Some Thing(s) I Read Today

Just one thing today. No NBA is making my weekly sports world so slow that I’m considering watching soccer — God help us all.

The passing of the era of Tony La Russa is not just the passing of his own era in which he finishes as the third-winningest manager in baseball history, with three World Series rings. It is also the passing of a certain era of baseball, the last of a certain kind. He started managing in 1979 at the age of 32. After each home game, owner Veeck would assemble his favorite baseball minds in the Bard’s Room of old Comiskey Park, and during wild arguments over the hit-and-run and the bunt and the pitchout, the cigarettes and booze flowed until the wee hours of the morning.

La Russa loved the lore of baseball. He was a romantic at heart, but the best thing about him is that he changed with the game. He still looked for ways to turn baseball on its head with positive results. He still managed every game as if it were the first game he ever managed so he would not get lazy, exhausting to contemplate, given he managed 5,097 games. He also had great respect for the work of the famed sabermetrician Bill James. Just as he also realized that no matter how many numbers you pour into a computer, there will never be a way to quantify the intangibles of heart and chemistry and desire that define the success or failure of all of us.

– Buzz Bissinger, “The Strange Genius of Tony La Russa”
The Daily Beast

I generally disagree with everything Buzz Bissinger thinks, does, and says, along with his general attitude towards people and things. That being said, I do enjoy reading what he has to say. Upon re-visiting “Three Nights in August” over the past month — Bissinger’s hagiography/flat-earth defense about Tony La Russa — I found that if I put my (numerous) factual disagreements aside, it is a fairly enjoyable and interesting book about the mind of one of baseball’s most interesting characters. I would recommend checking it out if you’re interested in how Tony La Russa’s wacky mind worked.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Some Thing(s) I Read Today

  1. Dan

    Agreed. Set aside Bissinger’s contempt for advanced stats and the people who advocate them and just enjoy the book. It is extremely well-written and a pleasure to read.

  2. “No NBA is making my weekly sports world so slow that I’m considering watching soccer…”

    Don’t succumb, Patrick! That way lies madness!

  3. By the way, having read George Will’s “Men At Work”, which spends eighty or ninety pages studying LaRussa and his staff around 1988 or 89, I’m now wondering whether LaRussa was one of those people who started out as a revolutionary and ended as a conservative/reactionary. (I’m thinking of Rutherford, who devised a newer more workable model of the atom in his 20s and 30s, but by his 50s was wasting his energy and everyone else’s time attempting to refute any advances beyond his own.)

    By Will’s account, LaRussa and his team were pioneering the application of statistics to on-field play. They were studying tendency charts for batters and pitchers, trying to figure how better to pitch to A, and how better to hit off B. They were moving fielders around based on spray diagrams (or their archaic equivalent). They were keeping track of how frequently decision C (sac bunt with man on first and one out) worked out.

    It’s like they were halfway to Sabremetrics… and never got over the hump. I can relate. When I was in elementary school I kept hearing about this mysterious thing they called ‘algebra’ that was being taught to kids my age out in California, but not in New York. I managed to learn that ‘algebra’ was what I needed to solve some problems that had been vexing me for years, but never a clue about how to do it. When sixth grade came, and for the third year in a row my teacher told me, “Maybe next year we’ll teach algebra”, I decided that I had to figure it out for myself.

    So, I sat down one weekend and invented linear algebra. I must be brilliant, right? Not so much, as it turns out. In seventh grade they finally got around to teaching us linear algebra, and it my system to a ‘T’. In ninth grade they advanced us to quadratic equations, and I was totally lost. Because it wasn’t ‘my’ system, I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, and to this day can’t solve a quadratic equation without a cheat sheet. With subsequent years of math the problem only worsened. Now, I never tried to tell anybody that more advanced forms of math were worthless or wrong, because I could SEE that they worked, I was just never able to work them myself.

    So, I feel a little sympathy for (what I imagine to be) LaRussa’s problem.

    • Patrick Flood

      I had a high school math teacher, an old Jesuit Priest, who would sing the quadratic formula and would always follow it by singing the recipe for a Big Mac: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun,” to point out that if we could memorize the jingle from a commercial that significantly predated my generation, we could memorize the quadratic formula via jingle. To this day, I cannot remember the quadratic formula; I can, however, sing the ingredients in a Big Mac.

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