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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

4.4 21
by Buzz Bissinger, H. G. Bissinger

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

John Grisham
Three Nights in August will be devoured by hard-core strategists who enjoy nothing more than arguing for hours over why a hit-and-run was not called. Yet it is immediately accessible to any fan curious about the more complicated elements of the game. This is because Bissinger does much more than simply dissect 27 innings of baseball. He has the wonderful ability to stop the action in midpitch to talk about the people involved … Many of the book's compelling off-the-field digressions are about La Russa: his long and colorful career -- his teams have won four pennants and one World Series -- his love of the game and its history and traditions, his brilliance and self-doubt, his daily challenges in handling the fragile egos of his rich young players. At times, the frustrations with the modern game -- free agency, spoiled players, steroids, multiyear contracts, agents -- seem overwhelming.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Bissinger eschews the usual method of writing about baseball in the context of a season or a career, choosing instead to dissect the game by carefully watching one three-game series between the Cardinals and Cubs in late 2003. The Pulitzer-winning journalist and author of Friday Night Lights had unprecedented access to Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, as well as his staff and team, and he used that entr e to pick La Russa's formidable baseball brain about everything from how he assembles a lineup to why he uses certain relievers. As the series unfolds, Bissinger reveals La Russa's history and personality, conveying the manager's intensity and his compulsive need to be prepared for any situation that might arise during " `the war' of each at-bat." Typical characters-the gamer, the natural, the headcase, the crafty old timer-are present, but Bissinger gives new life to their familiar stories with his insider's view and cheeky descriptions (e.g., "Martinez's response to pressure has been like a 45-rpm record, a timeless hit on one side, and the flip side maybe best forgotten"). Bissinger analyzes each team's pitch-by-pitch strategy and gets the dirt on numerous enduring baseball questions: What does it feel like to have to close your first game in Yankee Stadium? Who knew about players using steroids before the current scandal hit? Do managers tell their pitchers to throw at hitters? Mixing classic baseball stories with little-known details and an exclusive perspective, this work should appeal to any baseball fan. Agent, David Gernert. (Apr. 5) Forecast: La Russa will make appearances tied in to the book's promo, and there will be a press conference for the book at spring training. Both should help this book rise to the top of this season's baseball book flood. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Baseball writing at its best should not be merely about championship games and record-setting feats. Bissinger (Friday Night Lights) takes in a three-game series between the rival Cubs and Cardinals, with enviable access to the baseball mind of St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa, once a wonder boy among the generation of old-style "gut" managers and now an elder statesman to whiz-kid sabermatricians. For all fans of Bissinger's work and of pure baseball. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/04.] Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Is baseball a game? Not by this first-rate account of a battle of titans, in which a pampered star player insists that he's a "performer" and the manager-hero employs the strategic skills of a warlord. St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, writes Vanity Fair contributing editor Bissinger, is "a baseball man" who proudly owns the appellation even though it "has become increasingly pejorative today because of the very stodginess it suggests." There's nothing stodgy about La Russa, even though he has revealed some very old-fashioned leanings against the use of performance-enhancing steroids and for winning performances by free agents who play their own stats-racking games against the better interests of the team. Bissinger's account ranges widely over La Russa's four decades in baseball: He started off as a player but, realizing he wasn't star material, began to badger his managers to tell him their secrets and took up the trade while still in his 20s. The bulk of his story, though, is devoted to a three-game series between the Cards and their nemesis, the Chicago Cubs, in August 2003, as the Cubs were racing their way to a long-awaited bid for the national championship. Bissinger takes care to analyze La Russa's decisions as they're being made on the field, drawing on La Russa's storied command of baseball statistics and history and his uncanny ability to match batters to pitchers, figure out opposing managers' signals, and such. Throughout, La Russa takes on the lonely countenance of a knight errant battling forces beyond his control, especially the unwillingness of players to exert themselves; as Bissinger writes, "La Russa calculates that, for today's players, winning is 'third orfourth on their list behind making money and having security and all that other BS.' "Even so, La Russa turns up results, as readers will discover-and, of course, he took the Cards to the World Series in 2004. A real treat for scholarly baseball fans, and a better management book than most on the business shelves.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


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, because—at the risk of sounding like some field-of-dreams idiot—my 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 Russa—to 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 craft—was simply too good to pass up.
In the beginning, this was a typical collaboration. I brought along my little mini–cassette 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 different—to write about a particular season—it 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 it—not simply for the three- game series that forms the spine of the book but also for the virtual entirety of the 2003 season—to 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 written—the 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 game—the poetry of its stories—because 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 steroids—all 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 enough—with its lurid images of players lathering weird creams all over themselves—but 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 it—the owners and the players’ union—did 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.

