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Archive for May, 2011

After suffering a third consecutive blown save, Joakim Soria has been at least temporarily relieved of his duties as Kansas City Royals’ closer.

Over the past four seasons, Soria not only established himself as one of the best closers in the game, but also began to draw comparisons to the great Mariano Rivera. That’s what makes his sudden demotion so shocking. Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised? Since Rivera ascended to the throne of the game’s greatest closer, there have been many would-be challengers to his crown, but none have been able to stand the test of time. Meanwhile, the 41-year old Rivera keeps rolling along.

In addition to Soria, other closers who have either drawn comparison to or been billed as “the next Mariano Rivera” include Billy Wagner, Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Papelbon and Brad Lidge. In addition, at one time, it was suggested by some that closers like Joe Nathan and Eric Gagne had actually surpassed the great Rivera. Although many of these pitchers have had one or two seasons as good as or better than Rivera, none have maintained his longevity or consistency. And, while the youngest of the bunch, Soria, Papelbon and Krod, are still capable of striving for the throne, each has had at least one hiccup, something Rivera has avoided to this day.

WAR of Top Relievers, by Age and Season, 1996 to 2011

Note: “Top” closers, such as Troy Percival and Trevor Hoffman, who pre-dated Mariano Rivera not considered.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

What has made Mariano Rivera the undisputed king of closers is how long he has been able to sustain his dominance. While the career trajectories of his contemporaries have tended to flatten out over time, Rivera has maintained an almost steady climb well past the age when most closers begin to falter. It remains to be seen for how much longer Rivera’s career path with continue its inexorable climb of greatness, but as younger challengers to throne continue to fall by the wayside, it’s still “long live the King”.

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By holding the Oakland Athletics scoreless over nine innings, Bartolo Colon became the first Yankees’ pitcher to throw a shutout since C.C. Sabathia accomplished the feat in 2009 against the Baltimore Orioles. Colon also became the Yankees’ first right hander to throw a shutout since Chien-Ming Wang blanked the Devil Rays in 2006, as well as the oldest since a 40-year old Roger Clemens shut down the Anaheim Angels in 2003. Although the relevance of the complete game shutout has been greatly diminished over the years, the 5-0 victory was also only the fifteenth recorded by a Yankees’ pitcher over the last 10 seasons.

Yankees’ CG Shutouts Since 2002

Player Date Opp Rslt IP H BB SO Pit GSc
Bartolo Colon 5/30/2011 OAK W 5-0 9 4 0 6 103 85
CC Sabathia 5/8/2009 BAL W 4-0 9 4 1 8 112 86
Chien-Ming Wang 7/28/2006 TBD W 6-0 9 2 2 1 104 82
Aaron Small 9/3/2005 OAK W 7-0 9 5 2 3 112 78
Mike Mussina 6/14/2005 PIT W 9-0 9 5 1 6 109 82
Carl Pavano 5/17/2005 SEA W 6-0 9 5 0 7 133 84
Mike Mussina 5/7/2005 OAK W 5-0 9 4 2 3 131 80
Mike Mussina 8/17/2003 BAL W 8-0 9 3 0 9 121 90
Roger Clemens 7/30/2003 ANA W 8-0 9 5 1 5 115 81
David Wells 4/10/2003 MIN W 2-0 9 3 0 6 96 87
Mike Mussina 9/24/2002 TBD W 6-0 9 2 2 12 120 93
Mike Mussina 8/28/2002 BOS W 7-0 9 3 1 9 103 89
Andy Pettitte 6/30/2002 NYM W 8-0 9 3 2 8 120 87
Ted Lilly 6/22/2002 SDP W 1-0 9 3 2 11 113 90
David Wells 5/16/2002 TBD W 13-0 9 3 0 6 112 87

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

On a personal level, Colon’s shutout of the Athletics was the ninth in his career and first since July 5, 2006 against the Mariners. Colon has also now thrown a complete game shutout with four different teams. Of them all, however, none compare to his domination of the Yankees on September 18, 2000. While a member of the Indians, Colon not only shutout the Bronx Bombers on one hit, but also struck out 13 batters in the process. The resultant game score of 97 was by far the highest in his career.

