Author interview: Molly Knight on the Los Angeles Dodgers
Molly Knight tells some juicy tales in "The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse" (Simon & Schuster), including that Yasiel Puig carried on an "on-off relationship with the daughter of a Dodgers minor-league instructor" and that the front office bungled relations with manager Don Mattingly by not publicly acknowledging that his 2014 contract had vested during the 2013 playoffs. I'd trade my Juan Uribe bobblehead to check out what Knight calls the "secret owner's bunker" located inside Dodger Stadium.
Knight didn't set out to write a behind-the-scenes book when she began covering the divorce proceedings between Frank and Jamie McCourt for ESPN. But not long after the franchise veered from dysfunction to deep pockets, the self-confessed Dodgers fan realized that this story had more plot twists than a soap opera: from bankruptcy to billionaires; the remarkable 42-8 skein; the rise of Cuban import Yasiel Puig from obscurity; the emergence of Clayton Kershaw as Sandy Koufax's heir apparent. Knight's access to myriad sources within the clubhouse and the front office - no easy feat in this era of protective publicists and hovering handlers - adds nuance to a summertime read that goes down as easily as a sudsy beer in the bleachers.
The East Coast-dominated publishing industry has long ignored West Coast baseball in favor of, primarily, the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. With Knight's effort, as well as Andy McCue's epic "Mover & Shaker: Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers & Baseball's Westward Expansion"> (University of Nebraska Press), readers can delve into two in-depth accounts from Chavez Ravine in two seasons. For those looking for a decided change of pace, there's "A Book of Walks," written by San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy (Wellstone Books).
LA Observed spoke to Molly Knight by phone last week. She will be making numerous appearances throughout Southern California to promote her book, including an afternoon talk at the Los Angeles Central Library on July 29. (This interview was transcribed, edited, and condensed.)
LA Observed: I gather that you're a Native Angelino. Where did you grow up?
Molly Knight: I'm a fifth generation Angelino. My paternal grandfather went to Beverly Hills High, my maternal grandfather went to Hollywood High, and my maternal grandmother went to Fairfax High. My parents met at USC and moved to Whittier. I grew up in Whittier and lived there until I went away to college [at Stanford]. After that I moved to New York and lived there for seven years. I came back to L.A. four years ago [in 2011] when ESPN sent me out here to cover the McCourt divorce. I spent the winter out here and realized that I can't do another New York winter. I never left.
LAO: How did you approach the McCourt divorce story?
MK: At the time I was basically a cub reporter. I had never done news before. The Dodgers weren't really on ESPN's radar at that point. They sent me out here because they knew that I knew a lot about the Dodgers because I grew up here. I grew up a fan. So, I talked them into letting me write a feature for ESPN The Magazine about it. We all thought the McCourts were going to settle, and it was going to be over. But as you know they never settled, and it kept getting crazier and crazier until the whole thing went nuclear.
I was filing two stories a day on ESPN.com. It was a crazy adrenaline rush because it was really high stakes. It was my first time ever writing on deadline. It was my first time ever having to do television and radio and talk about it on "SportsCenter." It was a lot of pressure and also a lot of fun.
LAO: When did you decide to write a book?
MK: I had gotten to know a lot of the guys on the team through the divorce reporting. During the bankruptcy, I would go to the stadium and ask the players how they felt about it and how it affected them. And, they were trying to gather information from me. They're like, "Are we getting paid this week? Here's my number. Text me if you hear anything." That's how I started developing relationships with the players. I was sharing information with them and helping them navigate it. They knew certain things that they told me off the record and that I kept off the record. They really respected that.
As time went on and the Dodgers emerged from bankruptcy, the players and everyone else in the organization -- the coaching staff and other employees -- went from being broke to being bought [in 2012] for the highest price in the history of sports and having Magic Johnson and [Guggenheim Partners CEO] Mark Walter as their owners. It was just this massive change. I remember walking into the locker-room during spring training in 2013, and a group of players were sitting around, and they were like, "Hey, we've been talking about it. You should write a book about this."
