11 January 2007

Book Review: 3 Nights in August, submitted by Doctor J

Books and Bait Readers: I am pleased and excited today to present our first book review. This wonderful critique was written by Doctor J (internet sobriquet). In real life, he is an esteemed college History professor, an avid baseball fan, and a truly engaging and captivating individual. I am hopeful Doctor J will be composing more reviews in the very near future.........

The early winter holiday break from my job at a small college affords me a nice block of time to catch up on my reading—especially in years like this one where there is no snow to play in. Or at least that's the idea. This year I received a short, well crafted book as a gift which so captured my attention that I found myself reading, no savoring, it so slowly (so as not to lose the relationship with it) that I found little time or inclination to read much else. Of course, that says more about the reader than the read, and is borderline pathetic, so we'll not dwell on that.

3 Nights in August, by Buzz Bissinger, (Mariner Books, 2006) is in the mold of his more famous Friday Night Lights, the tale of Texas high school football recently made famous by Hollywood. This study of baseball in its purest form—the three game series—is ideal for the novice or casual fan who wishes to understand the game better and manna for true believers. It could be highly instructive for the cretin-American population, the mantra of which is "baseball is boring," if that lot's eyes could possibly be opened to the sublime beauty of their nation's pastime (which of course they can't, having been trained to stare blindly at the mechanical grid of football and the 'drive fast turn left' mind-numbingly idiotic symmetry of NASCAR. Getting this mob to appreciate the fine art that is baseball is, I suspect, much like expecting a right wing Christian to give a fair read of Nietzsche or Chomsky. But enough of that. Too much like shooting fish in a barrel anyway.)

Baseball is all about relationships and this is made clear by Bissinger in his subtitle: 'Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy: Inside the Mind of a Manager.' That the manager is Tony LaRussa, current skipper of the St. Louis Cardinals, most recent World Series champion, gave me pause (again, more about the reader than the read). LaRussa is a self-promoter, first and foremost. A previous "baseball through the eyes of following a manager around" effort, a pretentious tome penned by George Will entitled Men at Work, was instructive and entertaining in a Will-like way, but not really a baseball book. It was, instead, a leadership book, trapped in X's and O's and the overly-preachy Seven Successful Habits genre. I was correct to be wary about 3 Nights, but happily incorrect in being judgmental.

This is, instead, a quite worthy book about the relationships in baseball; between a manager and his players, yes, but between players and teammates, players and adversaries and, especially, between a player and himself. There is a dynamic on a baseball club that forms a whole greater than the sum of its parts, sometimes positive and sometimes not. The same can be said for the individual player. Take, for example, J.D. Drew, bonus baby extraordinaire, described here as maybe "too talented, that it (the game) comes too easily to him. He plays with little outward passion, gliding through because even when he glides through, he still gets enough hits and enough home runs to make about three and half million dollars a year." (The Boston Red Sox offered Drew ten million a year several weeks ago.) Drew has never reached his potential because he lacks the passion great players need, but it doesn't seem to matter to him. (Who can argue? If I could make millions at 75% effort I think I'd settle too.)

It's this kind of insight—often in the form of punches not pulled—that make 3 Nights such an illuminating and interesting read. A more positive example of this instructive style is Bissinger's description of Albert Pujols. No bonus baby, Pujols came up by way of a junior college in Missouri, hardly noticed by scouts. "There was nothing quite like Pujols. Players like that don't come along once in a lifetime; they never come along. As good as his swing is, Pujols still treats it as a work to be meticulously refined, studied, examined, pulled apart, mercilessly critiqued. He adjusts it continually, bearing in mind the human tendency toward entropy and the fact that no two pitchers are more perfectly alike than any two snowflakes or two fingerprints are alike." To realize that no two ballplayers, no two situations, no two pitches, no two swings are more perfectly alike than any two snowflakes or two fingerprints are alike—that is, to understand what it means to be human—is to understand the intrinsic art and power that is baseball and, more importantly, the art and power of relationships—both inter-and intrapersonal. Bissinger, in artful and powerful fashion, makes this crystal clear for anyone who takes the time to look.

All the strategy in the world—and there is a good bit of strategy analysis in the book, for example the hit-and-run is dissected for the best part of a long chapter, the advantage and disadvantage of playing the infield in with runners on the corners and no outs is explained in intimate detail, and much more—but strategy is not the point of the story. It is the heartbreak and joy that is the focus. Not on a grand-and-more-important-than-life-itself scale one expects from (ugh, I hate this phrase in this context but it can't be avoided) sports books. It is about the heartbreak of watching a first pitch fastball catch the low outside corner and not offering at it, knowing that was the last decent pitch you'd see that at-bat. And it is the joy of the next pitch, as Bissinger writes: "Robinson won't get a better pitch than that. He doesn't. The next pitch is a sinker away. Its location is devilish, but Robinson swings and slaps it down the left field line for a double. Renteria scores to close the gap to 2-1." It is about the Heartbreak and the Joy that baseball gives, and takes, which is why I read slowly and made it last as long as possible. Call me crazy.

