Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager

Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager

by Buzz Bissinger, H. G. Bissinger

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Overview


Three Nights in August captures the strategic and emotional complexities of baseball's quintessential form, the three-game series. As the St. Louis Cardinals battle their archrival Chicago Cubs, we watch from the dugout through the eyes of legendary manager Tony La Russa, considered by many to be the shrewdest mind in the game today. In his twenty-seven years of managing, La Russa has been named Manager of the Year a record-making five times and now stands as the third-winningest baseball manager of all time. A great leader, he's built his success on the conviction that ball games are won not only by the numbers but also by the hearts and minds of those who play.

Drawing on unprecedented access to a major league manager and his team, Buzz Bissinger brings a revelatory intimacy to baseball and offers some surprising observations. Bissinger also furthers the debate on major league managerial style and strategy in his provocative new afterword.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618710539
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 04/04/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 170,500
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Buzz Bissinger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of four books, including the New York Times bestseller 3 Nights in August and Friday Night Lights, which has sold two million copies and inspired a film and TV franchise. He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and a sports columnist for The Daily Beast. He has written for the New York Times, The New Republic, Time and many other publications.

Date of Birth:

November 1, 1954

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Education:

B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; Nieman Fellow, Harvard University, 1985-1986

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Fear Factor

I

WITH THE SERIES against the Cubs set to begin tonight in a matter of hours, Tony La Russa is doing what he has done since he first became a major-league manager at the uncertain age of thirty-four. He is managing out of fear, preparing as if he has never managed before, striving to prove to the world that he possesses the combination of skills essential to the trade: part tactician, part psychologist, and part riverboat gambler.

What few words he utters from his office in the bowels of Busch Stadium are less words than they are contorted mumbles so low off the surface of the floor, you need a fishing net to scoop them up. He is dressed in Cardinals-red undergarments, and, because his office is off to the side of the main locker area, he is oblivious to the players who trickle in one at a time to eventually get dressed. They are easygoing and relaxed, all about the sublimation of pressure. It's pretty much a given in baseball — unlike other sports — that the more hyped you get, the worse off you will be. But La Russa is all about pressure.

Tension emanates from his face like a lighthouse beacon in the fog, visible from miles away. He is already moving into his zone of concentration: the tunnel, as he calls it. By game time, he will be so deep in the tunnel, so riveted on the vagaries of the field in front of him, that the rest of the spectacle — the swells of the crowd, the incessant seagull screech of the vendors, the out-of-town scoreboard with its inning-by-inning warnings — will have no meaning to him. He won't even be aware of them, as if the game exists for him in a pure extract of silence. He isn't quite in that place yet, and from his office, he occasionally does acknowledge a world outside his own. He scowls when somebody turns up the music in the locker room and a blast of "P.I.M.P." by 50 Cent rages into his office without even as much as a courtesy knock, the decibels so high it would blow the door down anyway. He occasionally peeks at the two television sets that hang at opposite corners from the ceiling of his office: one TV running the satellite feed of Cincinnati playing at Pittsburgh and the other showing an old John Wayne movie, The Fighting Kentuckians. "Now that's my kind of movie," he says, but he draws no comfort when Wayne starts to sing. "John Wayne singing. That's nice," he says with misery, momentarily lifting his head from the sheaf of the latest statistics on his upcoming opponent. Then he turns back to the columnar murk of the stats in his ceaseless search for slivery edges, possible aberrations that may be of use during the game.

The stapled packet contains the usual baseball breakdown: at-bats and hits and extra-base hits and walks and strikeouts and average for hitters, wins and losses, and innings pitched and runs allowed and hits allowed and home runs allowed by pitchers. La Russa pays special attention to the individual matchups, an essential ingredient of his approach to managing. These sheets detail how each of his hitters has done against Cubs pitchers and how his pitchers have done against Cubs hitters, as well as the flip side: the individual performances of Cubs hitters against Cardinals pitchers and Cubs pitchers against Cardinals hitters.