Colon’s Prior CG Shutouts

Date Tm Opp Rslt IP H BB SO Pit GSc
7/5/2006 LAA SEA W 4-0 9 4 0 2 91 81
8/19/2002 MON SDP W 4-0 9 2 2 6 95 87
5/31/2002 CLE CHW W 7-0 9 8 2 4 122 73
3/31/2002 CLE ANA W 6-0 9 5 2 5 98 80
9/18/2000 CLE NYY W 2-0 9 1 1 13 114 97
8/9/1999 CLE ANA W 4-0 9 7 0 5 128 78
6/8/1998 CLE PIT W 8-0 9 4 1 3 96 81
4/4/1998 CLE ANA W 11-0 9 4 3 10 131 86

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

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On May 30, 1935, the greatest career in the history of major league baseball came to an end.  It was Memorial Day in Philadelphia, but there were no fireworks to bid farewell, just a weak ground ball to Phillies’ first baseman Dolph Camilli and a mournful walk back to the dugout.  The immortal Babe Ruth was finished.

Ruth, pictured here with long-time Yankees’ teammate Lou Gehrig, finished his career as a member of the Boston Braves.

At the time, no one knew they had seen the last of the Bambino. After the Memorial Day loss to the Phillies, Ruth, who had been nursing a sore knee for most of the season, decided that he needed some time to rest. So, during the next series against the Giants, the Babe put on a suit instead of a uniform and watched his Boston Braves’ teammates lose two of the next three. An idle Ruth was of no use to the Braves, however, so a confrontation was inevitable.

Ruth’s return to Boston was precipitated by a disagreement between the legendary slugger and Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert and chief executive Ed Barrow. Following the 1934 season, the team’s second straight campaign without a pennant, Ruth all but demanded that the Yankees’ brass fire manager Joe McCarthy. Ruppert and Barrow refused, so Ruth angrily declared that he’d never play for them again. It was an unfortunate threat because that suited the Yankees just fine. Instead of having to make what would have been an incredibly unpopular decision, the temperamental Ruth had gone ahead and done it for them.

Nowhere in the land are you more admired than in the territory of New England that has always claimed you as its own and where you started your career to fame.” – Judge Emil Fuchs, Boston Braves owners, February 26, 1935

While Ruth was abroad on a trip around the world, Judge Emil Fuchs approached Colonel Ruppert about having the Bambino return to Boston to play for his Braves. Fuchs desperately needed a gate attraction for his woeful team, and Ruppert was eager to rid himself of the increasingly troublesome slugger. So, the two owners hatched a plan to ensure a smooth transfer. In addition to a 25,000 salary, Fuchs offered Ruth a laundry list of hollow inducements, including an implied opportunity to manage. In response, Ruppert feigned surprise and agreed to not stand in Ruth’s way. Finally, on February 26, 1935, the three men held a press conference to announce that Babe Ruth was now a member of the Boston Braves.

Waived out of the American League after fifteen glamorous seasons with the New York Yankees, the one and only Bambino thrilled 25,000 frozen fans at Braves Field in his first game as a National Leaguer.” – James P. Dawson, New York Times, April 16, 1935

Judge Fuchs hands Ruth a pen so he can sign his new contract with the Braves.

At first, it seemed like the move might revitalize both the aging Ruth and the financially strapped Braves’ franchise. During spring training, the team played to large crowds as it  barnstormed up north, and then on Opening Day, 25,000 people jammed Braves Field to watch the Sultan of Swat take Carl Hubbell deep in a 4-2 victory over the New York Giants. However, that initial euphoria would quickly give way to acrimony as a developing contentious relationship between Ruth and Fuchs came to ahead just after Memorial Day.

After getting off to a hot start in the first five games of the season, Ruth suffered through a nightmarish 17-game stretch in which he hit .068 with only one home run in 57 plate appearances. What’s worse, the hobbled and overweight Ruth could barely field his position, subjecting the once invincible figure to jeers, laughter and, worst of all, pity. In the middle of that horrendous stretch, Ruth finally decided to call it quits, but Fuchs, who was desperate to squeeze as many gates as possible out his sideshow attraction, convinced him to stick around for at least the upcoming road trip, which was to feature a Babe Ruth Day in all five cities on the tour.

