Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Another Baseball Book

You can’t argue with success, or maybe you can’t successfully argue with somebody who has achieved success. At any rate, arguing isn’t on Buzz Bissinger’s mind anywhere in his new book, “3 Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager.” Nope, instead, Bissinger wants to worship Tony La Russa, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals for the last ten years. Bissinger bows down and prays to every tidbit of wisdom from the mind of the man who has one more games than all but a handful of managers in baseball history.

I’m not trying to say Bissinger doesn’t perform some useful functions here. Any baseball fan, especially any Cardinal fan, will find plenty of fascinating insights and tidbits, as Bissinger was basically around on a day to day basis for long stretches of the 2003 Cardinals season. He does seem to have won the trust of La Russa and many of the players, and as such, he paints a portrait of human beings, with individual foibles, skills, and instincts they trust above all. And, Bissinger doesn’t shy away from revealing disagreements between players and manager.

So, yeah, it’s fascinating to follow the interaction between La Russa and Kerry Robinson, the St. Louis-bred backup outfielder who was convinced he would be a star performer if given a chance to play, despite offering no evidence of the necessary skills to excel in such a role. La Russa thought Robinson was a useful cog in the makeup of his team, but he got frustrated when Robinson tried, as he often did, to move outside his talents, and to play for himself rather than for the team. Because baseball is a game which allows anybody to be a hero on any given night, Robinson’s game-winning home run in the third and final game examined in this book is a stroke of irony Bissinger which must have left him excitedly scribbling down the structure of the whole project.

The book is built around a three game series between the Cardinals and Cubs in August, 2003. At the time, the two teams were running neck and neck in the standings, so the series had both pennant-winning meaning and the traditional rivalry between St. Louis and Chicago to add drama. But, Bissinger doesn’t just talk about individual events within each game, though he does describe some of them in great, and insightful detail. Rather, he jumps around in the minds of the players and La Russa, and talks about previous events in their lives (both personal and on the field) which help to explain what is happening in these games.

For example, there is a fascinating side trip down the history of baseball pitchers throwing at the heads of the best players on the other team. La Russa is aware of how badly players can be hurt as a result of this risky course of action, and he hates more than anything – or so he convinces Bissinger – to retaliate. But, he knows he cannot command the respect of his players if he allows the opposition to hit his stars without ordering his pitcher to do the same. So, he has come up with an elaborate schema for when and how to do such a thing, and he refuses to allow his players to act on their own in such a situation.

Elaborate schemes and La Russa seem to go hand in hand. Whenever a chance is given, La Russa refutes the claims of baseball analysts who use statistical studies to contradict the conventional wisdom within the game. Bissinger treats these refutations as proof of La Russa’s hard-earned genius, despite never once allowing the arguments to be discussed in depth. “It’s also why he gave his little conspiratorial laugh in spring training when he heard of the Red Sox plan, based on analysis by statistical guru and team consultant Bill James, to have rotating closers instead of one designated pitcher. James, in part because of what he felt was the inflated statistic of the save (you get one even with a three-run lead), believed that it wasn’t always necessary to bring in a classic closer to pitch the ninth. La Russa respected James, but based on managing nearly 4,000 games, was convinced James was wrong. La Russa was also right: the Red Sox ultimately dumped the idea when it became clear that closer-by-committee was no-closer-by-committee.”

Well, let’s see. James and most sabermetricians have argued that the single closer idea is an inefficient usage of resources. If theoretically a closer is the very best relief pitcher on the team, why should he be used only in the ninth inning, whether or not that is the time you most need your best pitcher? If, as happened in Saturday’s Cardinals game, the opposing team has its best hitters due up in the 8th inning, why would you use a theoretically lesser pitcher to face them, and save your best pitcher for the lesser hitters batting in the ninth? And, what if the most dangerous part of the game comes in the 7th? Why should you leave your best pitcher on the bench until other pitchers have given up runs which could have been prevented?

The Red Sox did indeed try to change the pattern of usage in 2003, but, alas, they did it with pitchers who weren’t good enough to use for the experiment. And, because this led to the Red Sox losing some close games, the conventional wisdom acts as though this one example has destroyed any chance of trying it again. Never mind that the single closer method leads to many lost games, too. It’s engrained in everybody’s mind that this is the only way the game can be played. Which is amazing, because La Russa himself only invented this method twenty years ago.

For a man who distrusts statisticians, La Russa relies on statistics more than most managers. He prides himself on basing decisions based on the individual performance of each hitter against each pitcher. But, most of these examples are built on the smallest of sample sizes. If a hitter has made nine outs in ten at-bats against a particular pitcher, there is no reason to believe this performance will continue. Any random ten at-bats in a baseball player’s career can be found with similar results, but no major league player can stay in the game with a .100 batting average.

Tony La Russa knows how to manage major league baseball teams. There are many different paths to success, and we can’t argue that La Russa isn’t capable of picking some that work, because he has won again and again throughout his 25-year career. But, Bissinger, in his rush to elevate La Russa to a solitary, poetic figure, missed an opportunity to truly challenge his subjects ways of thinking. (Look at the cover, with La Russa standing in the shadows at the top of the dugout, his back to the camera, the brightly lit field he tries to control stretched out before him.) I find it interesting that everybody in St. Louis refers to this as La Russa’s book. While clearly Bissinger makes it his own tale – the overwrought writing style wears thin whenever the subject under discussion becomes overly familiar – he does so without argument.

I gobbled this book up in a couple of days. The subject itself was too near and dear to me to do otherwise. I detected much more of the human element within the players, coaches, and managers than I’m used to noticing. But, ultimately, I found Bissinger’s tone to be too pretentious – this is the guy who wrote “Friday Night Lights,” which I haven’t read – and not contentious enough for my taste.


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