Is baseball a game? Not by this first-rate account of a battle of titans, in which a pampered star player insists that he’s a “performer” and the manager-hero employs the strategic skills of a warlord.
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, writes Vanity Fair contributing editor Bissinger, is “a baseball man” who proudly owns the appellation even though it “has become increasingly pejorative today because of the very stodginess it suggests.” There’s nothing stodgy about La Russa, even though he has revealed some very old-fashioned leanings against the use of performance-enhancing steroids and for winning performances by free agents who play their own stats-racking games against the better interests of the team. Bissinger’s account ranges widely over La Russa’s four decades in baseball: He started off as a player but, realizing he wasn’t star material, began to badger his managers to tell him their secrets and took up the trade while still in his 20s. The bulk of his story, though, is devoted to a three-game series between the Cards and their nemesis, the Chicago Cubs, in August 2003, as the Cubs were racing their way to a long-awaited bid for the national championship. Bissinger takes care to analyze La Russa’s decisions as they’re being made on the field, drawing on La Russa’s storied command of baseball statistics and history and his uncanny ability to match batters to pitchers, figure out opposing managers’ signals, and such. Throughout, La Russa takes on the lonely countenance of a knight errant battling forces beyond his control, especially the unwillingness of players to exert themselves; as Bissinger writes, “La Russa calculates that, for today’s players, winning is ‘third or fourth on their list behind making money and having security and all that other BS.’ ”
Even so, La Russa turns up results, as readers will discover—and, of course, he took the Cards to the World Series in 2004. A real treat for scholarly baseball fans, and a better management book than most on the business shelves.