Fifteen years ago, Buzz Bissinger came out with Friday Night Lights, an insider’s exposé that used high school football as a window into the social values of a town. Bissinger’s new book, Three Nights in August, uses the same approach as Friday Night Lights, only this time it’s a three-game series between the Cardinals and Cubs in 2003 that serves as a window into the ever-racing, analytical mind of manager Tony La Russa.
Bissinger – who followed the 2003 Cards for over 50 games, often sitting next to La Russa in the dugout – is clearly enamored with the Cards’ skipper. A little too enamored, frankly, which is precisely the problem with the book. For even though it takes us through all 27 innings of these games, walking us through La Russa’s various options and the reasons behind his decisions, Bissinger never once argues with La Russa’s choices, nor does he do much even to weigh them. Instead, he simply assumes that Tony La Russa is always right because, well, he’s Tony La Russa. After all, the guy has four Manager of the Year Awards and has helmed over 4,000 games in the bigs, so his genius is self-evident. Here’s a sample of how Bissinger’s apologia works (italics mine):
La Russa appreciated the information generated by computers. He studied the rows and the columns. But he also knew they could take you only so far in baseball, maybe even confuse you with a fog of overanalysis. As far as he knew, there was no way to quantify desire. And those numbers told him exactly what he needed to know when added to twenty-four years of managing experience.
Sabermetricians – those number-crunchers who have come to dominate thinking about strategy the last few years – believe that they have debunked clutch situations as statistically irrelevant. La Russa has read the various studies. Based on his own forty years plus of experience, he believes those studies to be bunk of their own.
La Russa respected [Bill] James, but based on managing nearly 4,000 games, was convinced James was wrong.
In other words, computers are nice and all, but they lack the intuition, the experience, and the gut instincts that good managers need to excel. This thinking is almost the opposite of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, which prizes dispassion and claims that those closest to a problem are frequently the least qualified to look at it objectively.
Bissinger mentions Moneyball only in passing, but its ghost hovers over almost every page of Three Nights in August. The book jacket claims that “human nature – and not statistics – dictate the outcome of a ball game,” while later Bissinger pooh-poohs on-base percentage as “the latest fashion fad.” He even goes so far as to accuse guys like Beane, Epstein, and DePodesta of a kind of robotic relationship to our National Pastime:
It is wrong to say that the new breed doesn’t care about baseball. But it’s not wrong to say that there is no way they could love it, and so much of baseball is about love… They have no use for the lore of the game – and poetry of its stories – because it can’t be broken down and crunched into a computer.
Bissinger thinks this kind of love is essential to winning baseball. He says that greatness on the field is determined by “heart, desire, passion, reactions to pressure.” Matchups are won on the strength of “mental victories” and “psychological reverberations.” Sometimes a hint of the supernatural even creeps into Bissinger’s writing. “Baseball,” he claims, “is all about omens” and the shifting fortunes of “the game’s karma.”
This language might make Three Nights in August seem like some kind of excursion into voodoo. But that’s not quite the case. In fact, Bissinger often portrays the Cards’ clubhouse as a fairly technocratic place – you’ve got La Russa with his fetish for situational matchups and his exhaustive pitching and fielding charts; video coordinator Chad Blair with his reliance on satellite feeds, computer analyses, and video breakdowns; and pitching coach Dave Duncan, whose war room strategy sessions make him seem more like a defensive coordinator than a tobacco-squirting pitching coach from days past.
So no, this book isn’t an homage to baseball as it was in the 1930’s. Nonetheless, Bissinger implies time and again that vague, elusive things like character and psyche really do determine what happens on a baseball diamond. Consider this example from the book:
One night in 1996, after the Cardinals had dropped a close game to the Braves, [La Russa] zeroed in on John Mabry as a symbol of the loss because he played first and had been laughing with Fred McGriff after McGriff had gotten on base. Immediately after the game, La Russa went off on Mabry, accused him of not caring enough – too busy chatting with McGriff – to give the game the competitive focus it demanded. As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew he had made a mistake – looking for someone to kick after a tough loss and finding the wrong target in Mabry, who was a competitor. La Russa apologized the next day, but their relationship had been affected. Mabry began to mistrust his manager; his performance suffered. He ended up going elsewhere, and La Russa believes that his impromptu outburst caused Mabry’s decline with the Cardinals.
