- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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We'd like to thank the Yankees and Phillies in advance for all they're about to do to help us figure out the identity of the best team in baseball.
But not just for this year. That's the easy part.
You know what else is riding on this World Series? The Team of the Decade. That's what. And figuring out who deserves that prestigious honor is definitely the hard part.
Now first off, by Team of the Decade, we're referring to the '00s. The Double Zeroes. The Aughts. The Nadas. Whatever we're calling them this week.
And yes, we know that technically speaking, "the decade" started in 2001, not 2000. But there's nothing technical about this award. It's 100 percent about fun, not technicalities. So please, we beg you. Do not e-mail us to point out when "the decade" began. Doesn't matter. Not one iota.
What does matter is that the winner of this World Series -- whether it's the Yankees or the Phillies -- will have a legitimate case that it is the Team of the Decade.
The winner, regardless of who it is, is going to have two titles to show for itself in the '00s. And that will tie that team with the Red Sox, who also won twice -- while obliterating curses, inspiring approximately 1.8 zillion New England poets and altering baseball life as we used to know it in the process.
So which of those three clubs most deserves to be called the best of the "decade?" And should any other teams be in the running?
We posed that question to a distinguished panel that would include, well, us. But for perspective, we also consulted Eric Seidman of Baseball Prospectus and Lyle Spatz, longtime chairman of the Records Committee for the Society for American Baseball Research, as well as the co-author (with Steve Steinberg) of "1921: The Yankees, the Giants, & The Battle for Baseball Supremacy In New York."
With their help, it's now time to delve into this Team of the Decade debate full-bore -- so you'll understand what this World Series REALLY means:
MOST WINS IN THE '00S
* Won one World Series
** Won two World Series
WHY THEY SHOULD WIN: If the Yankees take this World Series, this debate is just about over. Isn't it?
They'll have two titles, and no team will have more. They'll also have done something no Yankees team has ever done and, for that matter, no team has ever done: They won a World Series in the first year of a "decade" (2000) and the last year (2009).
(OK, so the Yankees also did that in the "official" decade of 1941-1950. Whatever. Be technical about this if it makes you feel better. It's a cool feat either way.)
But in between, the Yankees stuffed their Team of the Decade credential sheet with other dazzling achievements. They also (A) appeared in the postseason nine times (more than any other team), (B) got to the World Series four times (twice as many as any other team) and (C) won 965 regular-season games (45 more than the next-winningest team, which was Boston).
So if the Yankees are parading around the Canyon of Heroes in a week, they've got this vote sealed. But guess what? Even if they aren't, they still have a case.
"The first goal of each team each season is to reach the playoffs," Spatz said. "It becomes pretty much a crapshoot after that. The Yankees have achieved that goal in nine of the 10 years, during which they also have the most overall wins in baseball, averaging 96.5. They also have 48 postseason wins so far. I think the Yankees are clearly the team of the decade."
Ah, but just for argument's sake, let's consider
WHY THEY SHOULDN'T WIN: To be truthful, if the Yankees win it all, there's no rational reason they shouldn't be our Team of the Decade. But there ARE some semi-rational reasons.
For one thing, they've spent nearly 1.9 billion of the Steinbrenner clan's favorite dollar bills on player salaries in this decade. So we're sure there are people out there arguing that for that kind of cash, they should have won 10 World Series in the '00s. To win "only" two? Sheez, what an embarrassment.
Also, the Yankees decided in this decade that they now play by a different set of rules than the other 29 teams: In their Yankee-centric world, if they don't win the World Series, they're all a bunch of bums and failures, and the season was a disaster.
Remember, we didn't invent those rules. They all were the Yankees' idea. So what do we do about those eight years when they were considered bums and failures by THEMSELVES? Certainly something to weigh come Team of the Decade time.
Just not real heavily. That's all. If they win, they're in. Period.
WHY THEY SHOULD WIN: If the Phillies win this World Series and hop back on the parade floats for the second straight year, they'll set off the trickiest Team of the Decade debate since, what -- the '80s? And by that, of course, we mean the 1880s.
But this is no time to worry about the merits of the Detroit Wolverines. This is a time to ponder how much weight we should give to the argument that this Phillies team has literally transformed its franchise in the '00s.
Way back in 2000, the first year of this "decade," there wasn't a team in baseball that lost more games than the Phillies did (97). But by the last year of the '00s, if they win this World Series, they'll have become the official powerhouse of the National League -- if they're not already.
If they win again this year, they'll be the third NL team to repeat in the past 100 years and just the second since 1922. Big credentials there. And maybe just as impressively, they'll be only the second team -- just them and the Yankees -- to have won two World Series in a row under a system that requires you to win three series a year to pull that off.
As Jamie Moyer said the other day, "This isn't an easy thing to do. Not just to win a World Series, but to win a World Series and come back and get there again. Just look at sports. How hard is it to repeat in anything? It's hard to do in LITTLE LEAGUE."
Well, this ain't Little League, friends. And it's also been more than just a two-year process. This has been building for nine years now.
The Phillies (850-769 in the '00s) aren't the winningest team in the National League in the '00s. The Cardinals (913 wins), Dodgers (862) and Giants (855) all won more games in this "decade" than the Phillies did. But the Phillies ARE the only NL team that has won at least 80 games nine years in a row. So over the course of this decade, they've changed everything they could change about their franchise.
