To Three Nights in August Author Buzz Bissinger

DMZ · December 19, 2005 at 11:45 pm · Filed Under General baseball 

Mr. Bissinger,

You don’t know me, but I’m a big fan. I think “Friday Night Lights” is one of the best sports books I’ve ever read, and I’v enjoyed seeing other work appear in “Best American Sports Writing” yearly anthologies, and then there’s that Pulitzer you won way back when. So when I got a copy of “3 Nights in August” I was excited and happy. But in the preface, I can’t believe what I found:

In the fallout of Michael Lewis’ provocative book Moneyball, baseball front offices are increasingly being populated by thirty-somethings whose most salient qualifications are MBA degress and who come equipped with a clinical ruthlessness: The skills of players don’t even have to be observed but instead can be diagnosed by adept statistical analysis through a computer. 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.

This is jarring an error and as poor a generalization you could make. That you may wish to strike a contrast with LaRussa is no excuse.

Moneyball didn’t put 30-ish guys in front offices. Even the poster children for the kind of person you’re taking shots at, Theo Epstein, put in his time in the field. Billy Beane, who is the GM of the Athletics profiled in that book, was a failure as a player and started his career at the bottom. There are few who did not work their way up the chain from some intern job to get where they are, and to attribute thier success to a bestselling book instead of their own efforts is to do them a disservice.

Further, it’s false that these guys rely on computers. In what may have stuck in your mind, Paul DePodesta does have a laptop he uses to run numbers on in trying to find places they can apply limited scouting resources, but it’s important to note that when he turns up a random college player with interesting numbers, he wants to go put eyes on them. He wants a scout’s help.

A front office wizard like Billy Beane wants every piece of information he can get, from the numbers that show what a player’s done to a scout’s evaluation of how he’s done it. It is surprising, given the amount of time in the book that you devote to introducing us to the amazing amount of statistical work LaRussa does trying to find advantages while mixing in more subjective evaluations of player abilities and weaknesses, that you would not recognize kindred spirits in those who hunger for the same edge and are willing to use any tool at hand if it will help.

As to the image of them as productivity experts looking at assembly lines with a magnifying glass and a frown, well, that’s equally poor. Beane and the other front-office types you mock here look to build the best teams they can. They look to players who are neglected and undervalued, either because the game overlooks their particular contributions or because they have other qualities that make them available.

Again, you spend much of the book discussing how LaRussa does this, trying to find opportunities for marginal players, matchups where a bench guy can come in and succeed. But someone like Beane, because he signs an older player he still thinks can get on base and provide some needed power late in the order, should be scorned? Why is one different than the other? Why describe Beane in such language, but not LaRussa as a crazed watchmaker, trying to jam all the leftover gears and springs into a stainless steel housing before gametime?

And then you continue:

In this new wave of baseball, managers are less managers than middle managers, functionaries whose strategic options during a game require muzzlement, there only to effect the marching orders coldly calculated and passed down by upper management. It is wrong to say that the new breed doesn’t care about baseball. But it’s not wrong to say that there is no way they could possibly love it, and so much of baseball is about love. They don’t have the sense of history, which to the thirtysomethings is largely bunk. They don’t have the bus trips or the plane trips. They don’t carry along the tradition, because they couldn’t care less about the tradition. They have no use for the lore of the game – the poetry of its stories – because it can’t be broken down and crunched into a computer. Just as they have no interest in the human ingredients that make a player a player and make a game a game: heart, desire, passion, reactoins to pressure. After all, these are emotions, and what point are emotions if they can’t be quantified?

This made me throw your book across the room, so I’m going to try and go really slowly here and not get too worked up again.

It is true that Beane, which is who I assume who you’re still talking about, as this is another Moneyball reference, regards managers not as the guiding force on a team. It’s also true that the A’s organization looks at baseball strategies and talks to their manager about strategies and things they think can be helpful (we’re really good at stealing second in these situations, maybe think about being a little more aggressive there).

This is certainly a difference in philosophy. As you note, the manager-as-organizational-defining-figure is almost entirely gone from the game today. But all things are cyclical, and there’s no need to despair quite yet.

To charge that there is no way that “the new breed” can love baseball, though, and then to go on at length about things you suppose about them, is sad. I wonder if you took the time, in composing these two paragraphs, to consider talking to one. Any of them would have done, I think, in at least disarming you of this farcical notion.

The number-crunching analysts who have developed complicated formulas that adjust a player’s performance for home park, and position, and era, why do you think they do this? Why would they spend years tweaking this stuff so they can talk about whether Babe Ruth was better than Barry Bonds, or whether Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame, if they didn’t love baseball?

The front office prodigies who came out of college with the law degrees and the MBAs you scoff at and took jobs in ticketing or marketing or wherever they could get a job, and worked 60, 80 hours a week for hilariously crazy salaries, would they they take that internship and the years of toil over high-paying, glamorous work if they didn’t love baseball?

Why is striving to understand the truths behind the game bad if it involves use of technology? Why does a quest to understand the history of baseball imply that they have no use for it? Why does having an MBA degree make the travel and work these people do irrelevant?

Why should any of these things make them fair game for the kind of open stereotyping you traffic in to conclude this mini-diatribe?

This is shameful and unworthy of you.

After that excerpt, it peters out a little as it goes on, so I’ll stop there.

Your book attempts to look at and understand the work of a man who, in his own way, attempts to understand baseball. He is contemplative, he spends much time with statistics, he looks to make the most of what he has at hand, even as that means sometimes rubbing a player the wrong way, he is staid in the dugout and outside its confines. To the uninitiated, he would seem exactly the kind of person you describe if not for the age: a calculator, unfeeling, uninterested.

You are sympathetic though, willing to see that such a shallow characterization is false. Perhaps it’s because you spent so much time with LaRussa. But those you mock — they have in their hearts the same basic desire to know baseball and to win at it, and the shortcomings you cite stem from your own ignorance of them, easily remedied with the sparest of research.

While you assert that the book is not a response to Moneyball, this kind of pat, easy us-versus-them writing that attempts to paint a stark divide between two camps is guilty of the worst flaws of that book, and does nothing to inform or advance the discussion.

I have read the preface to your book several times now, and I still can’t bring myself to believe you wrote something so bad, so lacking in the complexity of knowledge you’ve shown in other work, even in the rest of the book, which takes such pains to learn and explain the many nuances that can go into something as simple as a pitching change that it’s amazing to think that something as wide and deep as the subject you take up early can be dismissed with a wave. Your readers deserved better.



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