when we say that the single biggest development in baseball in 2009 was the return of the New York Yankees to the top of the game, the ayes and the nays all are part of the story.

You sort of expected that the end of the Yankees' championship drought was a question of when, rather than if. Still, it was nine years between World Series titles for the Bronx Bombers. This is the blink of an eye, if you're the North Side Chicago franchise, where the Cubs' streak of years upon years without a championship is now in its second century. But for the Yanks, this stretch without a crown was like time spent in desolate exile. Maybe in the Gobi Desert.

Is the game better off when the Yankees win everything? One answer is not big enough for that one. The business of baseball is better off when the Yankees win from April into what is now early November. Their huge fan base feeds postseason ratings. Just the overwhelming familiarity of the Yankees is a draw.

The sport of baseball would not be better off if the Yankees won everything every year, because the fans of the other 29 franchises might like to get in on the jubilation themselves, at least once in a while. As Commissioner Bud Selig persistently says, the game owes its fans "hope and faith." When the Yankees win, hope and faith are not replenished elsewhere.

Baseball has been moving toward more competitive balance, or parity, during Selig's tenure in office. This year, when the Yankees won, some people said: "There can't be increased parity; the richest team won."

"With all due respect," Selig says, "I understand that some people get upset whenever the Yankees win. But it had been nine years since they won."

The game's attempts at increased parity are not, in essence, pro-Yankees moves. Look at the luxury tax. Of the $190 million collected through this tax since 2003, the Yankees have paid $174 million. This is to say nothing of the much larger redistribution of funds through increased revenue sharing. Baseball's economic playing field is not level, the Yankees are still the richest and most powerful organization, but they have been forced to subsidize the competition.

Success is required of the Yankees, and not only through the stratospheric expectations of their fans. It is no fun despising them when they languish in third place, out of the postseason, as they did in 2008. For the passion to persist on the anti-Yankees side of the argument, they have to be at the summit, on the pedestal, in the winners' circle, at least occasionally.

Whether anybody likes it or not, the Yankees are a singular part of baseball's broad attraction. When you have beaten the Yankees, you have beaten all that tradition, all that history. Or, if you want to be directly envious, all that money. Either way, it's an unmatched deal.

I'll never forget the scene after Game 7 of the 2001 World Series on the field at what was then Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. The Arizona Diamondbacks had just beaten the Yankees in one of the most compelling Series in history.

In the midst of a full-tilt celebration, Craig Counsell, who had been the Most Valuable Player for the D-backs in the National League Championship Series, was asked about the fulfillment a Fall Classic title must bring. Counsell patiently explained that this was not just about winning a World Series. This was also about beating the Yankees in a World Series.

The Yankees had won three straight titles and four in five years before that moment. Their 2009 Series championship might be an isolated triumph, but it also might be just the start of one of those dynastic runs this operation can produce.

With the 27 championships, the Yankees are a target, a goal, an obstacle, a multipurpose motivational tool for everybody else in the game. (Especially the Boston Red Sox, but still, everybody.)

No, the Yankees' built-in advantages are not "fair" in the classic sense of all men being created equal. All baseball franchises are not created equal. Nobody said life was fair. Nobody was right.

This season ended the way 26 others had in the last 86 years, with the Yankees on top. Whether you are of a mind to celebrate this situation or shout curses at it, the game takes a familiar shape now, with other clubs measuring themselves against the ultimate big guys. The Yankees typically make victory more difficult for the rest of the teams. But that difficulty makes victory even sweeter for some other club, whenever that victory can be managed.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.