Archive for Reviews

On the last page of his biography of Ed Barrow, author Daniel R. Levitt allows a long quote from Branch Rickey to close out his tome. “I say there has never been a smarter baseball man than Mr. Barrow,” Rickey once said. “He knows what a club needs to achieve balance, what a club needs to become a pennant winner. I, perhaps, can judge the part, but Mr. Barrow can judge the whole.”

These are glowing words from one of the men considered to be among the smartest baseball minds in the game’s history. It is a quote, in fact, better served for the first page of a book. Branch Rickey, one of baseball’s most famous executives, talks about Ed Barrow, one of the games most influential — but not quite as well known — executives, in positively glowing tones.

With that type of quote setting the stage, Levitt as the author of a biography would have had free reign to build up Ed Barrow’s life and accomplishments in baseball. Instead, the quote is buried. This is but one of the many missed opportunities that arise in Levitt’s informative but misguided biography of a man who deserves so much more.

For many Yankee fans, the name Ed Barrow is lost to time. But he was part of the game for fifty years and nearly half of those he spent constructing Yankee dynasties. He saw baseball emerge as a big business in the early 1900s, won a World Series ring as a manager, help bring the Babe and Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio to New York, ushered the Yanks through the dark days of World War II and sat on a committee to bring in some of the Hall of Fame’s first members. Throughout those years, he was a key player in establishing first formal relationships between minor league clubs and Major League teams and later building up the farm team system we know and love.

But Levitt doesn’t always bring across just who Ed Barrow was. Early on in the book, Levitt introduces Barrow as a stubborn hot-head with little taste for the internal politics of baseball. He is very much the bulldog in the book’s subtitle, “The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty.” While we learn this much about Barrow in the late 1890s, for the next fifty years, Levitt relies on that trope to tell Barrow’s story. At turn after turn, meeting after meeting, he doesn’t get what he wants because of his stubbornness.

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but feel that there was more to the story. I never got a sense of who Barrow was, and he seemed almost incidental to Levitt’s year-by-year recitation of Yankee — and baseball — history. Now and then, bits and pieces of Barrow’s personal life are interspersed into the baseball narrative, but one gets the sense that Barrow either had no life outside of baseball or just wasn’t an interesting enough person to warrant a biography.

When the book first hit stores in April, Levitt ran through the blog circuit. Rich Lederer at Baseball Analysts interviewed him, and Baseball Prospectus chatted up the author as well. Those Q-and-A’s better serve to introduce Barrow than the book does, but that doesn’t mean the tale is not one worth reading.

Levitt’s book works best as a story of the development of the game from a pastime that was incidentally a poorly-run gathering of businesses into a big money-making business with tentacles throughout America. The appendices to the book are chock full of payroll and salary statistics from an era prior to free agency, and his superb detailing of the uneasy relationship between the Major and Minor League is a story rarely, if ever, told. In the end, Barrow, influential at the time, is almost incidental to the story Levitt ultimately tells.

Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty is available on the University of Nebraska Press. Cover price is $29.95, but Amazon has it for $21.86. I am, however, a firm believer in supporting local bookstores.

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Remembering Yankee Stadium, Harvey Frommer’s illustrated and oral history of the House that Ruth Built, starts on a high note and keeps getting better. Bob Sheppard, the Yankee PA announcer, out all of this season as he convalesced from a serious illness, offers up his introduction to the impressive tome.

“From the old days when Bronx cheers bounced off the Stadium’s copper facade to recent times when the Stadium’s visage is DiamondVision and the sounds of ‘We Will Rock You’ are part of the scene, Yankee Stadium has been the citadel of the sport,” Sheppard writes — and it’s hard not read the words in his booming voice. “Where in one place could so many baseball icons display their rare talents with such regularity? Where else could I have viewed the transformation of Yankee fans from the jacket-and-tie cognoscenti of the 1950s to today’s bleacher creatures?”

Nowhere else, of course. Beginning with photos of Yankee Stadiums’ construction in the early 1920s and continuing on through the groundbreaking at the new stadium and the dismissal of Joe Torre last winter, Frommer’s book offers Yankee fans the opportunity to take that same ride Sheppard has taken.

