Review of MLB At Bat for Android

Opening Day might remain the holiest of days for baseball fans, but there are other dates to celebrate. Pitchers and catchers reporting, though essentially eventless, serves as a concrete reminder that baseball is coming. Another date that stands out for many fans: the first spring training games. For all of us, it’s our first chance to see our boys in uniform.

We all have different rituals and celebrations that go along with these dates. For the first game of spring training, I celebrate by installing the latest version of MLB At Bat on my smartphone. Since switching (back) to Android last fall, I had the pleasure this year of adding the MLB widget to my home screen. Since we’re a few days away from real baseball, it seems like as good a time as any to dig into the latest At Bat and see what it brings to the table.

Just to be clear up front, my review is based on the Galaxy S3. As long as you have Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich or higher, though, it should function almost exactly the same whether you’re using Motorola, LG, or HTC phones.

Favorite team

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MLB knows its fans. While many of us enjoy action from all around the league, most fans prefer to monitor the home town team above others. As always At Bat allows you to choose your favorite and then places them atop the scoreboard. They also become the default score on your widget. It might seem small and simple, but it’s a key feature.

The team homepage received a facelift this year, and so far has been an excellent hub for updates. In addition to the next-game information, it has a featured box with stories and video — and there don’t appear to be any pre-roll ads before the video. Below that there’s a full video clip section, with news, schedule, shop, tickets, and stadium information. Finally, there is a section to check the current roster and standings.

The team homescreen is somewhat reminiscent of Windows 8 on smartphones. It’s all based on tiles, and there are plenty of tiles you can scroll. I haven’t used this feature in the past, but I plan to this year for sure. Information about matchups, video clips, and quick schedule access make it a sensible hub.

Scoreboard

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When you click into At Bat, your default screen is the league scoreboard. Atop you’ll see the Yankees game for the day, if they have one, followed by the rest of the league in start-time order. Again, this is fairly standard, as is the ability to flip to different dates. You’ll get the situation, too, including bases, counts, and outs. Click on that diamond, and you’ll see options for Gameday, audio, video, and box score.

While the scoreboard screen is nothing new, it is remarkable for the amount of information it displays in a single screen. The default refresh rate (more on that in a moment) means you’ll be up-to-date, almost to the second. Easy access to various ways of enjoying the game makes this the perfect default screen. It’s a big winner for At Bat this year.

Gameday, audio, and video

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I’m digging the Gameday interface this year, which includes a useful navigation bar at the top*. Flipping among the live Gameday broadcast, the box score, the play-by-play, videos, and the defensive alignment is quick and simple. When connected to WiFi and 4G LTE networks there is hardly any load time.

*This might or might not be new on Android; I was using the iOS version last year.

Other than that, Gameday is pretty straight forward, as it always has been. It’s been pretty crappy for spring games from what I’ve noticed, but it should get plenty better once the real games start.

As always, you can hook up your MLB.com account to At Bat and get the audio and video streams of every game. Again, with 4G LTE running the S3 the video feeds are better than ever. I imagine this is the same on most LTE-enabled phones. The larger screen size of modern smartphones also adds to the effect. While watching a game on the 4.8-inch scree of the S3 is far from ideal, it’s light years better than the 3.5-inch screen of the iPhone (pre-5).

News, standings, and more

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One thing you might notice when using At Bat is that the menu button does not function at all. I’ve grown very accustomed to using that virtual button to bring up menus full of settings, but At Bat has done away with that. Instead their menu is entirely contained in the top navigation bar (which also contains listings for audio and video). From here you can access the array of MLB.com offerings, including news, standings, video, stats, and more.

The stats screen could certainly use some work, but of course that’s coming from a guy who used to write for FanGraphs. It’s not that I need wOBA inside the At Bat app. Hardly. Instead, I’d rather see a better display method for the stats. Under the stats pages you can check leaders in a huge number of categories, including OPS. In other words, not great, but serviceable.

