3 Nights in August tries to look beyond the numbers

There’s something about Moneyball.

Two years after its release, Michael Lewis’ book is still gripping the game with an iron talon, polarizing supporters and detractors unnecessarily when the lessons of the book are not as clear cut as many on both sides of the debate think.

The latest work that tries to paint an anti-computer nerd, pro-baseball guy picture of the game is Buzz Bissinger’s 3 Nights in August. The book focuses on Tony La Russa as he rides a roller coaster of emotions while managing a three-game series between the Cubs and the Cardinals during the high heat of the 2003 pennant race.

Throughout the tale, Bissinger tries to skirt around the issue of numbers in the game. He opens the book by stating that his story “was not conceived as a response to Moneyball.” But one page earlier, he had been bemoaning the rise of “front offices…populated by thirtysomethings whose most salient qualifications are MBA degrees…These thirtysomethings view players as pieces of an assembly line; the goal is to quantify the inefficiencies that are slowing down production and then to improve on it with cost-effective player parts.” And economic efficiency is supposed to be a bad thing?

Later on, in a passage numerous critics have focused on, Bissinger probes La Russa’s thoughts on on-base percentage, the golden stat of the Moneyballers. La Russa, one of the game’s most successful managers, sees OBP “as akin to the latest fashion fad – oversaturated, everybody doing it, everybody wearing it, until you find out the hard way that stretch Banlon isn’t quite as cool as originally perceived.” La Russa combats the rise in OBP by urging his players to “play the scoreboard.” La Russa wants to see aggression from a leadoff hitter and his RBI men. He doesn’t want to see players taking pitches down the plate in an effort to draw a walk to boost that OBP.

But then again, is Moneyball really teaching baseball stupidity or baseball smarts? Lewis’ story is about, as the title reflects, the art of winning an unfair game. Beane and those who work for him have a limited payroll and look for the hidden advantages behind the stats. They don’t pretend that scouting reports, emotions, and even gut intuitions aren’t a part of the game. They don’t preach taking a fat pitch down the middle just to work out a walk later on. Rather, Moneyball is about baseball innovation and finding ways to win with limited financial resources.

There’s no reason that the Cardinals, a wealthy team with a long history of success, can’t embrace a approach to the game that searches for hidden ways to win. In fact, as Bissinger’s book progresses, it’s easy to see numbers and the lessons of Moneyball everywhere.

Dave Duncan, the Cardinals’ pitching coach who is La Russa’s loyal pitching coach, following him from team to team throughout the decades, studies the numerical match-ups religiously. He dissects video from what Bissinger terms the Cardinals’ Secret Weapon, a video editor so secret that nearly every Major League Baseball team employs one now. He emphasizes the proper counts to throw what type of pitch based upon the previous successes of the opposing batter against not just the pitcher on the mound but most of the pitchers in the leagues.

Throughout the season, Duncan carries around charts “in which he has tracked every pitch every batter has been thrown by his pitchers and what that batter did with it…The charts also track any trends that have emerged in particular situations – where a Cardinals pitcher has given up first-pitch hits and where he has gotten first-pitch outs, where he has given up hits with two strikes, and where he has gotten outs with two strikes.” In conjunction with the video loops he watches endlessly, Duncan has developed his own system of winning an unfair game. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Outside of this critique, a fairly important one in an era when Moneyball has created a divide between stats heads and baseball men so wide that Baseball America had to host a roundtable to bridge this gap, Bissinger’s book succeeds on many other levels. He burrows deep into La Russa’s mind during a pivotal stretch of the season. He follows Duncan’s approach to pitching. Yet, he doesn’t find much room for Joe Pettini, the Cardinals’ bench coach. While many bench coaches are often considered second managers, Pettini was noticeably absent from the game. Pettini’s is an odd omission. Yet, Bissinger illustrates how managers are constantly re-evaluated game strategy. Just how then does the bench coach fit in?

Of the more interesting aspects of the tale, Bissinger provides only a few fleeting glimpses. He touches on how players, managers and coaches often take the game with them off the field and struggle in their efforts to create separate niches for the game and for their families. His stunningly emotional treatment of Darryl Kile’s death really brings home the human aspects of baseball and the humanity of those superstars performing under the watchful eyes of millions every night.

While the conflict over Moneyball is destined to rear its ugly head for a while, Bissinger’s book provides that other look into baseball. This is the baseball played on the field and not in the General Manager’s office. It’s the game played by millions of youngsters in Little League, High School, College, and the Minors. And it’s all beautifully perfect.

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