Three Nights in August

by Tony La Russa and Buzz Bissinger
I’m from St. Louis so I had heard about this book a while ago and just assumed it was sort of a standard puff piece for the Cardinals. Then recently a friend told me, “No really, it’s more than that and you should read it,” so I did and I was quite impressed with the entire scope of the book, which pretty much examines the minutiae of baseball through the lens of a single three-game series between the Cardinals and Cubs in August of 2003.

You don’t necessarily have to be a Cardinal fan to enjoy this book. Cubs fans should also apply, as well as anyone who appreciates some of the finer strategy in baseball. I consider myself well-versed for a casual baseball fan, perhaps somewhere on the border between a casual and an obsessive fan. Thus it was quite a treat to gain insight into pretty much every facet of the game — if Bissinger missed one I’m not aware of it — from an individual at-bat to hit-and-run, from pitcher preparation to intentionally hitting a batsman, and all through the eyes of one of the most relentlessly intelligent managers in the history of the game.

Bissinger weaves an impressive, labyrinth-like narrative that tells the story of the three-game series while frequently pausing to follow individual threads to their point of origin, then zooming back out to the overall narrative. These threads often consisted of the background of an individual player, or a specific type of player, and these were the parts where it was most rewarding to be a Cardinals fan, to learn some of the inside dirt on my favorite players from a decade ago.

My main complaint with the book is Bissinger’s writing style, which is almost always ostentatious and frequently pretentious. Admittedly this reaction could be colored by knowledge of his real-world personality; he’s an unapologetic conservative in the bombastic style of Sean Hannity. But still, I think most objective readers can agree that some of his word choices, analogies and dated pop culture references are oftentimes distracting, which should never be the effect of good prose. Here are some examples so you can judge for yourself:

Alou goes for it in his unbridled aggressiveness. He gets a swing on it, a pretty good swing — a damn good one, actually. He fouls it straight back, meaning that he missed driving it by a matter of only inches. Stephenson throws another fastball, this one better located on the inside. Alou gets a swing on it, a pretty good swing — a damn good one, actually. 61

Was it really necessary to repeat the same sentence? Dramatic effect is lost in the annoyance of reading it over again.

He has the swagger that is the hubris of youth, taking his invincibility for granted when nobody ever should, receiving too much early attention and slathering in it. 75

Now I could be wrong, but this just seems like the wrong word choice. You can’t “slather in” something, you slather something onto something else. As far as I can tell he was looking for a word like “wallowing.” But this indicates that Bissinger’s grasp on the English language is not as strong as he’s representing, which makes some of his other word/phrase choices all the more pretentious.

The pitch is more difficult to handle than the first one, that lethal combination of high-heat velocity and location you see sometimes on the Autobahn. 122

Tortured metaphor. What kind of location do you see on the Autobahn? What does that even mean? Bissinger also employed a strange and somewhat arbitary use of italics:

Wood comes with a curve that bites low, and Taguchi has no choice but to protect himself because of the count, and he fouls that off too, his fifth in six pitches. 173

Then there were just a couple of plain ‘ol WTF moments:

In addition, the relief game, of which La Russa may well be the key cultural anthropologist, had yet to evolve. 177

So this means that La Russa studies the relief game and compares it to other sorts of games? That he studies relievers and analyzes their society and value systems? The analogy makes no sense, especially when he appears to be looking for a word as simple as “inventor” or “inspiration.” Another case of Bissinger trying to sound smarter than he really is. Then:

(Lofton) is Kline’s eternal nemesis, the psychotic ex-girlfriend who sends you creepy notes through the mail to remind you she’s still around. 246

First of all, the analogy of a psycho-ex does not really encapsulate what it means to be an “eternal nemesis,” so he starts off with a badly mixed metaphor. Secondly, are there really enough of these types of ex-girlfriends to make this a good universal example? Thirdly, it’s just not an apt comparison at all to the relationship of Kline and Lofton, the latter of whom continually takes advantage of the mistakes of the former. It’s just bad writing.

I grant that I’m probably being extra hard on him just because I disagree with his politics and find him to be kind of a d-bag anyway, so take my criticism for what its worth. On the other hand, a decent writer can spot these sorts of mistakes a mile away, and the compound effect is to really do a disservice to the content of the book, which is pretty near impeccable. The only other thing I would have changed stylistically is to not try and needlessly manufacture drama — whether in one particular at-bat, or one particular game or series — when the narrative is already plenty compelling.

So overall, regardless of my writing quibbles I would recommend this book to Cardinals fans, Cubs fans and/or borderline obsessive general baseball fans who are interested in acquiring a finer grasp on the minute strategy behind even the most mundane baseball decisions. It is an invaluable artifact for its in-depth discussion of pretty much every aspect of the game.  And it’s much better than One Last Strike (see my review).

For more info. . .

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