The individual player pages, on the other hand, leave much to be desired. While they have neat little things like last 10 games and splits, the whole layout is just not useful. The only stats they give you are games played, at-bats, home runs, RBI, average, and OBP. That goes for both the summary page and the stats-specific page. I understand MLB caters to a more general crowd, but having at least the traditional AVG/OBP/SLG would be a huge help. Then again, with people using this for fantasy purposes, and with economy of space being an issue, it’s understandable why it works this way. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Optimal settings

Before I installed At Bat and added the scoreboard widget to my home page, I’d get almost two days’ worth of battery out of a single charge on my S3. Ever since installing, I get about 20 hours’ worth before having to recharge. That’s because of the settings on the At Bat widget. If battery life is a concern for you, you might want to go update those settings.

There are separate refresh rate settings for scoreboard and the widget, so you can keep the scoreboard updating every 15 seconds while you have the app open. You can refresh the widget every 15, 30, or 60 seconds. The 30-second option seems to save a decent amount of battery life, but practically you can probably deal with once-a-minute updates.

While it’s off by default, I also recommend you turn off the Gameday Scout option. It claims to provide “color commentary on gameday discussing statistical trends and tendencies,” but anyone who has seen it knows otherwise. A typical “scout” observation: “Phil Hughes is having trouble finding his control, as he has walked two this inning and has three balls on Lind.” Ya think?

Free, but not

While the MLB At Bat for Android app is free to download at Google Play, it does require a $19.99 subscription. That gets you all the features except live video. You’ll need a MLB.tv Premium subscription to get that. It’s the one purchase I know I’ll make every year.

Book Review: O Captain, my Captain

There is a book waiting to be written about the life and times of Derek Jeter. This book will explore what motivates him to excel on the field and how he behaves off the field where he was – and maybe still is – a king of New York’s social scene. In other words, it should delve into every aspect of Derek Jeter that makes him Derek Jeter. That book is not, however, Ian O’Connor’s highly anticipated biography The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter.

From the start, I knew that O’Connor’s book, at nearly 380 pages, would be a slog. The first sentence of chapter one read, “Like all good stories about a prince, this one starts in a castle.” That’s the way O’Connor has chosen to frame his biography. It’s not a critical look at Jeter; it’s not one with inside information about his social life; it excuses any short-comings; it is about a player O’Connor views as a prince.

After that, though, the book takes a turn for the better. The first 200 pages focus on Jeter’s background and early years with the Yankees. We learn about his grandfather’s youth in New Jersey as a foster child and how his work ethic shaped Jeter’s devotion to his eventual craft. We hear about the racial challenges Jeter’s parents faced as a mixed marriage at a time of less tolerance even in New Jersey and Michigan. We read about his youth as a start baseball and basketball player. As a scrawny teenager in the late 1980s, even then, Derek Jeter was destined for great things. He told his friends he would both be on the Yankees and date Mariah Carey, and everyone who knew him believed him.

As the tale progresses, O’Connor offers a glimpse back at the fateful draft of 1992. Somehow, Jeter, far and way the most productive player from that draft, fell all the way to the sixth pick. The Astros wanted Phil Nevin’s power while the Indians wanted Paul Shuey’s arm. The Reds’ advanced scouts and a young Jim Bowden urged the club to take Jeter with the fifth pick, but Julian Mock went the cheaper route. They picked Chad Mottola who appeared in just 59 games for the Reds, Blue Jays, Orioles and Marlins.

That draft was, of course, the first major turning point in Jeter’s life. He was expected to become the next great Yankee and had a signing bonus to match. He and Brien Taylor were due to lead the club into another era of greatness, but the game that came so easily to Jeter in Michigan proved challenging. At the age of 18, he hit .210/.311/.314 with 21 errors and would call home in tears every night. At age 19, his hitting improved, but he made 56 errors for Single A Greensboro. Already, Yankee officials were talking about moving Jeter out of short stop.

But as O’Connor notes, intangibles carried the day. Jeter, work ethic intact, turned himself into the sixth best prospect in baseball, and despite pressure from the front office to go with a more experienced short stop, he emerged as the team’s young spark plug in 1996. For his first five seasons, Jeter led a golden life. He won four World Series and dated Mariah Carey. After the 2000 World Series, Jeter was on top of the world, but even then, O’Connor had to position the second half of his book. “Derek Jeter, four-time champ,” he writes, “was the undisputed lord of the rings. He had no idea how much suffering he would endure in pursuit of his one for the thumb.”