As Ruth struggled through sickness, injury and the rapid decline of his skill, he also gradually came to realize that all of Fuchs’ promises were empty. Because the Braves were in such poor economic condition, it soon became apparent that the financial inducements in his contract were worthless. However, what bothered Ruth most was the realization that he would never be given a chance to manage.

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After 50 games, and one day before Memorial Day marks the titular quarter pole of the season, the Yankees’ record stands at an underwhelming 27-23.

Yankees’ Record After 50 Games, 2002-2011

Year Record Pct. RS RA Final Record Result
2002 32-18 0.640 273 193 103-58 Division Champ
2003 29-21 0.580 279 219 101-61 AL Pennant
2004 31-19 0.620 283 243 101-61 Division Champ
2005 27-23 0.540 275 260 95-67 Division Champ
2006 30-20 0.600 301 232 97-65 Division Champ
2007 21-29 0.420 258 239 94-68 Wild Card
2008 25-25 0.500 222 223 89-73 3rd Place
2009 29-21 0.580 283 263 103-59 WS Champ
2010 30-20 0.600 278 209 95-67 Wild Card
2011 27-23 0.540 257 208

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Although a .540 winning percentage is hardly a disaster, the way the Yankees have compiled their record is what makes it seem unfulfilling. Since reaching a high watermark of 17-9 on May 2, the Yankees have gone 10-14 and, in the process, lost 6.5 games to the Red Sox in the standings. The team has also played sloppily during the stretch, losing several close games of the type they always seemed to win in the past. As a result, the Yankees’ record is currently three games below its Pythagorean expectation.

In addition to the team’s poor play, another underlying concern is the schedule. Entering the season, the first two months looked like an opportunity for the Yankees to build a cushion, but instead the team squandered its heavy dose of home games by only going 17-13 in the Bronx. With 16 more games slated for June, the Yankees will have one last chance to capitalize on home cooking because, in the second half, 60% of the schedule will be played on the road.

As Bill Parcells once famously said, you are what your record says you are, and after 50 games, the Yankees are a very ordinary team. The good news, however, is 2011 seems to be shaping up as a year of unusual parity. Currently, 11 of 14 American League teams are within arm’s length of .500, which means even at 27-23, the Yankees still have the third best record in the league. Of course, they are also only three games removed from the 11th worst record. That’s why parity is a double-edged sword.

One of the most overused, and most accurate, baseball clichés is the season is a marathon, not a sprint. For that reason, it doesn’t pay to overreact to even a 30-game stretch early in the season because there is usually enough time to recover from a stumble. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t cause for concern.

Like any marathon, it pays to know the course that lies ahead and the strength of the competitor who has slowly started to pull in front. In this regard, the Yankees have two formidable opponents. If the Yankees are going to win the A.L. East, they will not only need to regain their own pace, but do so on the road while chasing a Boston team that seems to have finally found its legs. As the season now turns to the second quarter pole on July 4, the Yankees need to either catch a second wind or risk being left behind in the dust.

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During his tenure as Yankees’ manager, Joe Girardi has adopted a formulaic approach to using the bullpen. During the early part of the season, his equation for winning was based on three variables: Joba Chamberlain in the seventh, Rafael Soriano in the eighth and Mariano Rivera in the ninth. However, Soriano’s injury poked a hole in the formula, causing Girardi to rejigger the components.

Luis Ayala, not David Robertson, was called upon to get the Yankees out of a bases loaded jam in the sixth inning (Photo: AP).

In order to fix his broken equation, Girardi moved Chamberlain to the eighth and David Robertson to the seventh. By doing so, however, he created a much larger void earlier in the game. Last night’s loss to the Mariners was the first manifestation of this formulaic deficiency.

After five innings, A.J. Burnett was nursing a 3-2 lead, but had thrown 97 pitches. As a result, Girardi decided to go to his bullpen, citing Burnett’s five walks and the two runs scored by the Mariners in the fifth. Considering that four of the walks came in the first two innings, and the two runs scored on ground ball outs after a cue ball double by Ichiro, this reasoning seemed to ignore not only the context of the game, but the current state of the Yankees’ bullpen.