"When I first got here," said Jimmy Rollins, "you'd see the Braves and the Yankees, and you'd be like, 'Man, what is it like to play on a team like that? What is it like to play for a team that, when you take the field, you know you're going to the playoffs, at least?' I mean, it wasn't even a question. Well, I'm starting to know what that feels like."
And it's a feeling only your basic Teams of the Decade can really relate to.
MOST POSTSEASON SERIES WON IN THE '00S
WHY THEY SHOULDN'T WIN: On the other hand, if you go by simple 10-year mathematics, the Phillies don't look so hot.
They ranked only 11th in baseball in regular-season wins in the '00s. They've won 63 fewer games than the Cardinals, 42 fewer than the Braves and 40 fewer than the A's -- among others. And that's a lot of missing wins.
"Remember, we are talking about the whole decade," Spatz said. "If you would reverse the order of years [i.e., look at the decade upside-down, starting with the 2000 season], the Phillies would have just had a 65-win season and would have been below .500 in two of the last three seasons."
The Phillies have only three postseason appearances this decade -- not even half as many as the Cardinals (seven). The Braves (six) and Dodgers (four) also had more -- although the Dodgers won only two series and the Braves just one.
So to hand this crown to the Phillies, you would have to place enormous value on these past two years. And that would be a tough sell to anyone outside the 215 area code.
"Seriously 'decade' means 'decade' -- all 10 years, not what's happened in just the last two," Spatz said.
THE RED SOX
WHY THEY SHOULD WIN: Everything in the universe always comes down to Yankees-Red Sox. So here we go again.
If the Yankees don't win this World Series, then this will officially become the first decade since the teens (or is that the '10s?) in which the Red Sox won more titles than the Yankees. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a sentence nobody in our solar system under age 90 would have been able to comprehend when this decade began.
So the mere fact that we just typed it tells us that something happened to this franchise in the '00s that was way more powerful than a Josh Beckett four-seamer. The Red Sox, in this decade, rewrote their entire history, recast their entire aura and (in another development we probably shouldn't overlook) whipped up the greatest postseason comeback ever whipped (see '04 ALCS for details).
That's big-time Team of the Decade stuff right there, folks -- stuff the Team of the Decade Selection Committee needs to think long and hard about.
So we should probably also mention that along the way, the Red Sox ranked No. 2 in the sport in wins (920), 95-win seasons (six) and postseason series won (eight). True, the Yankees were the team ahead of them in all three categories. But if, in a week, the Red Sox still find themselves on top in the all-important Most World Series Won standings, how are we supposed to overlook that column come Team of the Decade coronation day?
And there's one other factor to consider, Seidman says -- how Theo Epstein and his "think tank" revolutionized the Red Sox operation in ways that extend far beyond the Green Monster.
"The early part of the decade belonged primarily to the Yankees which makes this a tough decision," Seidman said. "But the Red Sox have put themselves in the position to be good for a very, very long time through their prospecting, drafts and smart investments. They can be considered the team of the decade for their success on the field, as well as the positioning for the future."
WHY THEY SHOULDN'T WIN: But just because a team won two World Series in a 10-year period, is that enough for us to consider them "dominant?" Spatz says no.
And if it's not, then boy, does it get a whole lot tougher to make a case for the Red Sox.
The Yankees won 45 more regular-season games than the Red Sox. And 14 more postseason games. And two more postseason series. So Spatz argues that if we're looking at those overpowering raw numbers, we shouldn't get distracted by the transcendent plotline that surrounded the Red Sox in winning those two World Series. The Yankees were still the better team in this "decade," start to finish.
"The Yankees reached the playoffs nine of the 10 years, won the most regular-season games and the most playoff games," Spatz said. "And the worst-case scenario is that they won one less World Series than the Phillies or the Red Sox. [So Boston] had an excellent 10 years, but I think the Yankees were better."
REST OF THE FIELD
The Cardinals were the only National League team to average 90 wins a year in the '00s. They won 51 more games than the next-closest team in their league (L.A.). And they made it to the postseason seven times. But their 105-win team in 2004 got swept in the World Series. Their 100-win team in 2005 didn't make it past the NLCS. And it was their eighth-winningest team of the "decade" -- the 83-78 Cardinals of 2006 -- that won their only World Series. So, sorry, we don't think they were more dominant than the Yankees or Red Sox -- or even the Phillies if the Phillies win it all again.
The Angels (900-720) were the only other team to average 90 wins a year in the '00s. And they did make the postseason six times -- as many as the Red Sox. But outside of the year they won the World Series (2002), they won just two other postseason series. So again, not dominant enough.
And while the Braves (892-726) and A's (890-728) won a bunch of regular-season games, they won just one postseason series apiece -- and no World Series. So they're officially bounced off this island.
Since we're not clairvoyant enough to know who's going to win this World Series, we're giving you both potential scenarios:
IF THE PHILLIES WIN
1. RED SOX
IF THE YANKEES WIN
2. RED SOX
Anybody see it any other way? Drop us a line at email@example.com. Let the debate continue.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
The World Series will certainly decide this year's champion, but it also might decide the team of the decade.