The suffering, of course, came in the form of Those Other Guys. Once the synergistic energies of Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius departed, the Yankees, says O’Connor, became a Me-First team. Jason Giambi, for instance, asked out of the 2003 World Series, much to Jeter’s chagrin. And then A-Rod arrives.

If this book has a villain, it is Alex Rodriguez. He’s the guy who kisses himself in the mirror, who slaps at baseballs, who cares too much about his image and manages to put his foot in his mouth. He’s the guy who dissed Jeter in an Esquire interview and who bears the full weight of the Yanks’ post-season failures from 2004-2007. He is the anti-Jeter, and this goes on for nearly 150 pages as O’Connor defines Jeter for what A-Rod isn’t as much as he does what the Yankees’ Captain is.

Using stories from Selena Roberts’ A-Rod expose and the Joe Torre/Tom Verducci memoir, O’Connor paints a familiar picture of A-Rod as a selfish guy. Perhaps that’s not an inaccurate picture of A-Rod, but he’s also a player who hit .303/.403/.573 with 173 home runs over his first four seasons in the Bronx. He certainly wasn’t embraced by Jeter who comes across as vindicative toward those who double-cross him, but he was a big part of the Yanks’ regular season success.

Eventually, Jeter and A-Rod reconcile as the Yanks’ Captain brings Alex “back into the fold.” He is embraced, and the Yankees win the 2009 World Series. It was Jeter’s crowning moment. “Jeter did not just embody the pride of the Yankees as much as any mythic figure before him,” O’Connor writes, returning to his favorite metaphor. “He proved a prince can become a king without lusting after the throne.” Mostly, the book is as saccharine and sterilized as it sounds.

Yet, buried within this tale of the prince of New York is something more interesting, and now and then, it shines through. While Jeter didn’t fully cooperate with O’Connor, he clearly gave his blessing for some of his closest friends — including Tino Martinez, David Cone and one-time Yankee farmhand R.D. Long — to sit with O’Connor. When they talk, Derek becomes more human and less princely. It slams the Mets for allowing the Baha Men to perform “Who Let the Dogs Out” before the 2000 World Series at Shea Stadium. He is absolutely frigid toward those who slight him or friends who do him wrong. He dumps Mariah Carey and kicks her to the curb with a brutal efficiency. He yells at Bernie Williams and Jay Witasick behind closed doors and is a far more vocal captain than many fans think. He parties as a youngster during Spring Training and courts starlets for decades.

To me, that’s what would make a Derek Jeter biography more interesting. It doesn’t have to be all wine and roses. We know about his on-field accomplishments; we have seen them day in and day out. But O’Connor’s book leaves Jeter’s private life well enough alone. The book rehashes the 2003 dispute with George Steinbrenner that eventually lead to an amusing VISA commercial and mentions Jeter’s extreme secrecy concerning the women he has dated. But Minka Kelly, for instance, is mentioned on a whopping six pages, and Joe Torre’s reluctance to push his favorite pupil to improve his defense gets very short shrift.

As an epilogue to the 2009 World Series, O’Connor provides some behind-the-scenes glimpses at Jeter’s contract negotiations, and here, the book does what I want to do. Jeter, painted as proud and not always receptive to criticism, did not take kindly to the Yanks’ suggestion that he wasn’t worth a nine-figure deal or $20 million a year. This is the excerpt that ESPN New York ran a few weeks ago as a teaser for the book. The Yanks pushed hard, and Jeter got upset. Eventually, Randy Levine settled the dispute by offering Jeter more money than he otherwise would have gotten and a player option, and everyone became friends — or at least frenemies — again.

Yet, even here, the book seems incomplete, and that’s because it is. Derek Jeter’s story is far from over. We have yet to see how Jeter, long accustomed to exploiting his natural talents to win World Series titles and not receptive to moving position, will respond to the inevitable and ongoing aging process. We don’t know what’s going to happen when he does have to move from short stop, and we haven’t seen how the Yankees and their fading star will address his anemic bat. That isn’t just an epilogue to the softcover edition of O’Connor’s book; it’s an entirely new section that can’t be written for years. We might know Jeter a little better after reading O’Connor’s biography, but Jeter might not know himself until he faces the adversity on the baseball field that inevitably comes with age.