Frommer has crafted a great mix as he honors Yankee Stadium, and presenting a building that has stood the test of New York time for so many decades is no easy task. The interviewees run the gamut from Sparky Anderson to Bob Wolff and touch upon everyone in between. Jim Bouton? Check. Mario Cuomo? Check. Whitey Ford, Don Larsen and Bill Virdon? Yes, yes, and yes. Who could leave out Rudy Giuliani? Even Red Sox — Dwight Evans — and Red Sox fans — Michael Dukakis — chime in while Phil Rizzuto, from beyond the grave, lends his voice as well.

To tell the tale of the Yankees as told through the stadium, Frommer mixes his own chronological narrative with uninterrupted snippets of interviews he conducted. Bobby Richardson and Johnny Blanchard talk about playing for the Yanks in the 1950s. Jon Miller talks about the sterile Yankee Stadium that emerged from the renovations in the 1970s , and Jim Boutin discusses the way the players felt about the stadium-altering changes made.

But beyond the words, the pictures tell the story too. The two-page photos at the front are among the most iconic of Yankee imagery. There’s Lou Gehrig in tears, Don Larsen wrapping up his perfect game, and of course, Mariano Rivera following through on a pitch. Inside, the pages are alive with photos. From the Babe to Yogi and Elston Howard to Reggie Jackson’s famous swing to a two-page montage of Derek Jeter throws and, yes, even to A-Rod‘s infamous move in 2004, the stadium comes alive in the full-color pages. The overhead shots of Yankee Stadium over the years are stunning as well.

In a few months, we’ll head up to the Bronx to see a new Yankee Stadium. It will bear the same name as the old park with none of the history. Frommer’s book is the perfect way to learn, enjoy and appreciate that rich history. With the holidays fast approaching, this $45 book from Stewart, Tabori & Change would make a great gift for any fan of the game.

As Bob wrote, “This grand cathedral of baseball has given me treasured memories, not the least of which is seeing several generations of Yankee fans.” Through these interviews and images, several generations of Yankees are immortalized for all to see.

Amazon has Harvey Frommer’s Remembering the Yankees on sale for the low, low price of $29.70. But I should urge you to support local book stores if you’re so inclined. I’d hate to see those go the way of the House that Ruth Built.

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Apr
28

One October day in 1978…

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Before delving into the game, Richard Bradley, author of The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Playoff of ’78 (Free Press, $25), sets a high bar for himself. How exactly does one go about determining the “greatest game” ever with such certainty?

In my life — which started a good four and a half years after the 1978 playoff game — I’ve seen two perfect games, an amazing World Series game 7 and a 3-0 playoff series lead evaporate. Depending upon your perspective, most of those games could be considered the greatest game ever, and when Buster Olney wrote about that World Series game 7, he just called it the last night of a dynasty.

Bradley has no qualms about his claim. Game 163 of the 1978 regular season — played only by the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park — stands as baseball’s greatest game. For nine innings, two bitter rivals duked it out with the victor becoming the heavy favorites to win the World Series.

For Yankee fans alive at the time, that game stands as one of the greatest baseball games of all time, and in his book Bradley takes his readers through both the game and the season. In alternating chapters of game play and 1978 baseball history, Bradley sets the stage for an epic showdown. It’s Carl Yastrzemski’s last hurrah, and the culmination of a Bronx Zoo-type season in the Bronx. It’s Yankee grandeur and success against the Red Sox’s decades of failure. It’s Mike Torrez trying to prove his former employees wrong, and it’s Bucky Dent trying to prove his manager wrong.

Bradley starts out inside the minds of Goose Gossage and Yaz. What takes this book that extra step are his sources. Bradley relied on a lot of interviews with players. It brings up questions of historical memory: What does Goose Gossage remember in 2007 of a game 29 years earlier? How do Mike Torrez and Bucky Dent recall seminal moments in their careers after volumes of ink have been spilled over the game’s most famous rivalry? But for now, we can let the players take it away.