The term bench player doesn't really apply to the Cardinals, because La Russa so frequently plugs utility players into the lineup based on little opportunities he unearths by sifting through the results of their previous experience with players on the opposing team. These individual matchups are so integral to his strategy that he copies them onto 5-by-7-inch preprinted cards that managers normally use to make out the game's lineup. With ritualistic precision, he folds the cards down the middle ten minutes before game time and then slips them into the back pocket of his uniform. During a game, he pulls them out continually, almost like worry beads, peering at them as if in search of evidence that everything is fine, that he is doing exactly what he needs to be doing. More practically, he refers to them when deciding who to bring on in relief or who may be the best candidate to pinch-hit.

Matchups aren't foolproof to La Russa, perhaps because nothing is foolproof in baseball. They have their weaknesses, particularly if the statistics are several years old. But they do provide the best indicator of what the competition will be between a pitcher and a hitter. There are some hitters who, never mind their mediocre batting averages, simply tag the living crap out of some pitchers. Conversely, there are pitchers, despite soggy ERAs, who simply do well against particular high-stroke hitters.

But La Russa believes that in virtually all situations, human nature dictates results and that his role as a manager is to recognize the impact of human nature and take the best advantage of it. It sounds simple, maybe, but it isn't simple, because human nature isn't simple, and it's even less simple when applied to the twenty-five pieces of the puzzle. Some need to be left alone, some need a pat on the rump every so often, and some need a swift boot in the rear: fuzzy love or tough love or no love. To a certain degree, matchups are a compact reflection of the human psyche, in this instance the effect of confidence on performance. A hitter who has gained early success against a pitcher may simply continue to build on that. He believes he can see the ball better when it's thrown by that pitcher, even though there is no physical truth that he can. It's moot, immaterial; the octane of confidence itself is enough to propel him. It's the same with certain pitchers. Their curve may have less break, less tumble, less of that 12-to-6 plummet than their colleagues' curves, but they begin to succeed with it against a given hitter. They begin to feel, to know, that the poor little guy 60 feet and 6 inches down the road from them can't do anything with it. And it actually turns out that way.

But matchups also tell the truth about skill — the numbers, like the needle at the start of a lie detector test, are just the beginning of what will be revealed. So when La Russa looks at the matchup numbers that he has been handed, numbers he is familiar with because the Cardinals have already played the Cubs nine times before, it isn't the numbers he cares about as much as the stories behind them: ways to find a remedy for a hitter who has consistently lousy numbers against a sinkerballer (start hitting the ball the other way instead of always trying to pull it and roll over the ball with weak grounders), or the anomalies of right-handed relievers who, against the grain of baseball, actually do better against lefties and how to make use of that (instead of the conventional wisdom of putting in a lefty pinch-hitter, go with a righty). Of all the hours spent preparing before a game, many of them La Russa spends searching for the explanations of these matchup numbers, a slice of seemingly buried narrative that during the season can single-handedly change the outcome of the four or five games that — in La Russa's estimation — a manager can change.

The more La Russa scrutinizes these matchups, the less he likes them. Usually, they offer hope at some point in a series, but not this time. Over the next three nights, the Cards will confront three dominating pitchers. Adding to La Russa's anxiety, giving it the true crisp of darkness, is an acute animus: the Cubs.

The rivalry between the Cubs and the Cardinals is probably the oldest and perhaps the best in baseball, no matter how the Red Sox and Yankees spit and spite at each other. That's a tabloid-fueled soap opera about money and ego and sound bites. That's a pair of bratty high-priced supermodels trying to trip each other in their stilettos on the runway. But the Cards-Cubs epic is about roots and geography and territorial rights. It's entwined in the Midwestern blood and therefore refreshing and honest and even heroic. It isn't simply two teams throwing tantrums at each other but two feudal city-states with eternal fans far beyond their own walls, spread throughout not only the Midwest but also deep into the South and the West. The Cubs started amassing their empire through WGN, its crystal-clear radio waves sweeping out of Chicago into Iowa and Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Until the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, no other National League team was in the upper Midwest.