Meet 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.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
November 1, 1954
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; Nieman Fellow, Harvard University, 1985-1986

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Three Nights in August 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I always love the personal side to stories and this story is so well told. Tony is and always will be a well respected Manager.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SlapShot62 More than 1 year ago
I was really lookinig forward to reading this book. To me, Tony LaRussa is one of the best in-game managers in baseball and this book promised to give us an inside look at his mindset and strategies throughout a 3 game series with the Cubs. Overall? Not bad and, especially early on, I was enjoying the book and the intimacy of "seeing" LaRussa's thought process in various situations. It simply didn't last throughout, or it seemed to bog down or become repetitive. I enjoyed the book as a whole, but the latter third of it became slow, almost tedious at times.
tjs83 More than 1 year ago
I'm a big baseball and sports fan and this book really gave me some insight into the thought processes of a manager. I never really thought about the game of baseball like this before. It has great insight. A must read for sports fans!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I gave this to my husband as a gift, and later, I also read it. It gave me a lot of insight into the manager's thought processes within a game and series - a must-read for Cardinals fans!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of my very favorite books. It made me laugh and cry. This book will put you right in the dugout with the players during a post season race. You think a managers job is easy? This book reveals many insider strategies that I never knew
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is one of the best baseball strategy books I have ever read. I recommend this book for anyone who likes the Cardinals Cubs rivalry and for what goes on inside the head of a baseball manager.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a must read for any true baseball fan not just a cardinals fan. The book really takes a good look at the great American pastime and lets you see a side to the sport that you don't witness in the stands. It shows you that this sport is not just a game but a way of life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm an avid baseball fan and also Cardinals fan and bought it off a recomendation from a caller on a baseball talk show on XM radio. This is a must read for any baseball fan. It give an amazing insight to the game and all the inside details. I bought it on audio book to read in the car while commuting to work, I'm not looking forward to finishing it....my commute will go back to miserable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A riveting inside look at baseball and men at work and play. As expected, we see the stars: Edmonds, Sosa, and - as Bissinger calls him - 'the great Pujols.' But even the minor characters are given top billing, including the Cardinals video man and the team trainer. The book covers a three-grame series between the Cardinals and Cubs, but Bissinger goes back in time more than once for wonderful background info on players and significant events, including a moving chapter on the late Card pitcher and team leader Darryl Kile. There are winners and losers here, but the reader comes out on top.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Buzz has another winner on his hands. Three Nights in August is not only an enjoyable read, but also enlightening. But what else would we expect with Bissinger and Larussa as a team?
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a life-long fan of baseball, for me the game has been watching who scores, what the count is, and who's on first. But now, La Russa and Bissinger crack the door wide open to the inner workings and strategy of the game. I've always wondered about those sunglasses Tony wears during most games. Now I know it's more than the bright lights! Great insight into the mind of a great manager. Watching a game now takes on a whole new meaning.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was truly engrossing and a must for baseball lovers. Lots of fascinating behind the scenes strategy and behind the game face emotions. Bissinger masterfully mixes action from a 3 game series of arch rivals with a lifetime of stories and insights from larussa. I couldnt put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great baseball story for all baseball fans.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is outstanding if you're a Cardinals fan. If you're simply a baseball fan looking for some insight into the game, you'll be terribly disappointed. Bissinger writes this story from the vantage point of a Cards' fan, demonizing all the Chicago Cub players for no particular reason, while speaking very highly of most of the Cardinals (also for no particular reason). While this is good for St. Louis enthusiasts, it's annoying to those readers who seek an objective and interesting book about baseball strategy. Bissinger also jumps around a lot, going from a few paragraphs of game details to pages of player summaries that in some cases are only mildly interesting. This book is a disappointment. It's not so much 'inside the mind of a manager' as a misguided attempt by Bissinger to write a book about a team he likes. I understand he wrote the book from the Cardinal dugout, but he seems so desperate and reliant on having a protagonist and antagonist that he goes out of his way to create them in this book - something that spoils it in the end.
Guest More than 1 year ago
never read the book but i will... GO CARDINALS i love the cards!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Once again Tony LaRussa has himself portrayed as the self appointed care taker of the game. In this book he adds yet more rules to his 'Unwritten Rule Book' of basbeall, a book which he seems to have the only copy of and that he is the only one allowed to amend at his leisure for his convenience. When will Congress and baseball hold his feet to the fire for being an enabler in the steroid scandal? He staunchly denied Canseco's steroid use in the late 80's and then admitted his knowledge of it in the '60 Minutes' piece in February. Then turned a blind eye when McGwire was destroying Mr. Maris' record. FOR SHAME TONY!