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Beautiful Baseball

One manager's search for perfection

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3 Nights in August

By Buzz Bissinger (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp., $25)

Bissinger and subject Tony La Russa will discuss and sign the book, 6 p.m. May 26 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers

Baseball, the great game of inches, has journeyed miles from its own pure heart—at least according to Tony La Russa, the fifth-winningest manager in the long history of the game and the subject of Buzz Bissinger's latest book, Three Nights in August. Despite its fallen state, however, despite steroids and salaries, a proliferation of beanballs, conflicts between the owners and the players' union, and despite even a general trend away from team play, La Russa is still passionately in love with the game, believing it contains within it the potential for remarkable beauty.

Bissinger is most famous for Friday Night Lights (Perseus, 1990), his riveting sociological study fronting as a high school football drama, and he has also won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. La Russa has been for the past decade the master strategist for the powerhouse St. Louis Cardinals, a job he landed after leading the Chicago White Sox and then the Oakland Athletics. (In 1989, his A's swept the San Francisco Giants in the only World Series ever interrupted by an earthquake). La Russa has managed in the major leagues for 25 consecutive years, easily his most remarkable achievement in a career filled with no less than five Manager of the Year awards.

A top-notch writer like Bissinger teamed with a top-notch baseball mind like La Russa's ought to produce a top-notch book, and Three Nights in August tries hard to live up to its promise. Taking as its premise a three-game series between the Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs in the late summer of the 2003 pennant race, the book is an attempt to identify, explain and otherwise testify to the intellectual and emotional rigors involved in managing a major league baseball team. The rigors, Bissinger informs us, are legion. So heavy is the burden, in fact, that La Russa—one of the keenest intellects the game knows and a compassionate animal lover to boot, a law school graduate and vegetarian, for chrissakes—cannot crawl out from under it: He lives apart from his family the entire seven months of the baseball season because when his team loses, which even in the best years is 40 percent of the time, he becomes emotionally untouchable to anyone but other baseball men, the select few who understand the depth and complexity of his torment.

Baseball men will not ask La Russa to empty the dishwasher, pick up the kids from choir practice. Baseball men understand why La Russa will lie awake in his hotel bed all night brooding, searching for answers. In his search, La Russa is the poet or physicist, existing in a world mortals will never comprehend, a space of wild imaginings (the sore-armed Pujols at first base?) and strange hypotheticals (an 0-2 hit-and-run?), all in the service of locating absolute perfection—what string theorists call The Theory of Everything and La Russa dubs "beautiful baseball." But La Russa is no poet on a mountaintop, no tenured mathematician. Tony La Russa, make no mistake here, is a baseball man. And on the lush, deep green fields of America's Pastime, there is no greater appellation.

Three Nights in August is about three baseball games played by two very good ball clubs in the high heat of late summer St. Louis, each club blessed with explosive talent and an extraordinary manager, each team fighting tooth and nail to win the division. Because Bissinger is an excellent suspense writer, revealing and holding back just enough, the games are exciting to read about. Especially exciting is watching La Russa prepare for and think through situations—the hit-and-run, lefty-righty matchups, playing the infield in or back. But for La Russa, all that thought doesn't come cheap: "I've had an incredible advantage at a terrible price."

This is a book about baseball, but baseball is never just about baseball. Baseball is about America. And embedded in Bissinger's text is an undercurrent of nostalgia for the good old days that goes largely unquestioned. In this era of exorbitant salaries and steroid abuse, it's perhaps understandable that those with an abiding interest in the game will hearken back to what they remember as a purer time. But let us not forget that before Curt Flood and Catfish Hunter risked their careers to sue the sport they loved, professional baseball players were owned by their teams, forbidden to negotiate with another club. And let us not forget for a minute Jackie Robinson, whose very survival on those teamwork-soaked fields of dreams, let alone glorious success, is a miracle in itself. That Bissinger doesn't dwell on these sad histories is not the problem. The problem is that he takes at face value the almost universal feeling amongst baseball men that the game used to be played better, smarter, harder; that ballplayers had more character. Whether true or not (and I have my doubts), the author owes the reader at least the historical context.

This is especially true for the writer of Friday Night Lights, which so brilliantly exposed and put into context the subculture of West Texas high school football. But of course the residents of Odessa, Texas, didn't ask Bissinger to come write about them, as Bissinger admits La Russa's agent did for La Russa. So maybe the comparison is unfair. And while it is a stretch to call Three Nights in August, as the author of the great Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden, does in a blurb on the back cover, "a masterpiece of reporting and writing, and flat-out one of the best books on the subject ever," it is no imaginative leap at all to call the book engaging, spirited and smart—and even sometimes beautiful.

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