As for the Cardinals, they were for a period of time baseball's westernmost team, and its southernmost, too, until the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. The Cardinals' retort to WGN was KMOX, whose fifty thousand watts fed millions starved for big-league baseball. Carried by its powerful signal, Cardinals games rolled south from St. Louis, across Missouri into Arkansas and Mississippi, and west into Oklahoma and Texas and even beyond, if the night sky was right.

In Peoria and Decatur and dozens of smaller Illinois farm towns, factions developed, with half the population tuning in to WGN and half turning on KMOX. But the rivalry goes farther back than radio, deep into baseball's mythic youth.

It might have originated on June 24, 1905, when the Cubs' Ed Reulbach and the Cards' Jack Taylor each pitched eighteen-inning complete games before the Cubbies won 2–1. The mutual contempt was only sharpened by more recent heroics, such as the nine showdowns in the late 1960s and early 1970s between the Cubs' Fergie Jenkins and the Cards' Bob Gibson. In seven of these duels, both men pitched a complete game, four were decided by one run, and two of them produced a final score of 1–0. Once, in 95-degree St. Louis heat, as terrible a heat as this hemisphere can muster, both pitchers went the distance undaunted by the departure of homeplate umpire Shag Crawford, who found the weather so insufferable that even he quit in the middle of the game. St. Louis fans also hearken back to Bruce Sutter's split-fingered fastball, perhaps the greatest contribution to pitching since Mordecai "Three Fingers" Brown refined the curve ball. Cubs fans exult in the memory of Ryne Sandberg's stroking that splitter for two back-to-back homers in 1984, a deliciousness made more delicious because Sutter had once been a Cub himself before going over to the dark side.

The inevitable implosion of the Cubs — the sad fury of their futility — only gave the rivalry an added extra, with nothing more fun for a Cards fan than to watch the Cubs self-destruct with their own special brand of pathos. Their knack for misfortune has proved itself thousands of times but rarely more eloquently than in "Broglio-for-Brock," a term synonymous in some circles with idiocy, absurdity, ridiculousness, and senselessness. Broglio-for-Brock was born in June 1964; at first, Cubs fans thought that they had gotten the better of the deal. They didn't mind at all when Lou Brock was sent to the Cardinals along with Jack Spring and Paul Toth in return for Ernie Broglio, Bobby Shantz, and Doug Clemens. Brock's statistics at the time were middling at best. He struck out often, got thrown out stealing nearly half the times he tried, and had an aggregate batting average with the Cubs of .255 over four years. Broglio, on the other hand, was a hard-throwing pitcher who had been 18 and 8 in 1963. The fact that he was only 3 and 5 in 1964, an indication of arm trouble, didn't seem to bother the Cubs' hierarchy.

As a Cardinal, Brock became one of the greatest players in the history of the game, leading the National League eight times in stealing, finishing five times in the top-ten voting for most valuable player, and getting inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985. After the trade, Broglio subsequently won seven games and lost nineteen before leaving baseball two years later. Whether it's true or not, and it probably isn't, it is still considered to be the worst trade that has ever taken place in baseball. Cubs fans have never forgotten it, partially because Cardinals fans will never let them forget it, and it makes every series they play touched by trauma.

II

THIS SEASON, La Russa feels a special competitive edge against the Cubs because they're for real. He pays particular notice to the two pitchers who embody the team's newfound swagger and success: those punk rockers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. They're the best 1-2 in the game this year, with psychoses that complement their skill. They both throw nasty stuff, and neither is afraid to go way up and way in on a hitter if that's what it takes to prevail.