We just thought we’d go to Boone for one out, and then go to Ayala and try to set it up for Robertson, Chamberlain and Mo.But we didn’t get there.” Joe Girardi, quoted by the LoHud Yankees Blog, May 28, 2011

With Burnett lifted, Girardi turned to a combination of Boone Logan and Luis Ayala to face the bottom of the lineup. According to Girardi, he figured that the combination of the two relievers would be able to handle the weaker portion of the already anemic Mariners’ batting order. Of course, Burnett probably could have as well, but once you get past that decision, Girardi’s assumption is a fair one. However, once the duo loaded the bases with no outs, it was time to break from the formula. Unfortunately, Girardi did not.

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(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)

Baseball is a young man’s game. Nothing drives that point home more than watching an aging superstar slowly lose his skills. Even though extraordinary figures like Nolan Ryan, Mariano Rivera, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens seem to defy the debilitating effects of father time, in the end, all great athletes are eventually conquered by their fleeting youth.

It has been often suggested that the advent of testing for PEDs (which many will probably take to mean steroids, but, more relevantly, also includes amphetamines) has led to a resurgence in the number of younger players having success. It’s nearly impossible to determine whether the decline of performance enhancers has had such impact, but we can at least try to see if, in fact, the game’s best players have become increasingly younger in recent years.

Average Age of MLB Players, All vs. WAR Leaders, 2000-2011 YTD

Note: “Top” categories composed of 30 best position players and 20 best pitchers ranked by WAR. In cases where there were ties, more players were included in the average.
Average age determined via a weighted average based on innings played at each position (plate appearances for DHs) and player age.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

The chart above reveals that the average ages of the top players and pitchers in baseball have gotten younger. For position players, the decline has been more gradual, while the trend for pitchers has been much more dramatic. Also evident from the chart is both top pitchers and positions players have gradually become younger than the average age of all comparable players. Regardless of whether the impetus for this trend is PED testing, cyclical turnover, better player development and injury management or some combination of the many variables at play, the re-emergence of youth in the game seems unmistakable.

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When Mariano Rivera finished off the Yankees’ 7-3 victory against the Blue Jays on Wednesday, he became the first pitcher in major league history to record 1,000 games with one team. Remarkably, Rivera accomplished the feat two days removed from the 16th anniversary of his major league debut on May 23, 1995.

Mariano Rivera made his major league debut on May 23, 1995. Almost 16 years later, Rivera pitched in his 1,000th game for the Yankees.

Rivera’s first appearance as a Yankee came as a starter in Anaheim. The skinny right hander was summoned to the major leagues when Jimmy Key was placed on the disabled list, but his promotion might just as well have been a birthday gift to manager Buck Showalter, who was celebrating his 39th year that very day.

Although Rivera was a relatively unknown at the time, the hard throwing Panamanian first opened Showalter’s eyes during spring training in 1992. At the time, young arms like Mark Hutton, Sam Militello, Bob Wickman, Jeff Johnson and Sterling Hitchcock were touted as the future of the Yankees, but the rookie manager instead took an immediate liking to Rivera. In particular, Showalter made note of the young pitcher’s composure and control, two qualities that would become the hallmarks of a Hall of Fame career.

Mariano certainly has a good track record for throwing the ball over the plate. He’s been trying to get a little more depth to his breaking ball, but he’s been able to get people out by locating his fastball, changeup and slider. And he’s a good athlete. A real good athlete. – Buck Showalter, quoted in the New York Daily News, May 23, 1995

The night of Rivera’s debut, the crowd at Anaheim Stadium was treated to an outstanding pitching performance, but unfortunately for the Yankees, it didn’t come from their rookie right hander.  Instead, Chuck Finley was the star of the night. The left hander, who made a habit of dominating the Yankees, struck out 15 batters on his way to a two-hit shutout.

