Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life
By Michael Lewis. W.W. Norton. 96 pages. $12.95.
3 Nights in August
By Buzz Bissinger. Houghton Mifflin. 256 pages. $25.
Like many who have coached youth baseball teams, I have often wondered how the professionals do the job. How did they get their players to perform, to do what they are told.
Two recent books approach this question and produce thought-provoking if occasionally contradictory answers.
In Michael Lewis' Coach, Billy Fitzgerald, the teacher and taskmaster who coached the baseball team at Isidore Newman school, a private school Lewis attended in New Orleans, aims for the heads of his players.
"There are teachers with a rare ability to enter a child's mind," writes Lewis, author of Money Ball, "it's as if their ability to get there at all gives them the right to stay forever. I'd once had such a teacher."
Lewis' account of how "Coach Fitz" shaped him from an "inert" teenager into an energized young man is the stuff of school sports legend. At one point, Coach Fitz mocked him for taking a family skiing vacation rather than staying home and working out with the team. But Fitz also presented Lewis with a chance for a manly moment of glory. A surprised relief pitcher appearing in a big game, Lewis picked a kid off third, led the team to victory and soon was filled "with a sense of purpose."
"It was as if this baseball coach ... reached inside me, found a rusty switch marked 'Turn On Before Attempting To Use' and flipped it," Lewis says. His grades, which had been mediocre, improved. "It did not take me long to figure out how much better my life could be if I applied this new zeal acquired on the baseball field to the rest of it."
The story gains credence in my view when Lewis returns to his school as an adult, visits the coach, and finds that Fitz has no recollection of this transforming performance. To him, Lewis was one of many raw-boned youths who needed to be pushed, to be taught that privilege corrupts -- who needed to learn the importance of sacrifice in the name of a larger purpose, and of battling through easy excuses.
Lewis went back to his old school because his old coach was taking heat. Fitz' coaching style -- sliding practice on a hard field after a loss -- and his blunt talk to the players about their lack of commitment -- had ruffled some parents who complained to the school's headmaster. Some parents thought they were helping their children; others wanted more playing time for their kids.
Although Lewis and other alumni, including Indianapolis Colt quarterback Peyton Manning, credited Fitz with changing their lives, he was now being told to modify his behavior. "I can't get inside (their heads) anymore," Fitz told Lewis. "Every time I try, parents get in the way."
La Russa also tries to get in heads of his players, but in the major leagues, things are much more complicated. In 3 Nights in August, Buzz Bissinger describes the mind, mood and methods of La Russa, manager of St. Louis Cardinals, as his team battled its archrival Chicago Cubs during a pivotal three-game series during the 2003 season.
Bissinger, whose Friday Night Lights explored high school football culture in Texas, had unusual access to La Russa. He sat in on meetings with coaches and players, recorded La Russa's moves, and explained his thought processes. La Russa, in turn, reviewed the manuscript before publication.
What emerges from this cooperative effort is a view of La Russa as a manager who is intensely prepared for each game and expects his players to be as ready and as heady as he is. They should know the information on the "cheat sheets" that he keeps in his uniform pocket. These sheets detail pitching match-ups, and tendencies, showing, for example, that a good pitch to throw the Cubs Kenny Lofton with two strikes is a slider in on the hands. They should pay rapt attention during pre-game tape sessions, in which hours of game tape are distilled into bite-size chunks of videos. For the Cubs series, one set of videos showed what the Cubs sluggers had been hitting lately. Another set showed how the Cubs starting pitchers had worked against the Cardinals and other recent opponents. The third set showed pitchers who had succeeded against the Cubs.
This extreme emphasis on preparation stems from Paul Richards, the former Orioles manager who once told rookie manager La Russa, "There's a strategy for every situation, so start making decisions."
Camaraderie is not a big part of La Russa's managerial tool chest. During a game, he prefers to stand alone in his "foxhole" at one end of the dugout. After a loss, he eats alone, a vegetarian dining at a steak house. During the baseball season, he lives not with his family but in a residential hotel in St. Louis where, late at night, he reviews his notes on the last game, looking for an edge for the next.
La Russa also wants his players to "play the game right." That means accepting that baseball is primarily a game of firsts -- getting the first strike in an at bat, getting the first out in an inning, scoring the game's first run to gain momentum. It also means that he expects his players to commit wholeheartedly to the team -- a concept that he feels is at odds with baseball's economic climate, which rewards individual statistics. A player can "make a ridiculous living at three-quarters speed," La Russa says, but that doesn't get a World Series ring.
Not every player goes along with the boss. When La Russa managed the Oakland A's, he chastised Jose Canseco for taking wild swings. Canseco responded that home runs please the fans and he was, after all, a "performer, not a player."
Occasionally, the boss is wrong. On the third night of the Cubs series, the game was won by Kerry Robinson, an outfielder often in La Russa's doghouse. A few innings earlier, La Russa had seethed when Robinson failed to advance a runner, popping out instead of bunting. In the 9th, with game tied, Robinson shot a fastball over the fence for a Cardinal victory. The next season, he was traded to the Padres.
Managing requires a lot of preparation, an ability to motivate, and some luck. It's an occupation subject to second-guessing, even by other managers.
As a passenger on a bus carrying Gene Mauch, Sparky Anderson, Whitey Herzog and other legendary baseball brains back to a hotel from a 1979 World Series game, La Russa was amazed to hear the passionate critiques of moves made by the Orioles' Earl Weaver and the Pirates' Chuck Tanner. Tough job. Tough crowd.
In the end, these books seem to say that a successful manager of a high school baseball team wants his players to discover their souls, while the manager of a major league team wants to control them.
Rob Kasper is a Sun columnist and long-time coach of kids' sports teams.