Sunday, October 23, 2005

Book review: Three Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger

3 Nights in August is a very solid baseball book, one that should be enjoyable to any baseball fan. It is interesting to see how an accomplished manager thinks throughout the game, not only about the specific strategies of the three games in question, but also about his players, about players on other teams and about other issues in baseball. While describing the accounts of an important three game series in August, 2003 against the Chicago Cubs, Bissinger also tells us about how Tony La Russa, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, thinks about some general baseball issues. These issues include: throwing at hitters, handling individual players, looking at statistics as a guide only, steroids, and family life.

Some of his ideas are controversial. For example, it seems La Russa believes that any opponent pitcher that hits one of his batters did it on purpose. In particular, a pitch thrown by Kerry Wood in the second game of the three game series grazes the shirt of Pujols. It doesn’t even hit any skin, muscle or bone, just nicks the shirt. In baseball, this is still considered a hit-batsman, and Pujols is awarded first base. However, La Russa still has vengeance in his head, and it is described how he plans to plunk Sosa, and is perturbed when his pitcher does not do the job correctly in the following innings. An eye for an eye, anytime his hitters gets hit, he wants to go after their guys. That’s La Russa’s philosophy, and in my opinion, it’s a dangerous one and a stupid one. If he’s going to plunk Sosa, what would stop the opposing manager from taking retaliation himself – especially if Pujols was not even hit, but it only nicked the shirt? I’ll bet if La Russa was in the manager of the opposing team too, he would look at a possible Sosa plunking as reason to go after another one of the Cardinal hitters. And that’s how these beanbrawls escalate.

The book also covers a bit about La Russa’s views on steroids. He’s one of the few people in baseball that admits that he had an inkling that baseball players, on his team and others as well, were using them. However what bothers me about the account about steroids in this book is the lack of insight into Mark McGwire. La Russa was his manager for many years with Oakland and St. Louis. Yet the discussion in this book is more on Canseco than McGwire. There’s even a bit of propaganda that Bissinger writes: “He (McGwire) was big when he came into the league in 1986…” This was mentioned to mean that McGwire didn't get all that big, therefore he wasn't on steroids. But anyone who has ever seen one of McGwire’s rookie baseball cards (just hit it up on ebay and you can find one) can easily see that by 1998, McGwire was about four times as big as he was back in his rookie season in 1986. He was a twig back then, a tall lanky guy with a long swing. In 1998, he was Paul Bunyon in real life, making even Sammy Sosa look like a little man. Why spend the time to harp on Canseco when McGwire is the more important baseball figure, and the one that La Russa knew more about? That was disappointing, but understandable since La Russa is still loyal to McGwire, but not to Canseco.

As for some folks that think this is an anti-Moneyball book – it is not…definitely not. There is rare mention of Moneyball or sabremetrics.

All in all, I thought this was a worthwhile book. Bissinger does a good job in relaying how La Russa thinks. Of course, not everyone is going to like or agree with every one of his thoughts, but the fact they were presented clearly and in an enjoyable way makes this book highly recommended.

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