And take it away they do. Bradley describes the characters involved. There’s the irascible Billy Martin, the pugnacious Thurman Munson, the arrogant Carlton Fisk. He discusses recent Yankee history and recent Red Sox history. We learn about Reggie Jackson and Dwight Evans, about Lou Piniella and Catfish Hunter, about Yaz’s time in Fenway and Don Zimmer’s managerial failures.

For avid baseball readers, Bradley’s book treads some familiar ground. Jonathan Mahler’s excellent Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning covers the Bronz Zoo Yankees and the 1977 season is detail, and Bradley rehashes that in an early chapter. But Bradley’s book is the logical literary sequel to Mahler’s seminal tome. Bradley’s writing and reporting takes you inside the minds of the players of this game, and for those of us who are fans of the game — alive or not in 1978 — the book takes us back to that crisp fall day in October 1978 when two teams laid it all on the line for a chance to move on.

Was the game really the greatest one ever? Two aces without their best stuff faced off against each other; the lead changed a few times; an unlikely hero emerged in Bucky Dent. A closer — Gossage — nearly blew the game, and a late-inning home run by Reggie Jackson would be the difference. Carl Yastrzemski was fitting the last out just as Gossage and Yaz imagined the game would unfold. For all that, it’s still tough to top that 2001 World Series Game 7.

But this book is also about baseball at a moment in its history. It’s is about baseball on the cusp of change. It’s about how the onset of free agency would forever alter the game’s economics but how playoff baseball remains the pinnacle of the sports world.

You didn’t have to be there or be alive to still feel the goosebumps as Bucky F***in’ Dent blasts a three-run home run over the Green Monster to give the Yanks a lead they would not relinquish. It was a good day for Yankee fans.

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As most RAB readers already know, the three of us are rather fond of ESPN’s Rob Neyer. He’s got a new book out, Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends. This is the third, and he claims final, of his “Big Book” series. Previously, there was the Big Book of Baseball Lineups and the Big Book of Baseball Blunders. In “Legends,” Neyer looks back at baseball tall tales, and through the aid of fact-checking, let’s us know how accurate each one is.

Of course, this type of text isn’t for everyone. Some people want to go on believing these stories of heroes in eternal bliss. No problem there. But for some of us, the truth adds another dynamic to the stories. If you’re of this ilk, then read on, because “Legends” is quite the fun read.

There are plenty of Yanks stories in the book, which is to be expected. With so many legends having passed through the halls of Yankee Stadium, I’m sure Neyer could compile an entire book just for the Yankees.

Leading off for the Yanks is a story relayed in the YES booth (apparently during a My9 broadcast) by Ken Singleton. On the occasion of Louisiana Lightning’s 57th birthday, Kenny told a story of how Ron Guidry never used his changeup until he was nine years deep in the majors. Willie Wilson was the victim of the first offering, and Singleton said it was a strikeout to end the game. In said game, according to Singleton, Guidry struck out Wilson three times.

Neyer, using the power of readily-available data, finds that this can’t possibly be true. In fact, Guidry never struck out Wilson to end a game, nor did he ever strike out Wilson thrice in a game. Neyer does relay a Guidry-Wilson story, though, of how Guidry struck out Wilson looking to start an inning, got pounded, and then struck out Wilson looking to end the inning. But no, the changeup story, as told by Singleton, is debunked.

Unfortunately, there’s only one Steinbrenner story. The good news: It involves him firing someone. This comes from 1973, Big Stein’s inaugural year in the Bronx. Ralph Houk was managing, and he claims to have sent up Johnny Callison — who was OPSing .337 at the time — to pinch hit with runners on in a close game in Texas. Callison, according to Houk, “struck out or popped up,” ending the Yanks potential rally. After the game, Stein called Houk and told him to release Callison. Houk didn’t want to, but after GM Lee MacPhail talked to the Boss, he called Houk back to tell him to release Callison.

It appears Houk conflated the situation. In a game against the Angels in New York, Callison pinch hit for Felipe Alou and grounded out with runners on, keeping the score at 3-1 Angels, which is how it ended. He played a half inning in right field two nights later in Texas, but did not appear at the plate. That was his last major league game.

