erasing clouds

Book Review: Buzz Bissinger's 3 Nights in August

reviewed by matthew webber

Judging by the blurbs on the back of his new book, 3 Nights in August, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Buzz Bissinger wants to appeal to everyone.

If the photo of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa on the front jacket doesn’t attract readers of serious baseball books, then the quote from conservative columnist and baseball author George Will will signify the book’s importance. To target other sports fans, two football coaches give their recommendations. For the reader of serious nonfiction books, but not necessarily baseball books, there’s the author of Black Hawk Down weighing in. For managers in the business world, the Starbucks chairman hypes the book’s motivational strategies and leadership lessons.

Sorry, but the book is not about those things. Unlike Bissinger’s classic study of the religion of Texas high school football, Friday Night Lights, 3 Nights in August examines just one subject inside and out: baseball. The book offers few sociological insights into, say, fan culture, and it rarely leaves the friendly confines of Busch Stadium, except to show La Russa continuing to fret over lineup changes and pitching matchups while eating dinner.

Other than the melodramatic writing style, which has caused several reviewers and at least one friend to cringe, any problems in the book result from its scope, which is either too narrow or too broad, almost as if Bissinger didn’t know what kind of book he wanted to write. Bissinger, who observed the Cardinals for a season before he and La Russa decided on a format, does seem to want the book to be all things to all readers - an almost-impossible feat, although it happened with Friday Night Lights.

Bissinger ventures beyond the three nights in the book’s title - a pivotal three-game series between the Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs in the heat of the 2003 pennant race; the Cardinals won the series but ultimately lost the pennant - to explore the psyche of the modern baseball player and to briefly touch upon every hot topic in the sport from the last decade: steroid abuse, skyrocketing salaries, and the argument over whether clutch hitting really exists, a debate stirred by Michael Lewis’ 2003 book, Moneyball, which Bissinger claims did not influence his book.

(The book is probably not targeted to Cub fans, as Bissinger’s “root for the home team” favoritism repeatedly manifests itself in cartoonish descriptions of the opposing players as bad guys.)

But, because books can be and have been written about any one of the above ideas, whereas a book about one three-game set had not, the digressions in every chapter seemed tangential - not because they weren’t fascinating; but, because they were fascinating, they seemed dispatched too quickly. The typical chapter begins and ends with on-field action and contains a mini-essay about some peripheral topic in the middle. Moneyball’s more consistent thesis, and subsequent impact on the sport, should have inspired Bissinger.

Yet the descriptions of these 3 Nights in August, and the strategies informing every single play, contained some of the most insightful baseball writing I ever have encountered, so much so that I would like for Bissinger to devote 280-page tomes to all the baseball-related minutiae that pique his curiosity, just so I could learn everything there is to know about the game I love. Either that, or he should have lengthened this book to Tom Wolfe proportions. But, while this strategy might have bolstered an already great read, it no doubt would have cost Bissinger some of his desired audience of everyone.

“Beautiful baseball” is the phrase the author and the manager constantly use to describe the essence of the game, the purity of which Bissinger sometimes tries too hard to convey. But, mostly, the book succeeds at giving baseball fans that rare inside into the book’s subtitle: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager. If only Bissinger had planned his own strategy for writing the book more deliberately.


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