Book Review: In Tampa, an Extra 2% edge

The Tampa Bay Rays are one of the least heralded success stories in sports of the past decade. In 2007, it was business as usual for the then-Devil Rays. They went 66-96, good for their ninth last place finish in ten seasons as a Major League club, and just under 1.4 million fans watched Alberto Reyes rack up 26 saves.

Since then, the Rays have won the AL East twice and made the World Series once. They’ve dethroned the league’s two richest teams and still sport a solid young core of players that make them a perennial threat in the American League. They don’t have a new stadium and still draw under 1.8 million fans per season. Yet, the Rays have become the latest small-market success story. How?

The how is the subject of Jonah Keri’s latest book. Entitled The Extra 2 %, Keri’s book explores, as the lofty subtitle says, “how Wall Street strategies took a Major League Baseball team from worst to first.” With a new ownership group in place that was willing to experiment and push the envelope, the Rays took advantage of their position at the bottom of baseball’s economic pecking order to dig for advantages. Luck played no small part in it, but the Rays have something that works, for now.

To set the stage, Keri spends the first few chapters exploring the tortured history of baseball in Tampa Bay. The sprawling metropolitan had always appealed to Major League Baseball more as a threat than as an actual landing place for a team. Whenever a successful franchise needed a new stadium, it would threaten a move to St. Petersburg. The White Sox did so in the early 1990s; the Mariners followed suit a few years later; and the San Francisco Giants were apparently this close to shacking up in the Trop.

Yet, despite the fact that St. Petersburg went so far as to build a stadium — an ugly one at that — without a tenant, Major League Baseball never graced the area with a team. Miami got its franchise first, and it took the threat of a lawsuit that would have rocked baseball from its lofty perch atop an antitrust exemption to see the Devil Rays enter the world.

When they did, it was a spectacular disaster. Vince Naimoli was the wrong man to own the team, and Chuck LaMar was the wrong general manager. The club burned draft picks by signing bad free agents. They wasted other picks by avoiding top talent in the name of “signability.” Sometimes, they landed the right guy; Carl Crawford stuck. But Jason Standridge and Dewon Brazelton are a testament to the disaster.

Keri’s narrative picks up the Extra 2 % when Stuart Sternberg, a baseball fan and Wall Street guy, buys the club from Naimoli. He brought Matthew Silverman and Andrew Friedman with him. Together, these three guys changed the franchise. They changed the way it does business; they spruced up Tropicana Field as best they could; and they began to search for the edge — the Extra 2 % — that would allow the Rays to remain competitive in the rich American League East.

Unfortunately for Keri’s book, the meat of the Extra 2 % is a proprietary one. James Click and Josh Kalk, two former Baseball Prospectus writers, are among the top figures working behind the scenes, but the Rays, who cooperated with Keri only at the end of his reporting, keep these minds away from the press. A certain part of the Extra 2 % is still a secret.

Yet, that doesn’t leave the book lacking, and Keri provides deep insights into the Rays’ process. He talks with Silverman and Friedman about their baseball arbitrage process, and while he doesn’t go inside the Rays’ draft room, he explains how the club is working to identify baseball talent on the cheap while selling high and drafting wisely. The Extra 2 % comes from the organization’s idea that they have to be that much more diligent than their competitors. The Devil Rays might have missed out on Albert Pujols in the early 2000s, but that’s a mistake the current regime will not make again.

Ultimately, the book is a great read, and I can’t recommend it enough for Yankee fans of all stripes. We might envy the Rays their recent success and no longer view them as the pushovers they once were. But that doesn’t make them an unlikeable franchise, and Keri’s book humanizes a franchise long scorned by the baseball cognoscenti.

The end of Keri’s book, on the current stadium, left me wanting the more than isn’t there yet. Tropicana Field is ugly and out of the way. It’s in a town with very high unemployment, and while the Rays have the highest TV ratings in the game, they can’t get fans to come. They also can’t force the area to fork over public funds for a new stadium.

So my question still remains: Can the Rays maintain their success? Keri says they can, but I’m less optimistic. (Perhaps, that’s my inner Yankee fan speaking.) Their payroll this year is much lower than in recent seasons, and their bullpen and lineup approach resembles something of a band aid. They will rise and fall on their arms, but as the young guns grow up, can they keep winning? The cast of The Extra 2 % came of age at a time when the Rays had the right guys making the right Number 1 draft picks. Success comes at a price, and in 2011, we’ll learn if the Rays can sustain success of it small-market wins are merely cyclical.