(In the end, Stein was clearly in the right in calling for Callison’s release.)

For the younger crowd, there’s an interesting story about Jeff Bagwell and Greg Maddux. I’ll quote George Will of Newsweek for the myth:

Leading 8-0 in a regular-season game against the Astros, Maddux threw what he said he would never throw to Jeff Bagwell–a fastball in. Bagwell did what Maddux wanted him to do: he homered. So two weeks later, when Maddux was facing Bagwell in a close game, Bagwell was looking for a fastball in, and Maddux fanned him on a change-up away.

Is Greg Maddux really that sly? He really had the wherewithal to groove one to Bagwell in a meaningless situation so that he could nail him in a meaningful one? Well, if anyone would do it, it’s Maddux. Still, something doesn’t seem right here.

Through Neyer’s inspection, we find that Bagwell hit seven career regular-season homers off Maddux. However, none of them came with an 8-0 or 7-0 score. Only two came when the Braves were leading by more than two runs. September ’96 was the first, but Maddux made zero starts against the Astros after that. The other was August 11 of ’99, which was also Maddux’s last start against the ‘Stros.

Ah, but the Astros did make the postseason that year, and they did face the Braves and Maddux. The two faced off in the series opener, and Bagwell did strike out. Further, it was a close game. However, it was the first inning, and no runners were on. So it appears that this is a rather overblown story.

(Mr. Will could have fact-checked this one himself. It was written in 2006, and Baseball Reference and Retrosheet were freely available.)

To quote Neyer on the conclusion:

I don’t doubt that Greg Maddux, in some fashion or another, set up Jeff Bagwell at some point during their long careers. Or rather, I don’t doubt that Maddux believes he did that. And maybe he did. Pitchers have been telling stories like this one for nearly as long as there have been pitchers. But believing you did something and actually doing it are sometimes different things.

As with all of Neyers’ work, this books is thoughtful and well-written. He’s conversational in his prose, which lends itself well to a book like this. Instead of plainly debunking baseball legends, Neyer acts as if he’s in your living room, sipping a cold Saranac and looking up the facts on his laptop. Which is nice, because that’s how the stories are told and spread in the first place.

Once again, some people might view this as a “That didn’t happen like that!!!111!!!!” kind of book. And if you don’t want to give up baseball lore, stay away from this tome. However, it’s hard to downplay the enthusiasm Neyer displays in his execution. You can tell he not only enjoys debunking old legends, but that he enjoys the legends themselves.

The book also represents a kind of melancholy about present-day baseball. There won’t be as much room for these kinds of anecdotes, since we have play-by-play data and a whole gamut of statistics a mouse-click away. It’s far more difficult to get away with telling a tall tale when someone can click back to last year’s game logs to prove it false.

There are plenty of other Yankees stories in the book, including the story of Thurman Munson and his feud with Carlton Fisk. Then there’s an always-intersting Reggie/Billy Martin story, plus one about Billy and Jackie Robinson. And no book of baseball legends would be complete without a little Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

I’d recommend parking this book in front of the toilet. The stories are short enough for even those of us who like to get in and out of the bathroom quickly. If you plan to pick up a copy, click here for Neyer’s Amazon affiliate. That gives him a commission on the sale, which is nice, since Amazon is notoriously skimpy on the royalties it pays to authors.

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Recently arriving in the mail was Richard Bradley’s latest called The Greatest Game. Bradley uses the 1978 playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox as a way to explore the historic rivalry between the two teams. The book so far is excellent, and I’ll have a review when I’m through. To whet your appetite, take a read through an excerpt of the book posted on ESPN’s Page 2. It’s good stuff.

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It’s not often I find myself eagerly awaiting the release of a video game, but this year The Show couldn’t come out soon enough. I had read previews online, watched trailers and flipped through screenshots all winter, and I got sucked up by the hype. The game is set for official release today, but I found a mom ‘n pop joint that was selling the game early, so I managed to get my hands on a copy this past weekend.

