This is just about the perfect time of the year to read a book like Buzz Bissinger’s, Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Head of a Manager. As I write this, teams have just reported to Florida and Arizona for Spring Training, beginning the long 2017 baseball season that will ultimately crown one team as the year’s World Series champion. Veteran players now have six weeks to work themselves back into playing shape while a handful of top minor leaguers are hoping to make enough of a positive impression to stick with the big club when camp breaks.
But players and umpires are not the only ones who use Spring Training to work themselves back into regular season form. Managers, already faced with making the tough player cuts required of them every spring, must also get themselves mentally prepared to make all those little game-time decisions that might add up to winning an extra five or six games a season – more than enough to mean the difference between participating in the playoffs and watching them on television with the rest of us.
But what counts, of course, is what happens during the regular season, and that’s what Three Nights in August is all about. The book frames itself around an August three-game series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs that was played at a point late in the 2003 season when the Cardinals, Cubs, and Houston Astros were virtually tied for first place. Cardinals manager Tony La Rusa gave Bissinger the kind of access to himself and his team that writers usually only dream about, and the resulting book is an interesting look at what makes La Rusa one of the best managers the game of baseball has ever seen.
The pivotal three games are covered in great detail, so much so that at times it seems as if an entire inning is being replayed pitch-by-pitch as La Rusa tries to out-think Dusty Baker, his counterpart in the Cubs dugout. The two men have known each other for decades and neither of them has any new tricks not already seen by the other. A baseball game between them is akin to watching two chess masters play each other for the five-hundredth time over the course of their two long careers.
But as indicated by the book’s subtitle, Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Head of a Manager, La Rusa was prepared to reveal much more about himself than the strategies he employs against Dusty Baker. The book explores La Rusa’s long managerial career and the sacrifices his wife and children have made in order to make it possible for the manager to achieve what he has. During the season, Tony La Rusa was all about baseball and had time for little else. He is a private man, comfortable with being alone, and even when the Cardinals were playing at home he often stayed in a local hotel rather than sleeping at home – especially when the Cardinals lost a tough game or series.
Love him or hate him, Tony La Rusa has achieved the status of baseball legend now, and that alone makes Three Nights in August an interesting read for baseball fans. But the part of the book I will remember most is the section dealing with the sudden death of Darryl Kyle, the great pitcher who died in his sleep at age thirty-three on June 22, 2002. Cardinal players and coaches (and their fans) were hit hard by such a stunning loss, and that they were able to overcome their grief and hold the season together at all was a fine tribute to the dogged attitude about the game that DK always displayed. (As a side note, fans and players in Houston were equally devastated by news of his death.)
Bottom Line: Three Nights in August is a great way for anxious baseball fans to prepare themselves for the 2017 season, a little “Spring Training” all of our own.