Ah, spring. Ah, baseball. Ah, Bissinger.
As he did in "Friday Night Lights," Buzz Bissinger probes the inner workings of a sport in "3 Nights." This time, instead of a season of a Texas high school football team, it's a three-game series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs.
And instead of adolescents and their coaches, this time Cardinals Manager Tony LaRussa provides the foundation. It's his psyche, his knowledge of the game, his mental gymnastics that Bissinger relies on to follow the Cards through the pivotal match-up with the rival Cubs during the 2003 season.
So deep does Bissinger dig into LaRussa's cranium, into the intricacies of what transpires in the clubhouse and on the field, that only a true baseball aficionado will find joy in "3 Nights." Don't get me wrong, it's a readable piece. Bissinger's a gifted writer, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, in fact, for "Friday Night Lights." It's just that readers not in love with the game, or the Cardinals, might find "3 Nights" a bit too much about baseball.
In "Friday Night," Bissinger delved not only into the game but also into the players and the coaches. He wove human tragedies and euphoria into his tale of what a football team means to a small town in Texas.
In "3 Nights," it's all LaRussa, a truly interesting character, to be sure, but only sufficient fodder for the most allegiant fan of the game. What, the reader wonders, is happening inside the minds of the players affected by LaRussa's mechanizations? Albert Pujols, for instance. Bissinger goes into great detail explaining the marvels of an athlete such as Pujols, but never does the reader find out what Pujols is thinking, what he's feeling, his reactions to the way his manager handles him.
And because LaRussa all but collaborated on "3 Nights," few of LaRussa's warts, if indeed he has any, come across to the reader. The closest Bissinger gets to describing LaRussa out of uniform revolves around his detachment from his family during the baseball season, how he stays in St. Louis while his wife and daughters live in California. The reason: LaRussa's so consumed with his job that he's no use to his family when there's baseball to be managed.
Bissinger's superb writing style salvages "3 Nights." Explaining that LaRussa sought solitude while dining after a loss, Bissinger notes:
"There was no worse social interaction in the complicated history of social interaction than trying to make conversation with LaRussa after a defeat, idle chitchat bouncing off a face that with each innocuous and annoying word spoken looked more and more like a glacier with a migraine."
Or the dugout scene during the first inning: "Opportunities in baseball come and go all the time and dugouts early in the game resemble luncheonettes where all the diners know one another and have formed little cliques and talk amiably until one of them has to go to work, and it may take hours before that even happens."
Oh yes, the three-game series against the Cubs. The Cards lost the first and won the next two to tie for the division lead. They lost the National League championship that season, only to win the NL title last season before losing four straight to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
3 Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager
By Buzz Bissinger
280 pages, $28
Lee Coppola, a dedicated baseball fan, is the dean of the St. Bonaventure University Journalism School.