King Kaufman's Sports Daily

"Three Nights in August": Buzz Bissinger goes inside the mind of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa as he battles the Cubs. A bit too far inside.


Salon Staff
April 11, 2005 11:00PM (UTC)

The big baseball book of the season, non-tabloid headline division, appears to be "Three Nights in August," a granular look at a key three-game series in 2003 between the Cubs and Cardinals from the point of view of Cards manager Tony La Russa by Buzz Bissinger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Friday Night Lights."

Sounds great, doesn't it? "Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager," goes the subtitle, and a look inside the mind of La Russa, one of the sharpest and most polarizing figures in baseball -- if you're like most baseball fans you either think he's a genius or a vastly overrated tinkerer -- sounds pretty intriguing, especially from a writer who's already served up a sports classic.

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I wish I could say I liked it more than I did.

Bissinger goes a little too far "inside the mind" of La Russa for my taste. Going native is the journalism slang for a reporter who identifies just a wee bit too closely with his subject. That's not quite fair, because La Russa is as much collaborator as subject here. The book was his idea and began as a typical as-told-to outing before the men agreed to let Bissinger take over, with La Russa having approval.

Bissinger writes in the preface that while La Russa read the book before publication and "clarified" a few things, he didn't ask that anything be removed, even though some of it is quite candid.

That's good. The candid stuff, some of which can be embarrassing, is some of the best reading in the book. There's a long examination of the politics and honor codes of hitting batters that's the best treatise on the subject I've ever read, and it shows La Russa going out of his way to lie to an opposing player, Luis Gonzalez, whom he considers a friend, about whether a plunking was intentional.

A section on La Russa's family makes painfully clear the price 24-hour immersion in one's job for eight months out of every year can exact. And in a world in which La Russa wasn't trying to maximize profits from this book, his share of which is going to his Animal Rescue Foundation, it's likely he'd just as soon have spiked a hard but juicy quote where he told backup outfielder Kerry Robinson that if he wanted more playing time, he should ask for a trade.

"Go find somebody who's going to give you the four or five hundred at-bats," La Russa says. "And I hope they're in our division so we can play against you."

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But what's not so good is that Bissinger never challenges La Russa. He simply buys all of La Russa's ideas as gospel. He never makes the manager defend his points or explain his more questionable actions. That would be OK if this were La Russa's book, as told to Bissinger, but it's not.

The climax of the fascinating beanball section is La Russa ordering pitcher Jeff Fassero to drill Gonzalez, the Diamondbacks slugger, in retaliation for the D'backs hitting Tino Martinez of St. Louis. The back story is that all three are friends, graduates of the same high school in Tampa, and Gonzalez has done work for La Russa's charity.

Not only did La Russa order the hit, he'd even intentionally walked a batter in the eighth inning of a close game to make sure Gonzalez came up in the ninth. Afterward, La Russa felt bad so he left a message on Gonzo's cellphone: "You can think what you want, but you check with anybody who has played with me. We don't hit someone just because they're hitting good against us."

No, you hit someone because he's the best hitter on a team that just hit one of your guys. Gonzalez has said he knew the rib-tickler was coming and bears no ill will, that's just baseball and all, but Tony, did it make you feel better about the whole thing to act like a lying weasel to your pal? Silence.

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That's too bad because La Russa, who's a lawyer, is a hell of an arguer who can make you feel like he just kicked your ass in a debate even if he didn't convince you of anything. I'm speaking from experience here.

Almost on the first page, Bissinger takes a shot at modern statistical analysis that's staggering in its dumbness, writing that since the Michael Lewis book "Moneyball," front offices are "increasingly populated by thirtysomethings whose most salient qualifications are MBA degrees," who believe the skills of players needn't be observed, only analyzed by computer.

"It is wrong to say that the new breed doesn't care about baseball," he writes. "But it's not wrong to say that there is no way they could possibly love it, and so much of baseball is about love. They don't have the sense of history, which to the thirtysomethings is largely bunk." And so on. Speaking of bunk.

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Of course statheads love baseball, and sabermetrics, the umbrella term for this type of analysis, is named after the Society for American Baseball Research, which is mostly concerned with baseball history, and its towering figure is Bill James, who is nothing if not a baseball historian. Also, I've yet to speak to or hear of a stathead who believes baseball players need not be observed -- scouted -- which is the standard complaint about them.

And by the way, one of those meddling kids with the computers is Theo Epstein, general manager of the Boston Red Sox, who just last fall led the Red Sox to something that had eluded all of the old-school baseball men who have run the Sox for the previous 86 years. Perhaps Bissinger heard about it.

If Bissinger didn't have this chip on his shoulder, nurtured by La Russa, no doubt, he might have challenged La Russa's obsessive use of "matchups," the results of one hitter against a particular pitcher and vice versa. La Russa keeps careful track, using cheat sheets to remind himself who's done what against whom.

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But what does it mean that, say, Albert Pujols is 2-for-7 against a certain pitcher? Pretty much nothing. That's a .286 average, a little low for Pujols but not terribly so. But what if one of those hits was a routine grounder that found a hole or a line drive that the left fielder misplayed from an out into a double. But for either of those things, Pujols is hitting .143 against the guy.

Conversely, one of those outs could have been a bullet directly into the glove of a fielder. A few feet in either direction -- perhaps a centimeter on the bat -- and Pujols is abusing the pitcher to the tune of .429. And this will go on for a while. A hard-hit out in this next at-bat and Pujols is hitting .250. A bloop single and he's at .375.

