For the aficionado, every moment in baseball is fraught with strategy and drama. Like chess players, managers make moves to either exploit an opportunity or cover a major weakness. All this is done under the penetrating gaze of thousands of fans in the stadium and millions more watching on television. Buzz Bissinger, whose evocative portrayal of high school football in Friday Night Lights captured both the rigors of the game and its pivotal link to the social fabric of a community, brings his keen observation and insightful writing to the game of baseball. The premise of the book is simple: to look at a three-game series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs from the perspective of Tony La Russa, the Cardinals’ manager. What follows is a treatise on managing that is simultaneously engaging to the average fan and a textbook in decision-making for those of a more serious mien.
Bissinger chose his milieu with an unerring sense of tradition and history. Both the Cubs and the Cardinals have a history of rivalry that dates back to many years past. Now, as division rivals, their rivalry is magnified many-fold. This, coupled with the Cubs resurgence from lovable losers of the past to a talented team capable of going all the way, has made every game – even a regular season August series – between these adversaries Armageddon for rabid fans. The August series in this book brings the Cubs to St. Louis virtually tied to the home team in division standings.
Tony La Russa is not your everyday baseball manager. Armed with a law degree, a strong intellect and an overwhelming need to win, La Russa oozes seriousness from every inch of his body, not the least from his laser-sharp eyes. He gave complete access to Bissinger to follow his train of thought as well as to talk with his players and coaches, both prior to and after the three-game series in question. Bissinger leverages this singular access to give a detailed and penetrating narrative of a series that has its fill of see-saw game changes and strategic decisions that worked and some that failed.
In his foreword, Bizzinger remarks that even after observing leaders like Bill Clinton and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, La Russa’s “meticulous, almost maniacal” preparation for the game is unsurpassed. La Russa has to deal with his team’s batting lineup, pitcher, bench players’ roles, his opponent’s game strategy, and myriad other aspects of baseball that may make the difference between victory and defeat. In addition, increasingly, a baseball manager has to deal with the non-baseball aspects of his players. Thus La Russa’s preoccupation before the August series centered on slugger Albert Pujols’s shoulder injury, and J.D. Drew’s strange penchant for wasting away his immense talent in a pool of indifference.
Though at times Bizzinger tends to overwrite (a minor quibble), his narrative of the three games brings to center stage the point made by baseball fans (and argued vehemently against by non-baseball fans!) that there is a lot that goes on between pitches. As each manager tries to maximize his team’s advantage, he does so in anticipation of what the other manager is likely to do. As La Russa sends in a hit-and-run play, he is doing so in the hope that Dusty Baker, the Cubs manager, is not expecting the Cardinals to do exactly this. The cat-and-mouse game between the rival managers, as captured in Bizzinger’s game descriptions, highlights the essence of baseball as a kids’ game played and enjoyed by grown men.
What started out as an “as told to” biographical collaboration between La Russa and Bissinger turns into a discourse on managing, both a baseball game and, by extension, even a business organization. Eschewing a pedantic tone throughout the book, Bizzinger intersperses serious baseball strategy with humorous anecdotes that often bring out the human element. Written with uncanny insight into both the game as played today and the modern ballplayer, Three Nights in August should appeal to all baseball fans.