The face made me do it. It left an indelible image with its eternal glower from the dark corner that it occupied. I had always admired intensity in others, but the face of Tony La Russa entered a new dimension, nothing quite like it in all of sports.
I first saw the face in the early 1980s, when La Russa came out of nowhere at the age of thirty-four to manage the Chicago White Sox and took them to a division championship in his third full year of managing. The face simply smoldered; it could have been used as a welding tool or rented out to a tanning salon. A few years later, when he managed the Oakland A’s to the World Series three times in a row, the face was a regular fixture on network television and raised even more questions in my mind. Did it ever crack a smile? Did it ever relax? Did it ever loosen up and let down the guard a little bit, even in the orgy of victory? As far I could tell, the answer was no.
I was hooked on the face. I continued to observe it as he stayed with the Oakland A’s through 1995. I followed it when he became the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals the following season. Along the way, I became aware of his reputation as a manager, with a polarity of opinion over him such that when Sports Illustrated polled players on the game’s best five managers and its worst five managers, La Russa appeared on both lists. But I liked seeing that because it meant to me that this was a manager who didn’t hold back, who ran his club with a distinct style regardless of the critics’ chorus. Had he been any different, surely the face would have broken into a smile at least once.
After La Russa came to the Cardinals, I did see moments when the face changed. I saw fatherly pride and self-effacement spread over it when Mark McGwire hit his record-breaking sixty-second home run in 1998. I also saw the face overcome with grief when he and his coaches and his players mourned the passing of the soul of the St. Louis Cardinals, broadcast announcer Jack Buck, followed four days later by the death of beloved pitcher Darryl Kile in his hotel room during a road trip in Chicago. Later that season of 2002, I saw the intensity return, all the features on a collision course to the same hard line across the lips during the National League Championship series that the Cardinals painfully lost to the Giants four games to one.
As a lifelong baseball fan, I found myself more curious about La Russa than about anybody else in the game. Which is why, when out of nowhere, I received a call from La Russa’s agent at the end of November 2002 asking whether I might be interested in collaborating on a book with La Russa, my answer was an immediate yes. I jumped at the opportunity, although I also knew that collaborations can be a tricky business. I had been offered them before by the likes of Rudy Giuliani and legendary television producer Roone Arledge, and I had turned them down. But this was different, or at least I told myself it was different, becauseat the risk of sounding like some field-of-dreams idiotmy love of baseball has been perhaps the greatest single constant of my life. I knew the game as a fan, which is a wonderful way to know it. But the opportunity to know it through the mind of La Russato excavate deep into the game and try to capture the odd and lonely corner of the dugout that he and all managers occupy by virtue of the natural isolation of their craftwas simply too good to pass up.
In the beginning, this was a typical collaboration. I brought along my little minicassette recorder to where La Russa lived in northern California. I turned it on and interviewed him at length, thinking that I would listen to the tapes and transcribe them and try to fashion what he said into his own voice. As is common in collaborations, we also have a business arrangement, a split of the proceeds, although the entirety of La Russa’s share is going to the Animal Rescue Foundation, known as Tony La Russa’s ARF, that he cofounded with his wife, Elaine, in northern California.
The more we talked about the book, the more agreement there was about trying to do something different from the typical as-told-to. La Russa’s interest in me as a writer had been on the basis of Friday Night Lights, a book I had written about high school football in Texas. He was struck by the voice and observational qualities of the book, and we wondered whether there was a way to fashion that here. We also wondered whether there was a way to write the book with a narrative structure different from tthe usual season-in-the-life trajectory, a book that would have lasting and universal application no matter what season it took place in.
It was during those conversations that we came up with the idea of crafting the book around the timeless unit ooooof baseball, the three-game series. The one we settled on, against the eternal rival Chicago Cubs, took place in the 2003 season. Had the goal of the book been differentto write about a particular seasonit would have made sense to switch gears and write about the Cardinals’ magnificent ride of 2004. But that wasn’t the goal.
It was also during those conversations that La Russa agreed to give me virtually unlimited access to the Cardinals’ clubhouse and the coaches and players and personnel who populate itnot simply for the three- game series that forms the spine of the book but also for the virtual entirety of the 2003 seasonto soak up the subculture as much as possible. La Russa understood that in granting such access, he was ceding much of the control of the book to me as its writer. In doing so, he was untying the usual constraints of a collaboration, allowing me wide latitude to report and observe and draw my own conclusions. He also knew that approaching the book in this manner required him to be revealing of not only the strategies he has come to use but also the wrenching personal compromises he has made in order to be the kind of manager he has chosen to be.
