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Hope swings eternal



Every April, it's held out to baseball fans, like the slick promise of a 30 percent return on investment from a mutual fund: hope, that shiny sense that this is, at last, the year your favorite sub-.500 ball club (hello, Washington, Pittsburgh and Kansas City) fixes its defense and actually competes with the big-market boys.

The same annual ritual permeates the virtual diamond, where fans like me keep hoping that 2K Sports' annual baseball franchise will finally transform itself into a worthy competitor to Sony's MLB: The Show, a series that's compared to the New York Yankees only slightly more frequently than Rush Limbaugh to Jabba the Hutt.

But just like the reality of a 10-game losing streak in April blows that hope to hell, so does 2K's 2009 at-bat, MLB 2K9 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3). That smack! you just heard? The third strike hitting the catcher's mitt. Again.

Last year's 2K baseball offering was an exercise in forehead-smashing complexity — a home-run fest disguised as a baseball sim. MLB 2K9 dumbs things down to a more manageable level, but outside of the great Living Roster feature, the game still manages to get it all wrong. The catcher calls for heat down the center of the plate with alarming regularity. Twitchy fielding controls mean errors are as common as Mouse sightings at the Magic Kingdom. And guys? Games that feature four six-hit innings in a row aren't baseball; maybe a pick-up scrum featuring the super-powered vampires of Twilight, but not an accurate representation of the bigs. Not even close.

Unlike the hapless Nationals fan who's stuck knowing his team is toast as of May, PlayStation fans have an easy fix — MLB 09: The Show, a game that continues to gracefully ace everything 2K bobbles. As a developer, it's funny how when you're not worried about tweaking a pitching interface that rewards careful planning and button-mashing execution, you're free to experiment with things like a nifty new franchise mode. You can turn your artistry to giving us a 30-team online league feature that actually seems to work. Think of it this way: Shows like Lost don't have to waste time hiring better writers; they can just move to unveil the next jaw-dropping plot twist.

But the difference goes deeper than just that. For years, The Show's developers have shown an understanding that baseball, at its heart, is a series of individual battles — pitcher versus batter, batter versus fielder, fielder versus runner — fought by athletes who get tired, make mistakes and rise or succumb to crushing performance pressure. In The Show, it's in the details — like the way the controller thrums and the pitcher's sweet spot shrinks to the size of a fiber-optic cable when two men are on in the bottom of the fifth.

The remaining Pirates fans complain about a worthless team playing in a great stadium. Orioles fans still worry that their underachieving team may pull up stakes for Vegas or Portland. If things don't improve in MLB 2K 10, I'm pulling for contraction.

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