3 Nights in August

Buzz Bissinger wrote Friday Night Lights, which is on of my favorite books and movies, and clearly the greatest football film of all time. But Bissinger, it turns out, is actually more of a baseball fan than a football fan and 3 Nights in August is the baseball book he’s always wanted to write. It’s the story of a three game series in St. Louis between the Cubs and Cardinals in 2004, told mostly from the perspective of Tony La Russa, the Cardinal’s manager and collaborator on the book.

Bissinger starts when the players begin wandering into the clubhouse for game one and finishes with the last out of game three. But the book is more than just a description of the preparation, the strategy, the pressure, and the decisions made during the series. It’s about the people and personalities involved in baseball – human beings doing something that they love, often at the expense of their health and their relationships.

The MLB clubhouse is different from the locker rooms of the NFL and NBA. Baseball is a complicated game, as complicated as American football, but the baseball regular season is 180 days long with only about 20 off nights. Engaging in something this involved requires more than a locker room and some offices. It requires a clubhouse. And the Cards gave Bissinger unlimited access to the clubhouse, which made for a richly detailed book about baseball. The Cards also gave Bissinger unlimited access to La Russa, which made for a richly detailed book about management of any sporting endeavor.

It makes me want to spend more time with baseball. I’m a golf and college football guy, you know that. Those are my sports. But what you probably don’t know is that I was a baseball junkie from the ages of about 13-18. Don’t believe me? Well, ask my buddy Zu about how quickly I could regurgitate the top hitters, pitchers, or starting lineups from any major league team back in the 80’s. Ask Zu how often we would haul our tails to Cleveland or Detroit to catch a game. Heck, ask Zu what we would eat without farmers (inside joke, sorry).

This book is rich; it’s full of great sporting questions and assertions that transcend baseball. If you call yourself a sports fan, run to the library or bookstore and grab this book now. I’m just going to go through some of my favorite parts.

Dave Duncan, the pitching coach and La Russa’s main confidant, sits the starting pitcher down before every game and goes through “the binder” with him. Here’s what Bissinger has to say about the binder (page 46-47).

…. He also had a red binder in front of him. This particular one is marked “Cubs,” but he has one for every team in the league. He stores them in a red steel case that goes on the road with him. It looks a little bit like a vault on wheels, maybe because the knowledge it holds is priceless.

The binders contain his charts, a packet for every opposing player, a remarkable Rohrschach in which he has tracked every pitch each batter has been thrown by his pitchers and what that batter did with it. Using a system of grids, three up and three across dividing the hitting zone into nine sections, he has made small notations that record the type and location of every pitch. …

That’s the type of inside-the-clubhouse detail you can expect from this book.

I love this stuff. I get caught up in the preparation and recording aspects of competition. Related to golf, the act of preparing my equipment and studying the next course I’m going to play is as enjoyable as playing the game. The act of going through my round after the fact and attempting to learn something about my game is as enjoyable as playing the game. I get caught up in the process, maybe to a fault. But if La Russa’s post game actions are any indication of what it takes to achieve excellence, I’m severely lacking.

Here is what LaRussa does after the game (pages 94-95):

… He will eat in silence at J Bucks restaurant several miles from the stadium. He will have a book with him, Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, about the battle of Iwo Jima. He will climb into his Cardinals-red Cadillac Escalade. He will return to where he lives in St. Louis, a residential suite in a hotel in the city’s west end. And he will follow the routine that he has followed since he first went into the foxhole. He will pull out the little lineup cards that he uses to keep score during the games. They help him keep track and stay ahead when he manages, and now he’s reviewing certain situations the players faced – the count, an RBI situation or a steal situation or a hit-and-run situation – and whether he reacted appropriately. …

… He learned to keep a list from Dick Williams, the manager of the A’s when they won world championships in 1972 and 1973. Williams told him that if you don’t make notes about a game as it’s occurring and review them afterward, you will forget what happened, because of the daily grind of the season. …

I played golf today and I’m looking at my scorecard, going back through the round trying to recall where I made the right decisions and the wrong decisions. I need to take better notes on my rounds if I’m going to achieve the kind of excellence that La Russa has. This is important. La Russa has inspired me to be more copious.

La Russa certainly has his act together from a baseball perspective, but this book delves into the personal, and Bissinger doesn’t sugar coat the life of a manager (or player). Bissinger explains how difficult it was to live with La Russa from his wife’s perspective. So difficult in fact, that they don’t even attempt to live together. La Russa’s wife and kids live in California and spend very little time on the road with him. La Russa is very frank about a situation early in his managing career where he decided to stay with the White Sox rather than fly home and help his family while his daughter was hospitalized with pneumonia. He regrets it to this day, but baseball is his life, and living away from his family for 8 months a year is just part of it.

This isn’t the end of the personal stories told by Bissinger. One of my favorites was about a pitcher named Carl Eldred, on oft-injured pitcher whom the Cards helped stage a comeback. Eldred left the game for a little because of injuries but was tinkering around one day and found that his arm didn’t hurt. He tossed around the idea of getting back with a team and here are some of his thoughts (pg 168):

Eldred missed the competition. He missed being part of a team. Those are the things that you expect an athlete to mention when you ask what he misses. But there was something else. He knew that his wife might have a difficult time truly understanding it, as would anybody who hasn’t done it. It was the feeling of what it felt like to grip a baseball, know the grip felt right in the fingers because you were coming with a full-heat hothouse four-seamer, throw that four-seamer to the very spot you intended, then watch it pop into the back of the catcher’s glove as the hitter swings through it. It wasn’t a macho feeling to Eldred. It was simply one worth trying to have again.

In one small paragraph Bissinger captured why I will play golf for the rest of my life – why I love the game so much. I do so because of something that happens about once or twice per summer (out of about 3,000 strokes on average). It’s the perfect execution of a stroke that gives an unexplainable feeling of satisfaction (that something else mentioned above). It’s the 5-wood (maybe 3 years ago) from 205 that found the green after I worked it right to left around some trees and over the marsh on number on 17 at Royal Melbourne. It’s the 4-iron (maybe 5 years ago) from 190 into a stiff wind on the 15th at PGA Ryder to a back pin that hit pin-high and ended up about three feet behind its ball mark, never wavering from its line. I will hack it around for an eternity as long as I have a chance to feel shots like these even once a year – even at a ratio of 1/3,000.

So many cool things; just so damn many. Bissinger relates a conversation where La Russa thinks about “… how many players La Russa had managed who have had that rare combination of talent and fiery heart (page 129).” It came to seventeen all total. Bissinger lets La Russa ruminate about how great Pujols is, on every front. Bissinger contrasts keeping notes on paper (La Russa), keeping them digitally (the video guy), or using both mediums (Duncan, the pitching coach). Then, back to the game, Bissinger comes up with lines like this (page 240):

Morris retires the side in order in the sixth, the final pitch a sweet 12-to-6 curve that Sosa misses by so much, even the Arch smiles.

Finally, in the version I have, Bissinger finishes with a strong afterword. He compares and contrasts his book to Moneyball – managing by instinct versus managing by numbers – “humanistas versus the statisticians.” It was a good way to finish, be it a little self-indulgent. I read Moneyball and liked it and I’m a big Michael Lewis fan. Take a hint from a guy that has read both – read them both, back-to-back, in any order. It’s on my list of things to do some day after retirement.