Even more vital to the Cubs' resurgence is La Russa's counterpart, Dusty Baker. He's in his first season with the team; last year, he led the Giants to the National League Pennant. When Baker became available, La Russa was hoping that he would move over to the American League so that he might have to face him only in a World Series. But Baker dashed those hopes completely by settling in with the Cubs. Baker may not be the greatest strategist, but the way the sport and its players are evolving, La Russa also knows that how one manages during a game is becoming less important. What Baker is good at — superb at — is interacting with players. He can handle a ballclub as well as he handles the ever-present toothpick in his mouth; he knows better than anyone else in baseball how to manage the space between a player's ears. He is also masterful at deflecting attention to himself. He lets blunt and controversial remarks spill out of his mouth. But on closer analysis, they seem purposely designed to keep the media swarm buzzing around him. Better for him to get stung by clearly calculated outrageousness than his players.

The upshot is that the Cubs haven't done their annual cuddly collapse in the Friendly Confines. And the Astros, buoyed by the oak-barrel reliability of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, haven't fallen back either. On this last Tuesday in August, the Central Division standings reflect a race that's neck and neck as it heads into the summer embers:

ST. LOUIS 68-62 .523
By winning two of these next three games, the Cubs can overtake the Cardinals at a pivotal moment. Beyond that general worry are a lot of smaller, more specific concerns. Aside from the punk duo of Prior and Wood, there's the dark horse Carlos Zambrano, slated to go against the Cards in Game 3. Although few outside of Chicago know much about Zambrano, he is pitching better than Prior and Wood. He has, in fact, been the best pitcher in baseball the past month.

La Russa worries about how he will counter this trio with his own trio: Garrett Stephenson in Game 1, Woody Williams in Game 2, and Matt Morris in Game 3. It's not a shabby trio by any means; nor is it accidental that they'll be pitching in this three-game series. More than a month ago, La Russa and Dave Duncan mapped out their rotation all the way to the end of August to ensure that these would be the pitchers who went against the Cubs now. La Russa and Duncan purposely decided to backload the three-game series, sending the weakest of the three pitchers out first. As one of the many philosophies they have developed during two decades together, they would rather finish the series strong than begin it strong.

La Russa likes this rotation, but he doesn't love it. Each of his pitchers is hauling baggage. Stephenson has some kind of bipolar disorder on the mound. Williams, the staff workhorse, has hit a winless trough after an All-Star first half and may be mentally exhausted. Morris is still recovering from a recently sprained ankle that could well prevent him from pitching with any sustained effectiveness.

La Russa also frets over his hitters, particularly the top of the lineup, with two unpredictable neophytes. He's worried about Rolen's shoulder and neck, which have been hurting him ever since he slid headfirst into home plate at Fenway Park two and a half months ago. The injury restricts his mobility to get to certain pitches, not to mention that it's also painful. La Russa needs to give him a day off. But he can't give Rolen a day off, at least not for this series, anyway; even with a bad neck and shoulder, Rolen at third is still better than any other third baseman in the league, both defensively and offensively. La Russa is worried about Edmonds in center, whose shoulder has been cranky ever since the AllStar game in Chicago when he apparently did something to it during the Home Run Derby. La Russa is worried about Renteria at short, who collapsed in the shower with back spasms the previous game and will definitely be scratched from Game 1. La Russa worries too about the Cubs' lineup. There are Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, the obvious game breakers, but he's even more worried about three ex-Pirates who have given the Cubs enormous value down the stretch: Aramis Ramirez at third, Randall Simon at first, and Kenny Lofton in center.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Three Nights in August"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Tony La Russa and H.G. Bissinger.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Table of Contents,
Copyright,
Dedications,
Epigraph,
Preface,
Foreword by Tony La Russa,
Prologue,
GAME ONE,
Fear Factor,
Locked In,
"I'm Gonna Kill You!",
The Peeker,
The Pitcher's Tale,
Praying for Change,
GAME TWO,
Gonzalez Must Pay,
Light My Fire,
Whodunit,
Being There,
Under Pressure,
GAME THREE,
D.K.,
Thing of Beauty,
Kiss My Ass,
Three Nights in August,
Epilogue,
Postscript,
A Note on Sources,
Acknowledgments,
Index,
About the Author,
Footnotes,

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