The gameplay is relatively unchanged from the 2007 version, although there are some minor tweaks to the Adaptive Pitching Intelligence thingy and baserunning controls. There’s a new Pitcher/Hitter Analysis feature, where you can look at what kind of pitches a guy likes to throw to a RHB in his third at-bat with two men on–stuff like that. You can basically go back and see a boatload of tendencies for both the pitcher and hitter based on data stored by the game. Frankly, I think it’s a bit of an informational overload for just a video game, but it’s cool that it’s in there.

Read More→

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A couple of months ago I posted a review of the PS2 version of The Show, in which I advised you to wait until you can go get a used copy for $15. That most certainly does not hold true for the PS3 version.

The gameplay is nearly identical to the PS2 version, the one major difference is that you can use the SixAxis motion sensing feature of the controller to make diving catches, run over the catcher, and slide into the bases. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, because the game play is the best out there next to EA’s NCAA Baseball series in my opinion.

The graphics though, holy cow are they phenomenal. They added something like 3,500 new animations, including massive upgrades to the crowd, stadiums, and even the environment outside the stadiums. In addition to the basic player specific batting stances, there are now player specific swings. Wanna take that big long healthy cut with A-Rod? You can do it. Maybe you just wanna inside-out a pitch to the opposite field with Jeter; that’s in their too.

There’s new slide animations as well, including what I call “The David Ortiz Special,” which is when a guy catches a spike a few feet before reaching the base, and then tumbles head over heels before falling a yard short of the base. Take out slides are a bit more violent, and pop-up slides actually look like…well…pop-up slides.

There’s also host of tiny little details that have been upgraded as well, including: real 1st and 3rd base coaches (gone are the generic #77 & #81 coaches, in come the real guys, like Larry Bowa and Tony Pena), players letting go of their bats and they helicopter into the stands, A-Rod rockin’ the high socks, oh, and and after the first baseman makes a put out and throws the ball to the shortstop, he’ll actually catch it (this irked me to no end in the PS2 version).

If you’re a stickler about rosters (and who isn’t), then I’ve got good news. The default rosters are current as of Opening Day, so guys like Josh “Mike you’re an idiot, why would the Yankees want to pick this guy off waivers (a few years ago), he’s toast” Hamilton, Elijah Dukes, Alex Gordon and Joe freakin’ Smith are in the game, plus Jon Papelbon is a closer, Braden Looper a starter, and Junior Griffey a right fielder. But, if you go and download the roster updates (if you’re like me and don’t have online capabilities with your PS3, go here for instructions on how to download the updates to your computer and tranfer the files to your PS3 – it’s a piece of cake), the rosters are current as of a couple days ago. That means you get to use Phil Hughes (custom windup), Mighty Matt DeSalvo, Chase Wright, Brandon Wood, Tim Lincecum, Andy LaRoche, Brett Myers as a closer, Freddy Sanchez as a second baseman…the list goes on and on. Alas, Roger Clemens and Ron Villone aren’t in the update because they hadn’t appeared in an MLB game before the update was released.

Overall, I give it a very solid 9 out of 10. I don’t like the fictious player contracts/salaries, and I do have some qualms about some of the player rankings (David Ross the best player on the Reds? Anibal Sanchez the best on the Fish? Come on now), but the combination of gameplay and graphics is nearly impossible to beat. $65 is a bit stiff, but if you love baseball games, it’s well worth it.

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Once EA lost it’s license to produce MLB games, my interest in them basically disappeared. MLB 2005 (predecessor to The Show) was good, but it tended to freeze. And freeze. And freeze. And freeze some more. MVP 05 was great in every possible way, especially since it included the..ahem…likenesses of Phil Hughes, Eric Duncan and Marcos Vechionacci. However, that franchise went kaput once MLB sold out for exclusive licensing.

EA came out with MVP 06 NCAA baseball about a year ago, and I was instantly hooked. The gameplay was phenomenal as always, and the excitement of the college atmosphere was as good as it gets. I started a Dynasty with my Nittany Lions, and played over 4 seasons without so much as getting bored. However, do to a freak PS3 accident, my saved data was corrupted, and my team was lost forever (I was on pace for my first trip to Omaha, go figure).