Above all, baseball is about the little things. Not so much the game of physical inches the talking heads and analysts hype but the passion and humanity inside all of us. It is about the numbing defeat, like letting that first pitch go by when it might have been your only chance at success. It is about the small victories, like hitting a devilish pitch down the line for a two-bagger (though as Bissinger makes clear, Robinson is no hero. After missing a chance to move a runner into scoring position in a previous at-bat, and dogging a lazy Texas leaguer from an out into a run-scoring double for the opposition the previous half-inning, "one double does not demolish a doghouse."). Does this defeat, or this victory, really matter? Of course. The balance of the game, of a career, is built on these foundations. Little things matter. Confidence matters. Overconfidence matters. Being in the doghouse doesn't just happen. Getting out of it doesn't either. These small things, physical, psychological and emotional, shape personalities and relationships and futures.

Yes, baseball is about money and billionaire owners playing Monopoly with real buildings and millionaire players not signing autographs for kids and a handful of steroid abusers reflecting poorly on the game and everyone in it and a lot of other headline stuff. But baseball is really about the little things and the relationships the players have with themselves. Each slider in, followed by a fastball away; and the next at bat, when a fastball away doesn't follow a slider in. What's coming next? How do I adjust? Each step an outfielder takes toward the line as the count goes deeper because the batter's tendency is to go the other way with two strikes. And the batter knowing they know that and are shading him to hit that way so he looks middle in for something to pull. Each juke by the runner at first—everyone knows he's not stealing, not in this situation, but is he tipping off a hit and run play? Or just juking to force us into a mental error? Each pitch out to keep the sonuvabitch close. But that pushes the count further in the hitter's favor and runs up a sore-armed starter's pitch count and there's no lefty in the pen.

The framework for the book is, as I've said, the three game series. The quintessential form of the game is three games against the same opponent over three days. This 3 act play is preceded and followed by other such events against other opponents—53 times, a total of 162 games, over 180 days from early April to early October. It is a grind, to say the least. A passion play set in 20 cities or more, coast to coast, which isn't over until, as Yogi Berra so famously out it, it’s over. Teams, and players, get to know each other, well. Tendencies matter. Passion matters. A three game series when every pitch, every play, every effort, every error—physical and mental—is vital to victory. To study the game in this form is to know the game. Any NASCAR fan can be taught to read, and they can read the standings, in April, July, and September. But to know the game, one must watch the game, pitch by pitch, series by series, city by city, and player by player. One must think about the game and also think ahead of the game—which pitch is coming next and why? Does the situation call for a steal? Does the outfield play straightaway with the infield leaning to pull? This book is the primer for this education. By thinking with the game, the beauty of the game becomes clear, sublime, intoxicating. Pretty heady stuff, huh?

Bissinger calls baseball a "complex and layered" game. It is indeed. What he means is that it is an intellectual game but he doesn't want to insult the vast majority of American readers. It is indeed. This book reflects that complexity, those layers, and teaches us a lot about human nature in the process. What more could you want?

What makes this book such a good read for fan, near fan and non-fan alike is that this book—yes, about baseball—is really more about writing. I'll not go so far as to say it is high literature but it does set a stage, build a context, and describes drama, tragedy, pathos and more in riveting style. And, as I more than hinted at earlier, it is a read that can instruct, and be appreciated by, anyone. The form of the writing is in baseball rhythm, not its jargon, so it is artful without being cryptic to the neophyte. After Steve Kline, wildman lefty reliever (true baseball aficionados recognize those adjectives as wholly redundant, of course) gives up yet another ringing double to Kenny Lofton in a tense late inning setting, Bissinger describes the post-game thoughts of the pitcher this way: "Kline will think about it, continued nightmares of being told to kiss the bride and lifting up the veil and seeing it's frigging Lofton, Lofton at the register when he's in the checkout line searching for his bonus card, Lofton in the car next to him when he stops at a red light, Lofton asking him whether he prefers a window seat or an aisle, Lofton, Lofton, Lofton, smiling in such a way that it does resemble a hit in the gap."

We've all been there, which is what makes this book an essential read for everyone.

Only 79 days until the season opener!


DoctorJ said...

DEW--thanks for offering my ramblings to your readers.

Readers--Yes, I do know that 53 times 3 is 159, not 162. I'm a historian, not a mathematician.

Let's talk a little baseball eh? My Brewers just bought Jeff Suppan which makes their starting rotation-- Sheets, Suppan, Capuano, Bush, Vargas--one of the best in all of baseball. You heard it here first. Suppan was a Brewer killer--something like 5-0 at Miller Park with a miniscule ERA. Not only will he bring them 15 wins (at least) as a starter, they won't have to face--and lose to--him 2 or 3 or 4 times this season. That makes them 17 or 18 games better than last year, right??

See you soon.

L.P. said...

Great review! I look forward to future posts from Dr. J.

Pulling the last two posts together: Undoubtedly the NASCAR crowd are also the Francophobes. But the real question is....how do the French feel about baseball?