The Major League Baseball season is set to begin in a few days, and in what has been an almost annual exercise, the large market, high-payroll teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are predicted to be among the league leaders once again.
Teams from smaller cities having lower budgets for player salaries like the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates are once again expected to remain near the bottom portion of the standings, the organizations and supporters alike seemingly resigned to second-tier status.
And in a way it is kind of unfair, at least on the surface, since the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers can simply afford to pay substantially more to attract the most talented players, putting the less well financed and smaller clubs at a competitive disadvantage. Many other sports leagues have installed team salary caps, to attempt to level the competitive balance by ensuring all teams have mostly the same budgets available to pay players.
But even in a league that has a salary cap, like the NBA, certain teams do achieve a level of consistent success via better leadership, strategy, and execution. The lessons that can be learned from these clubs is that with efficient management of their restricted assets, sustained excellence is still possible.
In baseball, where the economic system is much closer to the 'real world' that organizations compete in every day, it does seem like some clubs have come to accept their status, looking at the Yankees, (or for a UK soccer equivalent, Manchester United) as already having won the championship before the season has even begun.
If you are on the Pirates, (who have endured 17 consecutive losing seasons), working in management, operations, or even as a player, it has to be easy to 'choose' to compete for fourth place. To ratiionalize that achieving mediocrity (in the form of a .500 record) is success. Basically to have given up on the thought of winning the title before the games even start. Because for those kind of teams, once young players demonstrate some potential, they typically leave (or are traded) for one of the larger teams that can afford to pay them more.
So the question I think is this - how realistic should their expectations be?
If your organization is the equivalent of the Pirates, plugging away, no real threat to the established leaders in your industry, the kind of place employees come to either get some experience at the beginning of their careers, or to ride out the last few years before they retire, should the organization simply accept that, try to stay afloat, and keep the lights on? When is fourth place ok?
And on an individual level, if you are working in a 'Pirate' organization, when do you decide, 'I'd rather be a Yankee' and jump ship?