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Three Nights in August

A book by Buzz Bissinger

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Three Wild Nights

  • Apr 11, 2012
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I've been a stalwart champion of the Billy Beane school of statistics ever since I first read Moneyball. I've defended the idea that, in spite of never winning a Pennant, Beane's new method of collecting baseball talent has changed the game in a lot of ways and I see a lot of teams winning Pennants and World Series titles on his mad Sabremetrics, and the fact that Beane's Oakland Athletics haven't topped the summit themselves is because the team still suffers from one of the league's lowest payrolls: Basing a team-building strategy on statistics will only get you far until the richer teams know what you're up to, at which point, while you're still forced to bring in a legion of otherwise talent-deprived nobodies, the richer teams will begin stocking their teams with the somebody superstars who put up the same kinds of statistics necessary for the building strategy. The result is the talent gap manifesting itself once again, and Moneyball going full circle - Boston, New York, and others dominating while Oakland languishes because Michael Lewis spilled their strategy.

But I digress. Buzz Bissinger, author of the classic sports book Friday Night Lights, returned a few years ago with Three Nights in August, which is so far the most convincing argument I've read so far for baseball being decided by human quirks and instincts. Those like myself who argue for Moneyball tend to overlook the fact that there's a very human element to sports too, and that baseball is still a sport in which the most clutch of hitters will be considered a dominant, feared player for whiffing seven out of ten times. The human element adds an extra dimension of strategy to be considered whenever Joe Girardi or Ozzie Guillen makes that really dumb move in a tight game which places a bench player into the spot for a superstar.

In Three Nights in August, Bissinger takes us into one of the greatest strategic minds in the history of baseball: Tony La Russa. The setting is Busch Stadium as La Russa's Saint Louis Cardinals fight an essential 2003 three-game series against their archrivals, the Chicago Cubs. Three Nights in August is written in the context of those three games, as Bissinger goes into Tony La Russa's head to cull exactly what is going through it at any given play in the game. The result is the deep humanization of baseball strategy and the kinds of unique factors which can worm into a game based so much around statistics. It is so far the best argument I've read against sabremetrics.

It's August in 2003 and the Saint Louis Cardinals are going to arms against the Cubs in a series against a surging Cubs team, with playoff implications on the line. The Cardinals are in a must-win situation because winning this series places them in a good position to get to the postseason. But the Cubs haven't performed their reliable August folding ritual, and they've been in the race the whole year under new manager Dusty Baker, who is trying to change the culture of Cubdom and rub off the stinky loser stench. Ultimately the Cubs played in the NLCS that year and came within only five outs of their first Pennant since 1945.

Bissinger has his work cut out for him. He has to write a book about baseball strategy, make it exciting, and explain the tinkering Tony La Russa does with his team. On the whole, Three Nights in August is interesting, but not engaging. I loved what I read, but I didn't feel an absolute need to keep on reading. Bissinger isn't giving us the gritty details of the matchups and showdowns of this series in Three Nights in August; he's taking you inside the manager's head, and giving us a modus operandi on baseball strategy strictly from that point of view. There's aren't many action scenes in Three Nights in August, and the ones that do exist are treated as normally as anything else in the book while La Russa ponders his options.

Three Nights in August is naturally very prone to sidetracking because of this idea. That's not a bad thing, because there's lots of interesting thoughts and opinions on the state of how baseball is played today. Bissinger does give us an awful lot of player biographies, though, and after some time in the book, it feels like they come in the second part of every chapter. They don't feel out of place, though, because they're there to provide an idea of each player's mindset and explain how and why La Russa manages them the way he does.

Bissinger covers a wide range of subjects in Three Nights in August, including just why Tony La Russa is such an unnatural character in baseball, what he does different, what motivates him to do things so differently, and how he developed as a manager. There are also surprising idea on things like video replay, the code of honor which necessitates situations in which pitchers plunk batters intentionally, the development of the sacred rules of pitch counting, and the popular sabremetric idea that clutch situations amount to squat. He also covers a range of players for the Cardinals and also a few for the Cubs, and talks at length about their unusual career trajectories, from Albert Pujols (unimpressive draft pick who was never supposed to make the team) to Rick Ankiel (was supposed to be the next Sandy Koufax, but broke down) to how the death of Darryl Kile affected La Russa and the rest of the team.

In 2010, Will Leitch wrote Are We Winning?, a book about a single game between the Cardinals and Cubs which he attended with his father and friends, a game which set off a reflection of how much baseball meant to the bond between him and his dad. In that book, Leitch, in a mode of sentimentality we don't get from him very often, deified baseball players when he talked about their athletic gifts. Bissinger does the opposite in Three Nights in August - he explores the pasts and quirks of a lot of players in order to humanize them, and therefore make them more relatable. By going over a lot of quirks and exploring the intricacies of the way various players tick, Bissinger shows why a human element is needed to be a great manager in a period of players who are more individualistic than ever.

There is no climax or culmination in Three Nights in August, as that would go against what Bissinger is trying to do. But it is nearly 300 pages of baseball strategy, written in its most beautiful, poetically humanized form.

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April 14, 2012
Man, that is one thorough book review....
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Nicholas Croston ()
Ranked #17
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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