Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Baseball been berry good to Bissinger

Who knows what that title is referencing? 50 bonus points to the first to answer in the comments.

Yes, the baseball season is upon us, and April showers bring baseball books out of hibernation, though sometimes I've read a baseball book in the dead of winter to get a fix of my favorite sport. They're usually fun, brisk reads, full of anecdote, and, at least to the non-aficionado, over-analysis of what is a simple game.

Three Nights in August by Buzz BissingerEdition: Hardcover
Price: $15.75

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Bissinger book's 'filthy' good, April 18, 2006

"Three Nights in August" gets into the mind of Tony LaRussa, one of the greatest tacticians to ever manage the game of baseball. Bissinger makes us feel the loneliness LaRussa feels at the end of the dugout, shows how the emotional and physical demands of the game take a toll on his family, and gets into the minutia of three games to see how tiny behind-the-scenes decisions like putting on a hit-and-run or stealing another's teams signs can affect the outcome of a game.

Weaved around these games are stories of the players, like comeback kid Cal Eldred, still pitching after four arm surgeries and more than 1,000 days between wins; or the insouciant JD Drew, too confident to play with heart. There is also the tragic tale of Darryl Kile, the Cards' pitcher found dead in June 2002 before a series against the Cubs. Bissinger finishes with a short narrative about the 2004 season, the year the Cards won their division with the best record in baseball, but were swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.

"Three Nights in August" is lyrical without being overly romantic and factual without being overly analytical. Kind of like Tony LaRussa, a statistics junkie who ultimately decides with his heart.

I was attracted to this book because I'm a Cubs fan and heard about Bissinger around the movie release of "Friday Night Lights."

Next up for reading is "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," by Michael Lewis, is another baseball book that showcases an emerging managerial strategy (or at least general managing strategy) devoted to statistical analysis. "Moneyball" is mentioned in "Three Nights in August," and I first heard about in the summer of 2003 on NPR while I was driving around mowing lawns. I remember the NPR piece focused on Scott Hatteberg, who, in 2002, was a member of the Oakland A's, and how he converted from a catcher to a first baseman valued at the plate not for his power or average, but because he works the count and forces the pitcher to throw a lot of pitches. The "Moneyball" interview on NPR illustrated that Oakland's scouts used advanced statistical analysis, such as determining how many pitches a batter takes in an at-bat, to find hidden talent.

I saw Hatteberg play against the Cubs recently (he's now with the Cincinnati Reds) and thought of that summer afternoon listening to NPR, remembered the lawn that I went to, remembered the homeowner and how he suffered from a long-term illness, wondered if he was alive anymore. This thought cycle lasted all of 30 seconds, but then was suddenly recalled when I saw "Moneyball" referenced in "Three Nights..."

That happens a lot. Knowledge, especially new knowledge, comes in coincidental bunches.

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