Bob Costas, HBO and NBC sports commentator.

"Three Nights In August" will take you closer to the game than ever before.

Ray Mileur"> Bob Costas, HBO and NBC sports commentator.

"Three Nights In August" will take you closer to the game than ever before.

Ray Mileur">

"Three Nights In August" - Book Review

The St. Louis manager shares his secrets in 'Three Nights in August'. <p> "LaRussa is one of baseball's most intriquing figures. Bissinger is one of our most respected writers. Together they provide a unique and compelling view inside the game that for so long has fascinated, rewarded, and tortured the Cardinals Manager." <p> Bob Costas, HBO and NBC sports commentator. <p> <i>"Three Nights In August"</i> will take you closer to the game than ever before. <p> Ray Mileur

Like a Frederick Wiseman documentary -- which focuses on a little, tiny slice of life but begins to assume wider significance after you've seen a couple of the man's movies -- a Buzz Bissinger book worms its way deep into a single place and time. It only gradually dawns on a reader that the almost pathological competitiveness of football in Odessa, Texas, or the schizophrenic political maneuverings in the City of Brotherly Love are telling pieces of a much larger cultural puzzle.

Like it or not America, this is who we are.

Bissinger, who followed the football team at Odessa's Permian High School for a season in "Friday Night Lights" and wrote a behind-the-scenes account of Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell's first term in "A Prayer for the City," turns his attention to a weekend series between two of baseball's oldest and most bitter rivals in "Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager."

The nights of the title refer to Aug. 26-28, 2003, when the Chicago Cubs visited the St. Louis Cardinals with first place on the line. Each game came down to the final inning, and Bissinger milks the drama for all it's worth. He breaks down virtually every at-bat and every strategic decision as if the games were high-stakes chess matches, with Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker standing in for Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer.

For baseball fanatics, this is more than enough. The level of detail and insight about the game comes from nine months Bissinger spent in the Cardinals' clubhouse, even if he framed the story around a single three-game set.

But what differentiates "Three Nights in August" from run-of-the-mill sports books is Bissinger's rapport with La Russa. The Cardinals' manager bares his soul for Bissinger, delving into the psychology and the philosophy of grown men playing a child's game. He also explains the realpolitik of baseball: The "Hammurabi Code" of the sport, which dictates that if you intentionally hit one of our batters we'll intentionally hit one of yours. This is the kind of thing managers rarely admit publicly, at the risk of suspension. But La Russa discusses specific incidents and talks about why. Today's professional athletes, well-paid, pampered and frequently lazy. "Most seasons, players do what they have to do and plug along because when you have talent, you can plug along," Bissinger writes, paraphrasing La Russa. "During the free-agency year, their intensity picks up and they're like hungry rookies again. . . ." Steroid use, which La Russa says is pervasive both in the minor leagues and the bigs. He blames the player's union, team owners and Major League Baseball for ignoring an issue everyone inside the game saw growing over the past decade.

For readers who don't happen to be baseball aficionados, all the insight in the world still might not be enough. This is, in the end, a sports book appealing primarily to sports fans. In Bissinger's hands, though, it turns out to be a surprisingly interesting piece of that larger cultural puzzle.

You can contact Scott Bernard Nelson at; 503-221-8423

Article reprinted by permission of The Oregonian

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