But last weekend I was home watching my fiancee’s younger brother, who just so happened to have a copy of The Show 07. I checked it out, played a game or two, and was sold. I stole his copy bought a copy of my own and started a Franchise with the Pirates (I hate the DH, and I love that ballpark). Instead of sticking with the default rosters, I went for a good ol’ fantasy draft, where I picked exactly 1 player over 26 years of age (Oswalt).

The Franchise mode is very deep, but to a fault: I’m not really interested in changing ticket prices or managing my advertisements, I just want to play baseball. The controls are good, though the push button batting is…how do you say…outdated. The pitching is the same old meter, which leaves something to be desired. The fielding is decent, though sometimes flyballs can be an adventure. There’s tons of custom animations, if you want to see the Broxton pirouette, it’s there. The Matt Morris bobblehead, it’s there. The Joe Morgan chickenwing, it’s there. Heck, Jeter even holds out his right arm before taking his stance, basically telling the ump “slow down bitch, I ain’t ready yet.”

Some of the player ratings are straight up wrong. Kei Igawa is not better than Dice-K, David Ross is not the best player on the Reds, nor is Anibal Sanchez the Marlins’ best player. Little things like that take away for the game. Oh, and none of the player contracts are correct, they’re basically pulled out of mid air. The minor league stuff is okay, the biggest drawback is the lack of a Single-A level (there’s only AA and AAA).

I’d give it a solid B, there’s a lot of little things that take away from what should be a great game overall. I say wait until you can pick up a used copy for $15.

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Mar
07

Review of MLB 2k7

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Ever since I shattered a controller playing Madden — my annual indication that I’m done with the game until it is re-released in August — I’ve been awaiting the release of MLB2k7. I was reluctant to buy the game last year, because I thought MVP was the be all, end all of baseball video games. But after playing the craptacular “MLB: The Show,” I was left with little other choice.

I fell in love with the game, though. The pitching system was sleek, and I eventually grew used to the Tiger Woods-esque hitting system. I actually like it a ton better than the MVP hitting system, which at one time I thought was the closest simulation possible. In short, I was sold.

I’ve had March 5th circled on my calendar for a while now, and planned to buy the game on my lunch break this past Monday. You can imagine my excitement and ensuing disappointment when on Saturday night I found out that it had been realeased on Feburary 26th. Why disappointment? I had made the discovery at 10 p.m., when all major retailers were closed. I searched endlessly, but there was no place within a reasonable driving distance open 24 hours.

The worst part of all: I live in Bergen County, NJ. Anyone familiar with the area knows that, by law, retail and other “non-necessary” businesses must be closed on Sundays.

Bah, like that would stop me. Across the New York border it was, and I came home with my beloved copy of the game. Within minutes, I had a GM career set up and ready to go with the San Francisco Giants. The reason being: I was excited as hell to use both Matt cain and Tim Lincecum. But wait…no Lincecum? What the hell?

This led me to browse the Yankees roster. And guess what? No Phil Hughes. This was particularly troubling, because he had appeared in MLB2k6. But I shook it off and continued my season with the Giants.

The gameplay, hyped as being revamped from last year, is still just like the original. It’s still highly possible to miss a routine fly ball, though the ground ball fielding is a bit improved. Hitting has the same old flaws: the bunt button doesn’t always work, you can’t pull back diagonally on the R stick in any way, or you won’t step, and I even had an at-bat that was started with the hitter facing the catcher. And pitching is exactly the same as 2k6.

The GMing aspect is also exactly the same. You can cut people and shave that money off the cap; rarely do you see a Boras-esque contract demand; your minor leaguers don’t progress well; trades are ridiculously lopsided. The latter is linked directly to the ludicrous player ratings — J.D. Drew is a 100. Hell, Randy freakin’ Winn is a 95.

I sit here today without a longing desire to get home and play the game, when a year ago I would be comping at the bit. Not only do I feel like I wasted $30, but I also wasted my time driving to New York to purchase it. My recommendation: just play 2k6.

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