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Life on the baseball diamond

"Friday Night Lights" author Buzz Bissinger and St. Louis Cardinal's manager Tony La Russa on the joy and heartbreak of baseball. Here's an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Two big winners team up for an inside look at baseball and the men who play it. The St. Louis Cardinals' Tony La Russa is the sixth most winning manager in history. "Friday Night Lights" author Buzz Bissinger gets a candid glimpse into his world and the strategy, heartbreak and joy of baseball in his latest book, "Three Nights in August." Bissinger and La Russa were invited on the “Today” show to discuss the book. Here’s an excerpt.

Tony La Russa definitely saw things that kept him up at night: changeups without change, sinkers lacking sink, curves refusing curve. Not to mention the time that Fassero, after being told to throw some garbage nowhere near the plate — bowl it, roll it, slice it, dice it, bounce it if he had to — had thrown it so up and so over that Garciaparra couldn’t help but lace it past second to tie the game in extra innings. For four months now, that vision had haunted La Russa, not what Fassero had done but what La Russa hadn’t done: hadn’t adequately prepared Fassero for the moment, leaving Fassero exposed.

The explanation for his sleeplessness was simple, maybe. When anybody does the same thing for as long as he had, going on a quarter century, he was bound to see things he couldn’t set aside no matter how hard he tried to rationalize. Another explanation was his own personality: intense, smoldering, a glowing object of glower. He barely smiled even when something wonderful happened, as if he were willing himself not to. Some thought he worked too hard, grinded away at it when he would have been better off forgetting it, took the bad things into the night when he should have slept. Even he knew he had gone too far, had made personal compromises he knew were wrong, but it wasn’t simply an occupation to him or even a preoccupation.

It was something he loved. And like other managers who have spent most of their lives around the game, he had an obsessive mind for it: no at-bat unsung, no pitch ever forgotten, no possibility of simply turning it all off at night. He retained more anecdotes — more memories of balls and strikes and beanballs and stolen signs and games won that should have been lost and games lost that should have been won — than any of the half-pound encyclopedias that came out like clockwork. His meticulous personality accounted only partly for his late-night visions. Maybe the very oddity of his chosen profession was also to blame. Maybe it was the fact that he couldn’t simply call an employee in when he had performed badly, couldn’t simply talk to him privately. With thousands of people watching, he instead had to walk out and fetch the poor soul as if he were a suicide-in-waiting, then take his weapon away from him because clearly he could no longer be trusted with it, might somehow do further harm than he already had. Or maybe it was all those hand gestures he performed six days a week and sometimes seven: the pantomime of wipes and swipes and scratches.

As much as his job tormented him, he knew that managing a baseball team was a wonderful way to spend a life. It could be thrilling when it went right: when you did something that pushed in a run here and there, when you set up a defense and the ball, often so recalcitrant, obediently played right into the hands of that defense. There was exceptional excitement in the fact that for all the preparation you did, and Tony La Russa was always preparing, the game could never be scripted. As much as he knew — and he had spent his life trying to know — things he never could have imagined still routinely happened, an odd fantastic play that even if it went against you still made you secretly smile in wonder. When the game did work right, hummed along with that perfect hum that every fan recognizes, La Russa would think, simply: “Beautiful. Just beautiful baseball.”

Excerpted from “Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy: Inside the Mind of a Manager,” by Buzz Bissinger and Tony La Russa. Copyright © 2005 by Buzz Bissinger and Tony La Russa. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.