At first I was hesitant. I'd never written anything longer than 6,000 words before. The more I thought about it during the season, the more I was like, "Hmm, that's interesting." I asked the players, "If I write a book, will you cooperate?" Nearly all of them said yes. Everyone was super-supportive. I think it was because "Moneyball" [the movie] had just come out, and they were thinking that maybe Brad Pitt would play them.
LAO: Why did Mark Walter and his partners allow Frank McCourt to retain a co-ownership share of the property in and around Dodger Stadium?
MK: Mark Walter would not have made that deal unless he felt like he had to do in order to get the team. At the time of the sale, every newspaper was reporting that Guggenheim out-bid everyone by $700 million [to buy the Dodgers]. That was untrue, as I write in the book. Walter was shown a signed offer for $2 billion. So he had to go over that [with a reported bid of $2.15 billion] and still be tangentially related to [McCourt] in a business capacity.
That being said, I would be very surprised if they enter into some sort of development relationship with [McCourt]. Everybody who's ever worked with that guy has gotten sued and lived to regret it. I see the relationship as, the Dodgers are just paying him rent for the parking lot every year, which is how he has made his living in the first place.
LAO: You mention in passing that Guggenheim signed a lucrative deal with Time Warner for the TV rights to Dodger games. Will the money that the team receives [a reported $8.35 billion] trump the horrendous p.r. hit the organization has taken, with most people in Southern California still unable to tune into Vin Scully on TV?
MK: It's completely unacceptable that most fans can't watch the games. I get riled up about that. I don't know if it was that grossly overpriced or if this was just DirecTV wanting to say "F-U" to Time Warner for a whole bunch of reasons and this is the hill they're choosing to take a stand on. It's unfortunate, and the Dodgers haven't handled it well. They don't want to criticize the people who agreed to give them $8 billion. They've thrown up their hands like, "It's not our fault." Well, yes, it is your fault because you sold the rights to your games to these people and you should have figured out if it was going to be feasible and if the games were going to get on television.
The only two things that this ownership group has messed up have been the TV deal and the way they handled Don Mattingly's contract at the end of 2013. The reason why I didn't write about the TV debacle in the book was because, honestly, I thought it was going to be settled by now. In which case, it would be a waste of everyone's time [to read about it]. I still think it will get settled in the next year.
LAO: Your revelations about Yasiel Puig have set Twitter abuzz. Is he such a distraction in the clubhouse?
MK: He's definitely a distraction, and he sucks up a lot of the oxygen in that room. They're all sort of obsessed with talking about him: "This is what he did today, blah-blah-blah." The question is, does that matter? Does that impact the won-loss record? And, that's just so hard to quantify. The bottom line is, if he keeps performing at an all-star level, it doesn't matter that his teammates don't like him. If he leads them to championships, then it doesn't matter that he's not Mr. Congeniality.
When he came up, [general manager] Ned Colletti and [manager] Don Mattingly were on the verge of maybe getting fired. You had jobs at stake, you had big money on the line, and the Dodgers didn't have time to set boundaries and limits with Puig. They couldn't bench him when he was out of line because they needed him. Winning was the most important thing. That's a lot to put on a kid. Now he feels like the rules don't apply to him because that's the precedent that was set. You could see why that happened: he's phenomenal and fun to watch, and the fans love him. He's what baseball needs.
I really tried to present him fairly. The context for how he got here, and going from being a guy who no one knows to being the most talked about player in baseball in a matter of months, it's never going to happen again in the information age. I have a lot of empathy for that. He's sort of like a Hollywood child star. He's like Lindsay Lohan - so talented, but given so much, so fast, so young.
LAO: Do you think Puig will be playing for the Dodgers a year from now?
MK: Yeah, I think so. He's a great player and he's cheap. He's just kind of a jerk and kind of immature. If I were in charge of the Dodgers, I would do everything I could to make it work because his type of talent does not come along often. Baseball is full of people who have challenging personalities: Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson. Reggie Jackson was a jerk, but he was Mr. October.
I love watching Puig play, so I hope that he can harness his talent and use the criticism as motivation to prove people wrong. He needs to improve his work ethic -- start showing up early and preparing better -- because right now he's in the batter's box just reacting. He doesn't have an approach.
