Since my renunciation of all things Cub a few seasons ago, I’ve come to a newfound appreciation for baseball’s St. Louis franchise. Bob Gibson. Curt Flood. Stan the Man. Those powder blues. Fans who come out in droves for love of the game alone (they’re certainly not going for the ambience). That and the team actually puts it together and wins a World Series every so often.
Tony LaRussa has had books written about him before. George Will’s Men At Work, one of the first really intelligent baseball books I read as when I was younger, explained LaRussa’s system of obsessively charting every possible matchup going in to each series of the year. It also detailed the development of the use of video in players’ game preparations, something Buzz Bissinger echoes in his book. 3 Nights in August says a lot of things about baseball that have been said before, but it presents them in an original way. Two voices battle for supremacy throughout: the ornate, screenplay-pitching hyperbole of the author, and the matter-of-fact terseness of the manager. LaRussa wins, and that’s what makes this book a good read.
I don’t think Tony LaRussa really gets his due as a manager. He’ll be third all-time in wins by the end of this season, yet Bobby Cox and Joe Torre have much better reputations. It’s true that Tony’s career has been a little low on drama — as Bissinger notes, he’s managed one game above the minimum in his four World Series appearances, being swept twice, losing in five once, and sweeping himself with the A’s in 1989. By focusing in on baseball’s elemental building block, the three-game series, Bissinger shows how LaRussa balances roles as number-cruncher, psychic, and guru and gets the most out of all of the very different players under his employ, from the taciturn Scott Rolen to the loopy Steve Kline.
While anyone who reads a lot of baseball books will recognize the format here, where the author moves between detailing game action and profiling the various clubhouse characters, the switch from examining an entire season to a mere series changes the emphasis. The fact that it’s a series with all sorts of playoff implications against the archrival Cubs doesn’t hurt. (It also gives LaRussa multiple opportunities to send lefthanded pinch hitters up against Mike Remlinger, warming my heart.) LaRussa and his consigliere, pitching coach Dave Duncan, leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of tiny advantages, from playing the percentages to stealing signs.
What’s great about Bissinger setting the book’s scope so narrowly is the capricious nature of baseball, the infinite number of tiny fluctuations that determine the outcome of each game, consistently undermining the larger designs of both author and manager. LaRussa spends plenty of time operatically decrying the fundamentals of reserve outfielder Kerry Robinson, only to have Robinson bail out his club with a ninth-inning home run in game three. Duncan and LaRussa obsess over arranging their second-half schedule to maximize Matt Morris’s starts, and Morris promptly gets hurt. Tony deftly machinates to get his best matchup lefty in to face Kenny Lofton, and Lofton immediately doubles.
Unfortunately, 3 Nights in August, despite the cleverness of its concept and a fountain of baseball wisdom as its subject, is saddled with an author with major pretensions. Bissinger will never settle for a mere adjective when a tortured, twisting metaphor presents itself. Many passages are needlessly stylized, as in one obnoxious chapter where the term "hit and run" is italicized every single time it appears as if it was a French appetizer. The period in St. Louis history Bissinger was fortunate enough to gain access to does not require writer’s gymnastics to lend it drama. The meteroic rise of Albert Pujols, the strange saga of Rick Ankiel, and the tragic death of Darryl Kile really speak for themselves.
3 Nights in August, therefore, bears the unusual distinction of being quite a good read despite its author. It doesn’t shed a lot of light on what any of LaRussa’s players are like, as Bissinger wisely tends to give the most airtime to those who actually have something to say. It doesn’t end as you would expect, LaRussa basking, satisfied if just for a moment, in a series victory and a return to first place. Rather, it continues into an epilogue about the 2004 World Series, where the Cardinals’ offense inexplicably collapsed on the way to a sweep. It’s an interestingly down conclusion for a book that sets out to detail the methods of the smartest man in baseball. It ends on questions with no answers.
The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, by ESPN.com’s Buster Olney (and now out in paperback), performs a rather marvelous little balancing act. If you hate the Yankees, this book will serve as a celebration of your pure hatred. Yet if you bleed pinstripes, it will probably be an affirmation of love. Olney doesn’t make any argument for or against the Boys of Steinbrenner, he merely presents the facts in as detached and journalistic a manner as is possible. A slight tone of editorial disgust creeps in at the margins as internal development goes by the wayside and the Yanks begin moving through international and free agent pitching talent like a thresher, but it’s remarkable that Olney is able to maintain this amount of objectivity when it comes to the ************, Arroyo-swatting, Irabu-baiting Bronx Bombers of recent memory.
The cleverest thing about the book is its structure. Rather than going through the run of championships chronologically, which would rapidly become unbearable for those of us on the side of good, Olney closely details Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, flashing back to show each of the Yankee principals became so. It’s true that you already know how the story ends, but Olney manages to construct a convincing case that something vital to the Yankees’ success was slowly leeched away between 1996 and 2001 amidst Steinbrenner’s histrionics and the departures of players like David Cone, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, and Luis Sojo. (OK, not buying Sojo’s importance so much.)
Like it does for the team as a whole, Last Night will likely not change your opinions of any of the charismatic players who anchored the Yankees’ run. Derek Jeter is a prima donna. Roger Clemens gets himself motivated for games by being mean and nasty to everyone surrounding him. Paul O’Neill throws helmets and savages bat racks like a Little Leaguer. At the same time, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams are icy reservoirs of calm, somehow elevating themselves above the craziness surrounding.
Some things about the Yankees you may not have known emerge as well: Cone’s self-appointed role as media lightning rod, Joe Girardi’s leadership role disproportionate to his weak hitting, Don Zimmer’s mad in-game insights. A few things you already suspected become clear. Joe Torre should be sainted. Brian Cashman has the worst job in the world. Some things have sadly already fallen by the wayside. Rivera was the only Yankee the home crowd never booed, Olney writes, and yet there they were screaming for his head just this April. What a nice bunch of people for which to work.
The tough thing about writing recent baseball history is how quickly you can be proven wrong. Olney strongly implies that whatever led New York AL to all those championships, it’s gone now, and the first few weeks of this season certainly supported this thesis. Now, of course, the Yankees are on fire. They could win the World Series this year with their A-Rods, Sheffields, and Matsuis and make the Girardis, Sojos, and Shane Spencers look like the scrubs that they really were. And if they miss the playoffs, the opposite must be true.
Of course, the Rockies have neither $15 million free agents or veteran leadership, unless you count Desi Relaford, which I assure you I don’t. As OIney contrasts the Yankees with other recent championship teams — the ’01 D-Backs, the ’03 Marlins, even last year’s Red Sox — what emerges is that winning teams have a consistent character. It can be wildly different from champion to champion, but somehow a core of players has to cohere around something more than hating the media and enjoying the company of enthusiastic female fans. What does this mean to Colorado, who are light years away from contention? Well, I suppose a case could be made for hanging on to guys like Shawn Chacon who (weirdly) seem to enjoy being Rockies. First let’s see if we can find our own Rivera, Jeter, Williams, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettite, and then we’ll worry about chemistry adjustments.