Editor’s Note: Jonah Keri is a good friend of mine, and his publisher supplied me with a review copy of the book. Joe and I are also mentioned by name in the Acknowledgements. Still, this review is an impartial one.

To be 12 and a Yankee fan as the Mariners won

When I was 12 years old, the Seattle Mariners broke my heart. A perfectly-placed double by Edgar Martinez in the bottom of the 11th inning on a Sunday night in early October sent the Yankees home after a thrilling ALDS. It was the first Yankee playoff appearance of my life, and while the memories of it would be erased by a half a decade of World Series dominance, it was a crushing, stinging defeat for this young baseball fan.

Now, that series with Ken Griffey’s tremendous display of power, David Cone’s gutsy pitching, the emergence of Mariano Rivera, Don Mattingly’s last hurrah, the Martinezes’ — Edgar and Tino — constant bludgeoning of the Yankees and, of course, Randy Johnson’s relief appearance, has been immortalized by Chris Donnelly in a wonderful new book. Called Baseball’s Greatest Series, Donnelly explores how the 1995 ALDS match-up between the Yankees and the Mariners, in his words, changed history. It brought about key changes in New York that led to a dynasty and saved baseball as we know it in Seattle.

What most Yankee fans sitting 3,000 miles away from Seattle know about that 1995 series concerns the way it changed the Yankees. The Yankees left New York up 2-0 on the Mariners and had to return east losers of three straight, the first of the three great Yankee collapses during their magical dynasty run. That loss — with the shaky John Wetteland in the bullpen, with Mariano Rivera underutilized, with Jack McDowell on the mound, with a tight and tense Yankee clubhouse and a cantankerous owner — led to the ouster of Buck Showalter and the dawn of a new day. Getting to that point, though, was a battle.

Donnelly begins his tale in New York with a history of the Yankees from 1981 to 1995. It is a sad tale and one we’ve told in bits and pieces this winter. George Steinbrenner turned from a crazy win-now owner into a meddlesome and obsessed win-at-all-costs-yesterday owner. The Yanks fell just short of the playoffs in 1985 and couldn’t recover for nearly a decade after Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball and the Yanks’ baseball minds could put together a better team.

Necessarily, the New York part of the story focuses on Don Mattingly. A lynch pin for the Yanks throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, by 1995 he was a shell of his former self, and that 1995 ALDS was his only playoff appearance as a player. Mattingly hit .417/.440/.708 in his last games as a Major Leaguer, but with the likes of Dion James, Randy Velarde, Tony Fernandez and Ruben Sierra all faltering behind him, it wasn’t enough.

In Seattle, meanwhile, the story is more vital for the Mariners. While the Yanks’ loss led to a dynasty, the Mariners’ victory ensured the Pacific Northwest that baseball would survive there. Prior to 1995, the Mariners were a sad franchise that never enjoyed much success. They played in a dreary dome that remained mostly empty for decades, and as 1995 dawned, the team needed a new stadium or they would decamp for Tampa Bay.

As the Mariners climbed back from a late-season 12-game deficit to make the playoffs, Seattle became, in the span of one year, a baseball town. The story ends not with a Mariners’ loss to the Indians in the ALCS, but with a new stadium for the team and a decade-long rivalry with the Yanks. As hard as it is to believe now, but the Mariners were three outs away from leaving Seattle. The Yankees just couldn’t get those three outs.

The Yankees, meanwhile, blew it. As would be the case in the desert in 2001 and in Boston and New York in 2004, the Yankees were on the precipice of playoff victory and couldn’t seal the deal. They headed west triumphant with a two games to none lead in the best-of-five series. They went down against Randy Johnson in Game 3. The Big Unit, a playoff bugaboo both pitching against and for the Yankees through 2006, struck out 10. In Game 4, the team jumped out to a 5-0 lead and was outscored 11-3 over the last six innings. Scott Kamieniecki, Sterling Hitchcock, Bob Wickman, John Wetteland and Steve Howe just couldn’t get it done.