Finley’s performance, which was the 100th of his career, and the Angels’ 10-0 victory completely overshadowed Rivera’s debut, which lasted only 3 1/3 innings. In the brief outing, Rivera surrendered five runs and eight hits, but also showed some flashes of brilliance by striking out five. Those flashes would eventually become roaring flames, but in the meantime, the young Rivera had a few lessons to learn.

One of the things Mariano can learn from tonight is that there’s not much margin for error up here. He missed a few times in some bad spots and he’s going to have to have better command of his off-speed stuff. He started out well and hopefully he’ll learn from it. Every pitcher goes through growing pains.” – Buck Showalter, quoted in the New York Daily News, May 24, 1995

As we now know, Rivera’s growing pains didn’t last long. After a few more inconsistent starts and a demotion to the minors, the future closer had what many consider to be his real coming out party on July 4. This time, Rivera’s outing turned out to be a worthy gift for the Boss, whose birthday’s cake must gone down a lot easier after Rivera’s 11 strikeouts in eight shutout innings. The rest of the season had its up and downs for Rivera, but the 1995 ALCS cemented his future as a prominent figure in an emerging Yankees’ dynasty. Unfortunately for Showalter, he wouldn’t be around to see it.

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(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)

The 2011 season has been a very perplexing one for the Yankees’ offense. Although the team’s lineup has looked futile on so many individual occasions, the aggregate numbers still suggest it is one of the best in baseball. Almost 50 games into the season, the Yankees not only lead the league in runs per game, but the lineup has also posted the most homeruns and the second highest wOBA. And yet, something still does not feel quite right.

Perhaps one reason it seems as if the Yankees have been struggling so much is because the team got off to such a quick start with the bats. In other words, although the lineup’s recent output hasn’t fallen too far behind the rest of the league, it has significantly lagged its earlier performance (not to mention preseason expectations).  So, what short circuited the Yankees’ offense and when did it occur?

Yankees Offensive Performance over Defined Periods

Games R/G AVG OBP SLG wOBA
19 to 47 4.62 0.249 0.330 0.409 0.330
Rank 6 15 9 5t 5t
Season 5.17 0.254 0.335 0.445 0.344
Rank 1 12 3 1 2

Source: fangraphs.com

Segmenting a sample can often lead to a misleading analysis, but the tenor of the Yankees’ season seemed to change on April 25 when the team returned home for a four-game series against the White Sox. In that game, the 12-6 Bronx Bombers, who were leading the league with a whopping 6.1 runs/game, were opposed by journeyman Philip Humber, so the natural expectation was a blowout. However, the Chicago righty not only kept the Yankees from scoring a single run, but he also no hit them for 6 1/3 innings.

Since Humber’s masterpiece, the Yankees’ offense has fallen off considerably. Not only has the lineup’s per game run production dropped to 4.6, but most relevant metrics have taken a dip as well. Although it’s worth mentioning that the team’s production during this decline period has still been above average in aggregate, a closer look at each game tells a somewhat different story.

Of the 134 runs scored since April 25, almost 28% (37) have come in three games, meaning the team’s average in all others has been 3.7 runs. Obviously, negative outliers can’t simply be dismissed, but doing so helps to reveal a level of inconsistency that gets lost in the season totals.

Yankees’ Run Distribution, by Defined Period

Source: Baseball-reference.com

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The last three years haven’t been very kind to Mets’ owner Fred Wilpon, so what’s one more bad day?

Fred Wilpon has seen better days, but the firestorm following recently published comments was not one of them.

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Wilpon’s rise and (at least temporary) fall as a self-made millionaire were chronicled in impressive detail by staff writer Jeffrey Toobin. However, what gained most notoriety were a handful of unflattering remarks that Wilpon made about his own team and several of its players. Although it is a shame that the enlightening profile was overshadowed by a few off-the-cuff remarks, the reality is, if not for his position as owner of the Mets, there likely would not have been a profile in the first place.

In addition to lamenting the overall poor play of his team, Wilpon also had pointed criticisms about several star players. “He won’t get it,” was Wilpon’s assessment of Jose Reyes’ chances at signing a Carl Crawford-like contract, while David Wright was described as “a really good kid; a very good player; not a superstar”. Not exactly the high praise you’d expect from an organization about its homegrown talent.

