Buzz Bissinger: A Savior for the City

More than two decades ago, Buzz Bissinger won a Pulitzer writing for the Inquirer, then published his masterpiece, Friday Night Lights. Now he’s rich, and famous. So why is he back at the Inky as a columnist — and why is he so mad?

It isn’t just large-scale injustice that bothers Buzz, though. When it comes to wrong and right, he has no sense of scale. He uses the same howitzer to go after casino moguls and Costco shoppers who hold him up in line. And he’s simply incapable of standing back and letting go. After Buzz wrote about Steve Wynn’s efforts as a Foxwoods spokesman in an Inky column in March — he said Wynn acted with “an utter lack of diplomacy and preparation” — the Vegas entrepreneur phoned him to object. Buzz called him a bully. Buzz accused him of picking on Italians and Jews. Buzz told him, “I don’t give a shit what you think!” Wynn told Buzz, “You’re a really angry man.”

Then there’s the matter of fellow writer Michael Lewis. “Buzz has a Michael Lewis obsession,” Ceisler confides. It isn’t hard to see why. In 2003, Lewis published a book, Moneyball, that stripped baseball of its soul and reduced it to cold, hard statistics — pitches thrown, ground-outs, on-base percentages. What was worse, Lewis turned the familiar Buzz paradigm on its head: In Moneyball, those who cling to tradition are hidebound hicks; the real heroes are the analysts, the “sabermetricians” unswayed by matters of the heart. This made Buzz apoplectic. Ceisler tells about a recent meeting at which the Philadelphia Film Society board — he and Buzz are both members — was assembling a slate of movies nominated for Academy Awards. Buzz left the room momentarily, and while he was gone, the group agreed to torment him. Upon his return, “Somebody says, ‘Well, what should we show next?’” Ceisler recalls. “And we all said, ‘The Blind Side!’” — the movie made from another Michael Lewis book that won Sandra Bullock her Oscar. “Buzz just went off,” Ceisler says in awe.

In 2005, Buzz came out with a baseball book of his own: Three Nights in August, a painstaking reenactment of the thought processes of old-school St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa during a stand against the Chicago Cubs. Buzz insists he didn’t write it to refute Moneyball, but it’s hard to read it any other way. Those Yankees games with Dad bleed all over the pages:

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. …

Buzz followed Three Nights up with a long piece in the New York Times Magazine sports quarterly accusing Cubs management of hurrying pitcher Kerry Wood along instead of gradually building him up in the minors. It had a Bissinger tale’s familiar hero (loyal, eager-to-please player), villain (greedy front office), and nostalgia for the old days. It also had significant problems, as a blizzard of bloggers gleefully pointed out by running the numbers to prove that pitchers today spend more time in the minors than they used to, and pitch fewer innings once brought up. Buzz’s story, sports blog declared, was “the exact opposite of truth.”

It was Buzz’s first real taste of the vengeance of the Internet.