What I’m Reading: “3 Nights in August” by Tony La Russa and Buzz Bissinger

In some ways, H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger is the perfect author to write 3 Nights in August. In other ways, he’s the worst. In the end, this book ends up being a book that provides a fascinating insight into Tony La Russa’s managerial style and provides plenty of fodder for his fans and critics alike.

3 Nights in August details a three-game series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs from La Russa’s perspective. It’s a great idea for a book, and I really enjoyed the way that Bissinger dives into all the smaller battles within a game – the way the count can radically change an at-bat, the thinking behind each decision to steal a base, call a pitch, or hit-and-run. The description of those moments and of La Russa’s decision-making process separate this book from most any other book about baseball.

Bissinger also does a good job of diving into the personalities of the “baseball men” in the Cardinals’ orbit. The description of Darryl Kile’s final days before his death in 2002 is particularly heart-breaking, as he details Kile’s frustrations in returning from injury and the aftermath of his passing. Bissinger also shines a light on Cal Eldred’s comeback story with the Cardinals and on Rick Ankiel’s meltdown in the 2000 playoffs. These stories all make for compelling reading, and are high points for the book.

Bissinger also provides an unflinching glimpse of the way La Russa’s intensity, which he waxes poetically about in the preface, has impacted his family. Unable to leave the game at the ballpark, La Russa lives apart from his family throughout the baseball season, meaning that for eight months each year he is almost entirely absent from his family’s life, with the exception of phone calls and brief visits when his team is on the West Coast and has an off day. It’s a description that makes La Russa feel like a tragic character.

On the flip side of those examples, Bissinger and La Russa have very little – if any – patience for those they deem not to be “baseball men.” By their definition of the phrase, you need to understand and appreciate the intricacies of the game in a way that some players on the Cardinals roster fail to meet. As a result, players like Garrett Stephenson and Kerry Robinson are a constant source of frustration to La Russa.

On the one hand, the book needed players like Stephenson and Robinson to show what makes smart, veteran players like Woody Williams so successful. By showing the way that Stephenson’s inability to execute the game plan Dave Duncan developed cost the Cardinals the first game in the series, and by describing how Robinson’s inability to advance the runner changed the complexion of the game, Bissinger shows that the game isn’t easy, even for major leaguers. Guys like Stephenson and Robinson, who don’t execute the game plan or don’t understand what is needed from them in each situation, don’t last long in the big leagues.

Unfortunately, however, Bissinger’s prose has a tendency to get smarmy, and it’s not a good look, especially for La Russa, whose critics often accuse him of believing that he’s the smartest guy in every room.

When writing about Eldred’s history of elbow injuries, Bissinger writes, “Arm troubles are to pitchers what girl troubles are to country singers.” It’s a great line.

At other times, however, he just can’t get out of his own way, as though he’s trying to impress you with how great an author he is. Midway through the book, he describes La Russa as “smiling as broadly as the kid who got the train set for Christmas and the lifetime subscription to Penthouse.” That was probably the worst offender of the bunch, but there were several such lines in which I came away with the feeling that Bissinger was trying way too hard to show me how clever a writer he could be.

Bissinger also wages war against sabermetrics, and at times appears to be writing this book as a direct response to Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, even referring to it in several places in the book.  In the preface, Bissinger writes:

It’s 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 possibly love it, and so much of baseball is about love. They don’t have the same sense of history, which to the thirtysomethings is largely bunk. They don’t have the bus trips or the plane trips. They don’t carry along the tradition, because they couldn’t care less about the tradition. They have no use for the lore of the game – the poetry of its stories – because it can’t be broken down and crunched into a computer.

Later, he writes:

La Russa is familiar with the theory, promoted to gospel by Moneyball, that the most important hitting statistic today is on-base percentage. He doesn’t dispute the value of players who can work walks in any situation and have a diamond merchant’s eye for the strike zone. But he also sees it as akin to the latest fashion fad – oversaturated, everybody doing it, everybody wearing it, until you find out the hard way that stretch Banlon isn’t quite as cool as originally perceived. And he tries to teach his players that the better decision is to play the scoreboard.

The first quote is offensive, suggesting that people who appreciate the game in a different way can’t appreciate it at all, and the second creates a false straw man that he still can’t quite manage to knock down. Reading the book in 2020, it’s pretty clear that getting on base and not making outs still helps teams score runs. Obviously, there are specific situations where a walk isn’t particularly helpful to that goal, but by and large, the concept holds true, as does the true point of Moneyball, which is that teams that can’t outspend their competitors need to identify and exploit a market inefficiency.

Getting on base clearly is not a fad.

Gathering information and incorporating it into your decision-making is not a fad.

Bissinger goes to great lengths to describe the way Dave Duncan charts pitches and the match-up data that La Russa fiddles with throughout the game. In many ways, the information they painstakingly collect and incorporate into their strategizing is a form of sabermetrics. In reading the book, I couldn’t help but think that if La Russa had a front office compiling that data and more for him, perhaps he could have streamlined his decision-making and spent more time with his family. If nothing else, a greater appreciation for analytics couldn’t have hurt his tenure as the Chief Baseball Officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

History also isn’t kind to this book – or La Russa – on the topic of steroids. While La Russa says he could see the signs of Canseco’s steroid use, Bissinger writes that La Russa doesn’t believe Mark McGwire ever used anything other than androstenedione, pointing to the fact that McGwire lost weight in the early ‘90s to compensate for a heel injury and that he didn’t have the same “bloated” appearance Canseco had. McGwire later admitted to steroid use.

Ultimately, 3 Nights in August ends up being a book that feels like an honest reflection of the man it depicts: passionate about baseball strategy, humanized by his faults, and almost always fascinating. There are times when the book is frustrating, but arguably its greatest trait is that it shows a great joy for the small moments that make baseball so compelling and the people who dedicate their lives to it. That alone makes this a really good baseball book.

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