And then there was Game 5. It was a tense affair for the Yankees. George Steinbrenner had grown to hate the popular Buck Showalter, and Showalter’s tense managerial style clearly had an impact on the team. But the Yanks had a lead heading into the late innings. They went up 4-2 when a Don Mattingly double unfortunately bounced over the wall. Much as he could not when a Tony Clark double bounced over the wall in Fenway nine years later, Ruben Sierra was not allowed to score on Mattingly’s ball. It was the first bad bounce to change baseball history.

David Cone stayed in too long, and the Mariners tied it up in the 8th. Mariano Rivera came in to clean up the mess, and the Yankees finally recognized the weapon that would fully emerge in 1996. When the Big Unit came in to pitch in relief, the Yankees were in trouble. They eked out a run in the 11th, but Jack McDowell couldn’t hold it. Joey Cora singled, Ken Griffey singled, and Edgar Martinez roped a double down the line. It was all over.

Donnelly’s storytelling as the games unfold is a pleasure. More than once, I had to put the book down to gather myself when I knew the inning or the game wasn’t going to end for the Yankees. As the team gathered in tears in the visitors’ clubhouse in Seattle, I thought back to my frustrations as a young baseball fan. After the strike-shortened season of 1994, baseball needed a thrilling postseason, but Yankee fans wanted wins. We knew Mattingly would retire; we knew Showalter would be fired. But we didn’t know what glory awaited.

Baseball’s Greatest Series doesn’t dwell much on the game past 1995, and it doesn’t have to. It’s a great complement to Buster Olney’s The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty in that it dissects a transformative moment in baseball — and Yankee history — and shows how it led to a different era for the game. It’s heartbreaking to read about the stunning Yankee losses, and Edgar’s double burns just as badly as Luis Gonzalez’s single. But it’s a more interesting read than a profile of the 1990s dynasty teams.

Donnelly’s story, in the end, is about baseball’s redemption after a pointless strike. It’s about the way George Steinbrenner loomed over the Yankees and how the team’s loss in Seattle turned them into a winner despite the Boss’ crankiest moments. It’s about how the Mariners needed that win and how, with a bounding ball into left field, Seattle erupted, New York cried and we had to wait, without knowing what 1996 would bring, until next year yet again.

Chris Donnelly’s Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History is available for sale at Amazon and your local bookstore. If you use the link in this paragraph to buy the book, we earn a few pennies on the sale. It’s a brisk 287 pages, and you’ll find yourself yet again cursing the Mariners by the end of it.

From the AP: Photos from the front row

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What would your photo album look like if you had front-row seats to every Yankee game for decades on end? It would probably be a thing of beauty with vivid photographs of seminal moments in Yankee history.

Well, although you and I do not enjoy this luxury in life, the Associated Press has. Photographers from the AP have been at every Yankee game for countless years. Now, to coincide with the first playoff series at the New Yankee Stadium, the AP is making 365 of these photographs available in a new book. The book, entitled New York Yankees 365, is on sale now, and it truly is a marvelous photo retrospective.

Ostensibly, the book is arranged as a bound page-a-day calendar. Each photo is a full page with a description and a calendar date on the other. That part of the production I don’t understand. The calendar days do not actually correspond to anything portrayed in the pictures, and no one will read and soak in just one photo a day. But that’s a minor quibble about a great addition to anyone’s Yankee coffee table book collection. From the Babe to Derek, this one’s got it all (and you can see some of it in this slideshow).

Tom Curley, president and CEO of the AP, talked about the organization’s goals behind the book. “Baseball and The Associated Press grew up together, and no news organization has covered more of the nearly 400,000 professional games that have been played to date,” he said in a press release. “Over the course of the last century, the Yankees have come to embody the majesty of the game of baseball. They are a part of Americana. This book is a photographic celebration of the history and heroes the team has created.”

Meanwhile, to promote the book, former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton will be at Borders at 100 Broadway in Lower Manhattan tomorrow afternoon at noon to sign copies. I’m sure he’ll talk about Ball Four as well.

To purchase copies of this book and send a few pennies back to RAB, use this link. And yes, FTC, the AP did send me a review copy. Happy? Meanwhile, here’s your post-playoff game open thread. Play by the rules. Have fun.