3 Nights in Darkness

What Buzz Bissinger’s new book fails to see about sportswriting.

Buzz Bissinger writes in the preface to 3 Nights in August that it “was not conceived as a response to Moneyball.” No matter how it was conceived, his new baseball book came out screaming bloody murder. Bissinger, the author of 1990’s classic Friday Night Lights, used to know how to avoid tendentious sportswriting. This time, he can’t resist interrupting his narrative—three 2003 games as seen through the eyes of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa —to engage in pointless shadowboxing with the Michael Lewis best seller that laid out a controversially statistics-based formula for winning baseball games.

Bissinger challenges Moneyball’s analytical argument with unverifiable, splenetic opinions. On-base percentage is the “latest fashion fad.” Numbers are less important than human nature. The MBA-carrying thirtysomethings invading baseball’s front offices might know their way around Microsoft Excel, but they’ll never understand baseball. And so on.

Like every other writer who lashed out at Moneyball, Bissinger buys into the unsophisticated dialectic of numbers versus heart—that there’s “no way to quantify desire.” But Bissinger’s own reporting reveals that those distinctions don’t exist in major-league clubhouses. The Cardinals, like every other team, embrace both subjective scouting and newfangled statistics. Pitching coach Dave Duncan uses mathematical evidence to convince his starters of the importance of throwing a first-pitch strike. He also cues up video to point out the weaknesses of opposing hitters.

Bissinger lacks the sophistication to fight Moneyball on its own statistically savvy terms. Sometimes he’s clumsy with numbers, sometimes just ignorant. He writes that Cardinals pitcher Garrett Stephenson struggled in 2003 because he allowed too many home runs; in fact, he gave up fewer homers than in 2000, his “breakout season.” A Cubs reliever has supposedly “dominated” the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols when they’ve faced each other six times, a sample size small enough to be completely meaningless.

3 Nights in August takes for granted that you can only learn about baseball by watching baseball games. Bissinger gives authority to the watchers—the pitching coach Duncan has a “laser eye for mechanical flaws,” the Cardinals’ video coordinator has “microscope eyes.” The 60-year-old manager La Russa, though, keeps the game’s secrets. Bissinger stalks La Russa in the dugout and clubhouse, filling up his notebook as the manager massages the egos of bench players and frets over pinch-hitting appearances.

Like George Will before him, Bissinger is seduced by Tony La Russa’s old-school charms. La Russa is a “baseball man”—a seasoned veteran who defends the game’s customs from selfish players and bloodless technocrats. His craggy, weather-beaten face is a relic of thousands of brain-busting pitching changes. His monklike devotion to filling out the lineup card mandates sequestration from his family during the season. A manager who spends so much time worrying and strategizing in his “self-imposed foxhole” has to be the keeper of the game’s secrets. La Russa certainly believes in his own relevance—after 25 years in the dugout, he’s decided that “when [my teams] suck it’s mostly because I suck.”

Just because La Russa is ridiculously self-involved doesn’t mean he should be ignored—after all, he’s managed four World Series teams. But his conventional baseball charm doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows more than the baby-faced geeks in the front office. By showing the blind spots of old-school analysis, Moneyball exposed the old-school analysts. For Bissinger, the heroes are the guys who look like heroes—the graceful center fielder, the glowering pitcher, the stoic men in uniform. Baseball sentimentalists have a vested interest in protecting the narrative that every pitchout signal is sacred. If the unathletic pencil pushers are the real leading men, then one whole swath of sports journalism will disappear.

Moneyball’s success left a lot of brilliant sportswriters in the lurch.  They are eloquent wordsmiths, but they don’t have the nerdy hard-wiring it takes to devour page after page of decimal points. Instead of walking away from the fight, they get hung up on fencing with Lewis and the statisticians. Bissinger’s strength is communicating the emotions and passions of people like La Russa—essentially, profile writing. Friday Night Lights proved that he’s capable of describing the grip that sports can have over athletes, coaches, and fans. In 3 Nights in August, he only succeeds in showing that Michael Lewis has him in a headlock.

The only virtuoso moments in 3 Nights in August come when Bissinger describes the sudden death of Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile. The devastation in the locker room after a friend and teammate dies is one of the things in sports that can’t be quantified. For the most part, though, Bissinger stares so deeply into La Russa’s eyes that he loses sight of when emotion is important and when it’s just a crutch for the uninformed. Sometimes, it takes a nerd to tell the difference.