This is a really competent front office that has shown a willingness to cut ties with players when it's not working anymore, even when they have to eat money. They have [rookie-of-the-year candidate] Joc Pederson and [prospect] Corey Seager coming up. They can build marketing campaigns around those exciting young players.
LAO: Do you think Zack Greinke will remain with the Dodgers after the 2015 season?
MK: Honestly, I don't think anybody knows. I don't know if Zack's made up his mind yet. If the Dodgers don't sign him to an extension [during the season], I think he's going to opt out [of his contract and become a free agent]. That's a good thing. That means he's done well. That means he thinks he can get more money.
I can't really see Zack going to an American League team because he loves hitting. He loves the weather here. He's also a competitor -- he wants to win -- and he wants to be on a team with a smart front office. There's not many teams that fit the bill in what he's looking for, including potentially a huge contract. The Dodgers check all the boxes.
Greinke's my favorite player to cover. He's a guy who experienced social anxiety earlier in his career, and one of the great joys about watching him is that he really appears to be comfortable and coming into his essence. He's embraced the fact that he's this loveable weirdo. He's like, "This is me. I'm going to grow my hair out and wear a Samurai bandana in the locker-room, and I'm going to walk up [to the plate] to 'Careless Whisper' by Wham."
LAO: What's your opinion of the job that Don Mattingly has done?
MK: I've criticized Mattingly. His in-game management in 2013 was not good. But he's gotten better. I've been around the club every day and I see how he handles the crazy clash of egos. On that stuff he's done a phenomenal job. He's a former player so he has clout with the players. I think, for a manager, that's almost more important than the in-game stuff. If people had known what went on in the Dodgers locker-room and how he kept the team together, he would've won manager of the year. It was drama every day. It was too many egos, too many weirdos, too much testosterone, and he handled all that admirably. He alluded to it by saying the team was like the 1972 Oakland A's [a notoriously unruly bunch that nevertheless won the World Series].
What's impressed me is that he has shown this willingness to learn. He wants to get better. He's embracing the analytics stuff. I think he's the perfect manager for [president of baseball operations] Andrew Friedman and [general manager] Farhan Zaidi. He carries the clout of an old-school guy, but he has a curious mind. He's very progressive.
LAO: How would you compare/contrast Andrew Friedman and his predecessor, Ned Colletti?
MK: It's old school-new school, both about the whole scouts-versus-stats thing and their management style. Colletti is from Chicago and likes to throw his weight around: "I'm going to go in there and yell at somebody. I'm going to put people in their place and show them who's boss." There's some intimidation at work.
Most baseball players I've met put an incredible amount of pressure on themselves. It's a really hard game with a really long season. It's brutal when they're in a slump. A lot of these guys don't need to be screamed at. Some do: Puig needs someone in his face. But most of them need to relax. They need to be encouraged and have positivity. I think with people who are too emotional, it's not a good mix. Colletti's ruled by emotion. I just think the rah-rah emotional stuff is a much better fit for football than baseball.
In Colletti's defense, he was working under Frank McCourt. We would have a different narrative today if Colletti had been allowed to add CC Sabathia or Cliff Lee to the Dodgers staff. They might have won the World Series, and Colletti would still be the g.m. But McCourt said no.
Friedman is ruled by reason. He's an analytics guy. When he came in, there was a lot of distrust between the scouting side, the drafting side, and the front office. It was a bit of a mess. They've worked to rebuild the farm system, and they're loading up the system [with young prospects].
LAO: What do you think is the most surprising part of the book?
MK: The way that I ended up in Clayton Kershaw's house the day that he got the phone call about his new contract. That was the dumbest luck moment of my life. It just so happened that we planned this random day in January to meet [at Kershaw's off-season home in Dallas]. I got there, and then all of sudden the contract deal was happening. I thought he was going to kick me out of his house. But because of how he is, he said, "No, I made this commitment with you. I'm doing the interview." He doesn't let many people in, so I felt a lot of pressure to get it right.
LAO: Do you have plans for another book?
MK: That's sort of like asking a nine-month pregnant lady when she's going to have her next kid. I'll see how this process goes and how I recover afterwards. It's such a rewarding experience I probably will.
David Davis is the author of "Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku" (Univ. of Nebraska Press), coming October 1.
Photo credit: Stephen Dunn