Perhaps one of those thirtysomethings could explain this stuff to Bissinger.

Then consider this assessment of pitcher Garrett Stephenson, who had a "breakout season" in 2000, but was struggling in 2003. Bissinger offers his stats:

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  W-L ERA G IP H HR BB SO
2000 16-9 4.49 32 200.1 209 31 63 123
2003 7-12 4.41 27 159.1 148 26 57 83

Note that "200.1" innings pitched means 200 and 1/3. Bissinger writes that the slightly lower ERA means Stephenson has "pitched at certain moments with effectiveness this year. But the numbers also reflect that he has given up twenty-six home runs, a horrific number."

Really. Let's multiply those 2003 numbers out so that the innings pitched are equal. That way we can compare better:

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  W-L ERA G IP H HR BB SO
2000 16-9 4.49 32 200.1 209 31 63 123
2003 9-15 4.41 34 200.1 186 33 72 104

So that "horrific" home run total is going to end up being two more than he gave up in 2000, about one every three months. That can't be the difference. The big difference is that he's striking out fewer and walking more batters than he had in 2000, although he's also giving up fewer hits. But that's not what Bissinger's looking at. He's looking at Stephenson's won-loss record, which is almost reversed to the bad from 2000 to 2003.

The problem here is that a pitcher's won-loss record is the thing he has the least control over. Stephenson won in 2000 because the Cardinals scored more runs for him, and/or his relievers did a better job after he left, than in 2003.

Stephenson's problem in 2003 wasn't that he had taken a big fall, it's that he wasn't nearly as good in 2000 as his 16-9 record might lead you to believe. A slightly poorer performance combined with a lack of the good fortune he'd enjoyed in 2000 led to his "horrific" 2003.

Perhaps one of those thirtysomethings could explain this stuff to Bissinger.

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Bissinger also parrots some of La Russa's opinions that are demonstrably not true. La Russa is an admirer of Gene Mauch, the tactical genius who managed the 1964 Phillies to the greatest pennant-race collapse in history and holds the all-time record for most years managing without winning a pennant.

Dutifully, Bissinger reports that Mauch's strategic innovations in combating the running game ended the era of the great base stealers begun by Maury Wills and Lou Brock in the early '60s and carrying through to Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines and others in the early '90s.

This completely ignores the fact that the '90s ushered in a long-ball era, thanks to smaller ballparks, bigger hitters and perhaps steroids -- an issue almost totally ignored here -- that made the steal not worth the risk. The same thing happened in the 1920s, when Gene Mauch was a glimmer in his daddy's eye.

Perhaps one of those thirtysomethings ... well, never mind.

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And Bissinger keeps calling Pujols "the best hitter in baseball," a provably false statement. Pujols is a wondrous hitter, but in 2003 he was only the best hitter in baseball not named Barry Bonds.

And then there's the writing. Bissinger swings for the fences a lot, and he usually misses, though I admit some of this is a matter of personal taste. You might like it.

He overuses similes like ... like a writer who uses way too many similes. OK, he's better at it than I am but he still does it too much. And dig this description of a bloop single by Kenny Lofton of the Cubs:

"The ball meanders in the air, a halfhearted ennui, the kind of existentialist hit that would keep Camus or Sartre in the money if they had played baseball ... The ball is so bored, so tired of itself, it doesn't even roll once it plops."

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Please.

It's not giving anything away to say that the Cardinals won two of three from the Cubs in this series. That tied them for first place with the Astros, two games ahead of the Cubs, and also tied them for first in the wild-card race.

Bissinger notes in an epilogue that the Cards lost the Central Division to the Cubs. What he doesn't mention is that St. Louis went 15-14 the rest of the way, including four losses in a five-game series at Wrigley Field the following week. Had the Cards won three of those five, they'd have tied Houston for first place and forced a one-game playoff.

The consensus around baseball is that La Russa lost his team in 2003, that after the brilliant managing job he'd turned in in 2002, guiding the Cards to the playoffs despite the death of ace pitcher Darryl Kile, he'd had an off year in '03.

And it's well-documented that several Cardinals veterans went to La Russa in the spring of 2004 and asked him to change his style, to give the players more say in how they go about their jobs -- as opposed to say in strategic decisions. La Russa agreed, and, coincidence or no, the Cardinals, picked by most to finish third, won 105 games and the pennant. None of this interesting dynamic gets a mention.

I don't mean to hammer. There's some good stuff here. The pitch-by-pitch breakdown of certain sections of the games is interesting. Okrent did more of this in "Nine Innings" two decades ago, but there are enough ways to approach a single at-bat that there's room for more.

Bissinger does a great job showing the intense use of video replays by hitters and pitchers to assess themselves and their opponents. La Russa's candid assessments of some of his players, especially Robinson, Stephenson and J.D. Drew, are a great read.

The story of Pujols' rise is an oft-told one, but Bissinger brings to life the sometimes checkered history of lesser figures like Cal Eldred and Mike Matheny. Pitching coach Dave Duncan, La Russa's right hand, is amusingly portrayed as a Yoda-like figure, a genius of few well-chosen words.

"Three Nights in August" will be showing up on business school reading lists because of its examination of La Russa's management style, though I think it's a little thin on that front. It's probably a must-read for Cardinals fans or for anyone with strong feelings pro or con about La Russa. It's certainly not bad, but I can't quite recommend it. It should have been a better, smarter book.

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