Perhaps the greatest criticism, however, was reserved for Carlos Beltran, who also happens to be most Mets’ fans favorite whipping boy. After miming Beltran’s flinching strikeout that ended the 2006 NLCS in response to a question about the Mets being cursed, Wilpon went on to call himself a “schmuck” for signing the centerfielder “based on that one series” (a reference to Beltran’s playoff performance in 2004).

The resultant firestorm stemming from the comments was predictable, if not ironic. Anyone who listens to sports talk or reads the tabloids in New York has likely heard all of Wilpon’s statements repeated countless times. Of course, the people spouting them aren’t the owners of the team.

Instead of debating whether Wilpon should have been so forthright, or even whether his assessments were correct (I happen to think he was wrong on all three: Reyes will get Crawford money; Wright is a superstar; and the Beltran signing wasn’t a bad one), I am more intrigued by the suggestion that the Mets are cursed, particularly as it pertains to free agents.  After all, Wilpon’s sentiments seem to be shared by the entire fan base, which frequently laments the team’s perceived misfortune in free agency.

So, just how poorly have the Mets done in free agency? In order to address that question, let’s first take a look at the Mets major signings since the advent of free agency in 1976. With a few noted exceptions, this list only contains prominent players who signed as a domestic free agent and had previously spent less than a year with the team. In other words, players re-signing after a longer tenure (e.g., Oliver Perez) or before filing for free agency (e.g., Mike Piazza and John Franco) are excluded. (more…)

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The Yankees and Mets just completed the most recent edition of the Subway Series, but if past events had transpired differently, train travel wouldn’t have been needed to host the rivalry.

Bill Shea throws out the first pitch on Opening Day 1964, christening the stadium that bared his name.

When the Dodgers and Giants left town after the 1957 season, there was an immediate push to return National League baseball to New York City. Although the Yankees had emerged as the dominant team in town, the senior circuit’s roots in the Big Apple were long and deep. So, even while the Bronx Bombers battled the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series, Mayor Robert Wagner commissioned a task force to find an immediate replacement for its two departing teams. In a sense, it was the city’s way of telling the Dodgers and Giants to not let the door hit them on their way out west.

Mayor Wagner’s Special Committee on Major League Baseball, which included four prominent members of the city’s business community, was charged simply with getting a National League team by any means necessary. Chaired by a well-connected lawyer named William A. Shea, the committee’s first course of action was to explore the possibility of poaching an existing team. In order to entice potential candidates, Shea and Wagner revealed plans to build a state-of-the-art ballpark on a city-owned plot of land in Flushing, Queens (ironically, it was the city’s insistence that Walter O’Malley use this site for his proposed new ballpark that forced the Dodgers to leave town in the first place). Meanwhile, the committee lobbied hard to have the territorial rules governing relocation amended so the Yankees couldn’t veto the arrival of a new neighbor. With the groundwork laid, attempts were then made to convince the Cubs, Reds, Phillies and Pirates to relocate to New York, but despite Shea’s best efforts, there were no takers.

When the relocation efforts stalled, Shea shifted the committee’s attention toward winning an expansion franchise. However, despite professing support for a new team in New York, Commissioner Ford Frick and the existing owners in the National League continued to drag their feet on the issue. So, Shea decided to take matters into his own hands. If organized baseball wouldn’t readmit New York, Shea reasoned, then the city might as well spearhead the creation of a brand new major league.

Shea’s brainchild was the Continental League. On July 27, 1959, the ambitious attorney revealed plans for a new circuit with founding franchises in New York, Houston, Minneapolis, Denver and Toronto, all cities that felt neglected by the current baseball structure. Because only New York had an existing major league team, Shea expected his Continental League to play alongside the NL and AL, not compete against it. Perhaps he was being naïve, or maybe he thought the threat of a lawsuit would force the hands of the existing 16 owners, but Shea fully expected his new venture to gain full acceptance and recognition as a third league that would eventually compete in the World Series.

We anticipate the cooperation of organized baseball, but we are all in this to stay and we are not going to back out no matter what happens.” – William A. Shea, quoted by UPI, July 27, 1959

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