In the National League, there are the Philadelphia Phillies and everyone else. In less than a decade, Philadelphia has been transformed into a legitimate superpower, a team to be feared in the class of only the Yankees and Red Sox. The Phillies win on the field, having made the playoffs four consecutive years for the first time since opening for business as the Philadelphia Quakers in 1883. They currently have the best record in baseball because they are the best team in baseball.
More importantly, they are solid financially, playing in a state-of-the art ballpark less than a decade old. They have an aggressive front office that spends money and has scored big names in trades (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee) and free agency (Jim Thome, Lee again) and has developed signature homegrown talent (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins). For a team that has lost more games than any other in baseball history (10,276), the Phillies have finished first or second every year since Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004. Philadelphia is not only winning, it seems, on a daily basis, but appears to have it all.
Yet for all the riches and the complete reversal from the dry days of sixth place, a new and uneasy sentiment permeates the red-clad base, and it's easily felt in taverns around town, such as McGlinchey's, the Standard Tap and Downey's, as well as in the stands.
Ruben Amaro and the players might not speak about it, but the changes in the voices of some Phillies fans are audible, and this being Philadelphia, they are not subtle. Jeff Scott, a longtime Phillies fan, talked of this season of muscle and dominance with about as much enthusiasm as Yankees fans (who, outside of the tri-state New York area, are often ridiculed as being spoiled for their daily angst) sometimes do.
"The problem is, yeah, the regular season is nice and, trust me, it is better than going into the season not having a chance, but this team was built to win the World Series, nothing else. That's it," he said. "If we go all this way, get Cliff Lee and [Roy] Oswalt and now Hunter Pence and then get beat by the Giants and don't even get to the World Series, the whole thing is going to feel meaningless. I know it sounds bad, but I can't get excited about this yet because the real test is more than two months away.
"It's kinda sad, because you're thinking, 'Really? Is it that bad?' And you're like, 'Yeah, because the buildup is so big.' On talk radio now, which is full of cynics, they're talking about how nothing they do now or next week even matters. All everyone talks about is who we're playing in the World Series."
For all the fans yearning for their teams to be in the high-payroll, trade-deadline-aggressive, all-in-every-year category, the price of being a superpower can be, of all things, the loss of fun. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007, and their current ride toward the postseason is creating some level of muted joy. But since John Henry & Co. bought the team in 2002 and committed to an annual arms race with the Yankees, Red Sox fans haven't enjoyed the spontaneous exultation of the pennant-race overachiever like the surprise run in 1995 brought forth.
This season, the Sox are arguably as good as the Phillies. But after the huge financial acquisitions of the past several years (John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, Carl Crawford), Boston can no longer hide behind the underdog façade. Winning is mandatory, pressurized work, and the fun factor is lessened for the players and the fan base.
In New York, such cold expectations have been encoded in the DNA of the Yankees and their fans since the late 1920s. Cinderella died a long time ago there, replaced by an attitude founded by Ruth, inherited and refined by DiMaggio, perfected by Mantle and Stengel, codified by Steinbrenner and articulated by Jeter, who is famous for declaring after each of the 10 years in which he has packed his spikes without a parade along the Canyon of Heroes that a season without a title is "a failure."
When I covered the Yankees a decade ago, it was jarring, but unsurprising, how many Yankees fans were saddled by the Steinbrenner mantra, indirectly expecting the Yankees to go 162-0 even though the best baseball teams lose 65 times a year.
None of this is to suggest that living as a superpower is a particularly bad thing. It is one thing to be a good team, competitive and competent like the San Francisco Giants, but quite another to be a superpower -- a team that attracts the best free agents, trades for the best available players and (most importantly in this money game) has the financial resources to only lose the players the organization was already willing to let go. It is a designation that only belongs to the Red Sox, Phillies and Yankees right now, and each of those teams' fan bases has gained something valuable (the knowledge that every season is a potential world Series year) while losing something equally valuable (the spark and spirit of a surprise summer).
The price of a roster stocked for victory can be paid with the deadened experience of the regular-season games. Expectation is far different from elation. Brian Cashman, the Yankees' general manager, once recalled for me the wondrous 1998 season in which the Yankees went 114-48 in the regular season and 125-50 overall in winning the World Series. The pressure of playing in New York was already formidable, but the additional pressure of completing that historic season was suffocating.
"When we won it in '98," Cashman told me, "it was far more relief than joy."
The Phillies have been as good as advertised for four years -- better, in fact. Since being swept in the first round by the Rockies in 2007, they have made three consecutive league championship appearances and won two pennants and a World Series. The Phillies have entered that welcome space in which they can pack the truck for spring training with only a championship on their minds.
Still, the seasons that resonate, that remain lyrical in the minds of fans and keep them connected to the game, are more 1969 Mets than 1998 Yankees. The magic and wonder of a pennant race -- the surprising comeback; the career year from the talented player who could never quite put it together; the quirky, energizing road trip that suggests maybe a team contains that certain special combination that will allow fans to believe; that bizarre, unpredictable sunburst when the team wins 9-of-12 with a new role player contributing to important wins -- are nonexistent when winning the final game of the year represents the only measure for success.
The real magic of baseball arrives unexpectedly, like when my boy Kev (another Phillies die-hard) and I lived in San Francisco in 1993, drinking all night at the Gold Cane in the Haight on a May night. The Phillies and Red Sox were both in first place. Later, we stumbled into the apartment and bought two beach towels -- one Phillies, one Sox -- from the Home Shopping Network. We were foreign fans in a city where the Giants were also enjoying one of the greatest regular seasons in their history.
Go to Boston and talk to the Baby Boomers about romance. They might mention their first girlfriends or their wives or husbands. But they definitely won't go long before 1967 comes up, the year the Red Sox were transformed from losers playing in a ballpark so dissatisfying to owner Tom Yawkey that he threatened to move the club if the city didn't build him a new one to the team being worshiped by the phenomenon now called Red Sox Nation.
The examples are limitless, from the Miracle Mets to the 1979 Pirates to the 1993 Giants to the 1994 Expos to the Giants of last season. They are the lifeblood of the game's romance. But those alluring stories, too, come at a heavy price for fans: losing all those years in between and the knowledge that a crash to normalcy is less than a season away. Surrounding the Phillies' surprise 1993 pennant was a 10-year stretch without a division title on the far side and another eight years in which they didn't finish above .500 on the more recent side. The Padres had never finished higher than fourth before winning the 1984 pennant, and after, they didn't make the playoffs for 12 years.
Superpowers needn't worry about such droughts. Yankees fans haven't experienced a losing record since 1992. Expecting to lose is what creates the surprise of that sudden winning year. Since only one team wins, losing is, of course, the more natural state of sports, which makes life as a superpower all the more unnatural.
The Phillies and their fans have entered, for them, a new territory in which winning has been transformed from hope to expectation. It can come at a heavy price for the sports fan, but one that many fans would love to pay.
Or at least think they would.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.