La Russa did not waver from the latitude that he promised. I was made privy to dozens of private meetings between the Cardinals coaches and their players. I was able to roam the clubhouse freely. Because of my access, I was also able to probe not only La Russa’s mind but also the minds of so many others who populate a clubhouse. La Russa has read what I have writtenthe place where collaborations can get odious. He has clarified, but in no place has he asked that anything be removed, no matter how candid.
I came into this book as an admirer of La Russa. I leave with even more admiration not simply because of the intellectual complexity with which he reaches his decisions but also because of the place that I believe he occupies in the changing world of baseball.
He seems like a vanishing breed to me, in the same way that Joe Torre of the New York Yankees and Bobby Cox of Atlanta and Lou Piniella of Tampa Bay also seem like the last of their kind. They so clearly love the game. They revel in the history of it.
They have values as fine as they are old- fashioned, and they have combined them with the belief that a manager’s role is to be shrewd and aggressive and intuitive, that the job is more about unlocking the hearts of players than the mere deciphering of their statistics.
In the fallout of Michael Lewis’s provocative book Moneyball, baseball front offices are increasingly being populated by thirtysomethings whose most salient qualifications are MBA degrees and who come equipped with a clinical ruthlessness: The skills of players don’t even have to be observed but instead can be diagnosed by adept statistical analysis through a computer. These thirtysomethings view players as pieces of an assembly line; the goal is to quantify the inefficiencies that are slowing down production and then to improve on it with cost-effective player parts.
In this new wave of baseball, managers are less managers than middle managers, functionaries whose strategic options during a game require muzzlement, there only to effect the marching orders coldly calculated and passed down by upper management. It is 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 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 gamethe poetry of its storiesbecause it can’t be broken down and crunched into a computer. Just as they have no interest in the human ingredients that make a player a player and make a game a game: heart, desire, passion, reactions to pressure. After all, these are emotions, and what point are emotions if they can’t be quantified?
La Russa is a baseball man, and he loves the appellation "baseball man.” He loves the sound of it, although the term has become increasingly pejorative today because of the very stodginess that it suggests. But La Russa is not some hidebound manager stuck in the Dark Ages. He honors statistics and respects the studies that have been written about them. He pays meticulous attention to matchups. He thinks about slugging percentage and on-base percentage, as they have become the trendy statistics in today’s game. They have a place in baseball, but he refuses to be held captive to them, because so much else has a place in baseball. Like Torre and Cox and Piniella, his history in the game makes him powerfully influenced by the very persuasions the thirtysomethings find so pointless: heart, desire, passion, reactions to pressure. After all, these are emotions, and what point is there playing baseball, or any game, if you don’t celebrate them?
This book was not conceived as a response to Moneyball. Work began months before either La Russa or I had ever heard of Lewis’s work. Nor is this book exclusively about La Russa.
Because he is the manager, he is at the hub of the wheel of Three Nights in August. But the more time I spent in the clubhouse, the more aware I became of all the various spokes that emanate from that hub and make a team that thing called a team.
La Russa represents, to my mind, the best that baseball offers, but this book doesn’t sidestep the less noble elements that have associated themselves with the game in the past few decades: the palpable decline in team spirit, the ever-escalating salaries, the burgeoning use of steroidsall are a part of what baseball has become.
The sport has a tendency to cannibalize itself, to raise the bar of self-interest just when you thought it couldn’t go any higher. The recent scandal of steroid abuse is shocking enoughwith its lurid images of players lathering weird creams all over themselvesbut what’s truly shocking is that this problem has festered for at least a decade. As La Russa pointed out in one of our interviews, everybody in baseball knew for years that steroid use was taking place. But the only two powers that could have done something about itthe owners and the players’ uniondid nothing until 2002. It’s difficult morally to understand that, but not financially, since steroids helped fuel the home-run craze that many who run baseball were convinced was the only way to capture new fans who lacked an interest in the game’s subtleties.
It’s a cynical notion and it’s also wrong. Home runs are electrifying, but so are the dozens of smaller subplots that reveal themselves in every game, strategically and psychologically and emotionally. Three Nights in August tries to convey that very resonance, not with nostalgia, but because it is still the essence of this complex and layered game.
Copyright © 2005 by Tony La Russa and H.G. Bissinger. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.