What do we make of this story? Is it anything more than pure hokum? Well, for starters, let’s find out if Mabry really did suffer a performance drop after the date in question. As it turns out, only a few games qualify as close ones between the Cards and Braves in 1996, where Mabry played first and McGriff reached base. And thanks to Retrosheet, we know that all of them took place between June 25th and July 23rd of that year. Here, then, is how Mabry performed as a Cardinal before and after the possible incident with La Russa:
AVG OBP SLG Mabry until 6/25/96 (204 games): .318 .362 .434 Mabry after 7/23/96 (315 games): .265 .322 .374
There are several good explanations for Mabry’s decline – his impatience in the batter’s box, his poor minor league record catching up with him , sudden aging due to a lack of “young player” skills, even dumb luck on balls in play. And then there’s the theory advanced by La Russa – that Mabry was simply rattled by his manager.
I for one don’t buy that last one, but I am open to the idea that there are intangibles out there – a player’s work habits or marital problems or pregame diet – that can strongly impact his performance on the field. As baseball “outsiders,” it’s comforting to know we can measure a player with statistical information available to all. But objective analysis only goes so far, and it would be silly to claim with absolute certainty that inside character dramas have no place in the game. They’re what Karl Popper would call “non-falsifiable” – neither true nor untrue, just outside science due to our lack of perceptual data. (Or, if you’d prefer to frame it in language from our Secretary of Defense, they’re “known unknowns.”)
So is Three Nights in August – which studies baseball from the inside out – a useful companion to Moneyball, a first-hand examination of the ways in which desire and will translate into performance on the field? Sadly, no. First of all, for all of Bissinger’s backstage access, I still don’t have a very good idea how a manager deals with personnel. Bissinger would like to have you believe that La Russa is a master manipulator, a mad genius reading into his players’ souls and pulling strings that alter the course of these games. At one point he even claims that La Russa “knows better than anyone else in baseball how to manage the space between a player’s ears.” But if that’s the case, Three Nights in August gives scant evidence. If anything, La Russa comes across as brooding and lonely, unable to reach “difficult” players like Garrett Stephenson and J.D. Drew. (That’s one of the reasons TLR was such a bad resource for reporters curious about Mark McGwire’s steroid use. La Russa seems like the last guy in the clubhouse aware of such things.)
Furthermore – and this is a more critical mistake – Bissinger has chosen to focus on three games that, when all is said and done, aren’t very interesting. From a dramatic point of view, sure, they’re fun – two of the three games ended in the Cards’ final at bat, and at one point Dusty Baker tied an NL record by using five pitchers in one half-inning. But by and large the series wasn’t big on strategy or second guessing, especially compared to an epic five-game showdown between these same clubs less than a week later in Wrigley. (Bissinger opted not to write about those games, either because he wasn’t there, or because he wanted a happier ending for Cards fans, who saw their team drop four of five in the Friendly Confines.)
Despite these flaws, there are plenty of fun moments in the book to get you by. I liked reading about the etiquette of bean-balling (which is the part of the book that’ll probably receive the most press), as well as the cat’s cradle of sign stealing maneuvers. And as you would expect, Bissinger is much better at weaving a story than making an argument. The profiles of players like Rick Ankiel, Albert Pujols, and Cal Eldred are snappy and entertaining, and there are a few chapters – particularly the ones about La Russa’s marriage and the death of Darryl Kile – that are surprisingly heartfelt.
Along the way there are some good tidbits that you’d only get from a guy who had almost unlimited access to the 2003 Cardinals. Did you know, for example, that clubhouse attendants unwrap sticks of Juicy Fruit so that the players don’t have to unwrap them themselves? Or that Steve Kline spends an inordinate amount of time walking around in the nude? Or that Bill Veek once built a hole in his wooden leg and used it as an ashtray? Or how about this anecdote:
As far back as spring training, [La Russa] flat-out told [Kerry] Robinson that if he really thought he should be playing every day, he should go to the general manager, Walt Jocketty, and demand a trade. “Go find somebody who’s going to give you the four or five hundred at-bats,” La Russa said. “And I hope they’re in our division so we can play against you.”
That’s sweet stuff.
But all in all I’d say Three Nights in August rarely rises above the level of decent. The prose is certainly better than you’d get from most sports publications – but it’s not as evocative as, say, Roger Angell’s best work, nor does it have the carpenter’s knack for precision that you get from, say, Michael Lewis. And even though the book is supposed to function as a primer on baseball strategy, I didn’t learn half as much about gamesmanship as I learned from Keith Hernandez’s provocative Pure Baseball. In the end Bissinger’s book is not unlike the 2003 season for both the Cardinals and the Cubs – not bad, but still falling a bit short.