10 Questions With Molly Knight About ‘The Best Team Money Can Buy’

bestteam-coverAs you’ve no doubt heard, Molly Knight‘s The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse comes out today, and I’m of course super biased on this, because Molly’s a friend, and Chad, Dustin, & I are all thanked in the index. (I’d say “sorry, Brim!” but he’s in China, and they don’t have internet there. Right? No? Oh.) That said, it’s a quick and very interesting read, and I found that even I, who had written about this team daily through the McCourt debacle and ensuing sale, learned some new and interesting tidbits. (Yes, like the Joaquin Benoit thing.)

So whether you think you know the intimate details of this particularly unique time in franchise history or not, it’s worth your time to get it. If you didn’t already think that Zack Greinke was the most fascinating and interesting man in baseball, you will after this. To dig into the process behind the book and answer some outstanding questions, I sent Molly 10 items for a Q&A:

When did you decide that this particular Dodgers era would be the focus of the book — and how much of the insanity dropped in your lap as a happy accident after that? How different is the final product from the original idea?

Well, originally my intent was to write about a championship team. I thought a book about a team that went from being in bankruptcy to winning the World Series in one year would make for a fantastic story. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. But I feel like I got something better, because it seems like all the best sports stories end on a devastating loss. And also most people can’t relate to storybook endings. Real life is way more interesting than a fairytale.

But to answer your question, I reported on the McCourt divorce and started building relationships with players and staff during that fiasco. And then when they were bought by the Guggenheim Group and traded for Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and signed Zack Greinke, some of the guys on the team approached me and said I should write a book about the team because they were going to win a championship. I’d never written a book before, so at first I was like, haha. Then the idea churned in my head over a few months and I couldn’t let it go.

I approached most of the guys in spring training and asked if they would cooperate if I wrote a book about them. Their reaction was overwhelmingly positive. It helped that Moneyball had just come out on DVD. I think they all thought Brad Pitt would play them in the movie.

What was the reaction from team executives/players when they learned you were doing this?

There wasn’t much of a reaction to be honest, because I think a lot of people say they are writing books and then either never do it, or they never hear about it after it’s published. So it’s like “Hey I’m writing a book on you guys,” and they’re like “Cool. Yeah, I saw Moneyball!” I think they knew I wanted them to win a World Series, because that would have helped sales. So in a way we all shared a common goal. I think once the front office realized that so many players were talking to me they sort of thought, “Hey, let’s sit down with this woman and see what she asks so that we can figure out what kind of book this is.”

But they were great. Some players wouldn’t talk to me, because they don’t do interviews. I tried to get Puig to talk to me a hundred different ways and he wouldn’t. He told me he would sit down and tell me everything in twenty years. I think that’s a pretty common stance for a Cuban players who have harrowing stories to tell about their escapes. So because I knew the book wasn’t going to have much of his voice I talked to everyone around him to find out what made him tick, their thoughts on how he had been treated unfairly, and to explain what the hell he was doing in certain situations (like the perceived Luis Gonzalez snub, etc.) It was very, very important to me that I present all sides to Puig, and anyone who reads this book will see that.

Hanley Ramirez told me he “doesn’t do sitdowns,” so I basically had to ask him one question a day for like weeks to build any kind of narrative. I’d already written an extensive piece on Matt Kemp and been to his house, so I was able to use that reporting. They were mostly indifferent.

Have you been surprised by just how much the public seems to think that you’ve painted Yasiel Puig as an evil super villain, when in fact the book reads more that he’s just a nuisance more than anything?

No. The Internet is basically evil, and information is complex topics are reduced to tweets and listicles. The reason I wrote a book is because I needed the space to delve into these incredibly complex characters. How would you describe Puig in a tweet? In an article? It’s impossible, and it does him a disservice. Because the real Puig isn’t a “bad kid” or a “good kid;” he’s way more interesting and three-dimensional than that.

I’ve been more upset by TV taking heads who clearly have not read my book but feel emboldened to hint that I don’t understand the clubhouse dynamic because of cultural differences. I’m trying not to be offended by their underestimation of the care and sensitivity I brought to this book. I am not an old white man desperately trying to hang on to The Old Way The Game Should Be Played. I love Puig’s bat flips. And given what is going on in the country right now, I’m acutely sensitive to the way young men of color are portrayed in many corners of the media. It’s a real problem, and I’m a bleeding heart.

I’d be shocked if anyone who actually reads my book comes away from it thinking I hate Puig. But it is unsurprising to me that people who have not and will not read my book will walk around acting as if they know what’s in it. I had one guy say he was going to put my book on Bit Torrent to make sure everyone could download it for free and I would make no money and die miserable and alone. I’ve been threatened by people who blame me (?) for the fact that Puig’s teammates have a hard time being around him. And then of course there’s the usual “you’re just a dumb bitch who knows nothing about baseball get back in the kitchen” comments, which every woman who writes about sports gets fairly regularly.

The day the Puig stuff leaked on Yahoo I had like 400-500 twitter mentions. I couldn’t deal so I gave my phone to my sister to handle it. She blocked everyone who was being abusive. But honestly the negativity hasn’t been that big of a bummer. I don’t look at it. I’ve never searched my name on the Internet, I don’t read comments on articles, and I’ve blocked the ten people who scream at me every day. 95% of it has been positive. It’s funny because Puig’s teammates would not have told me those stories if they didn’t want me to publish them. That’s how frustrated they were and are. But I’ve heard that since the stuff about his tardiness and lack of effort leaked that he’s been showing up early for batting practice. So maybe some good will come out of it.

The whole thing really isn’t that difficult. He doesn’t have to stop flipping bats and playing with flair. He just has to show up when everyone else shows up, and pay attention during games..And definitely not sit at his locker FaceTiming girls when pitchers are out there making warm-up pitches between innings. People got so fed up that they told me stuff. The idea that it’s somehow a cultural thing is hogwash. The hispanic and latin players have been just as frustrated with him as the white players, if not more so. But fixing it is pretty simple. It’s not like he’s a violent felon. He just has to clean up the things I mentioned above and he’ll be fine.

That being said, if his OPS goes back up over .900 again he could land a helicopter in right field during batting practice and no one could really say much.

How come there was no mention of the now-infamous decision to bench Puig for Andre Ethier in Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS against the Cardinals?

I did write about it, although maybe it was indirect. I wasn’t surprised at all that he was pulled. Yadier Molina give Puig a hard time and everyone knows it, including Puig. In 34 career playoff at-bats against the Cardinals, Puig is slashing .235/.297/.353 with 18 strikeouts. And to take it even further, his BABip is .500. Ordinarily I would say that’s a small sample size, except that Puig’s an emotional player, and he was an absolute wreck. I wrote about how during the NLCS the year before no one could find him in the middle of Game 2 because he was in the tunnel sobbing after striking out for the third time. The coaching staff didn’t want him out there.

I know fans were mad about it, but there’s so much going on behind the scenes that they don’t know about. I devoted two years of my life to following this team all over the country and I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t know, too. But Ethier had a pretty decent game–despite his base running gaffe. He saw 20 pitches, which I believe was the most of anyone, and walked twice. The coaching staff just felt that Puig wasn’t capable of putting together good at-bats because he was a mess. But to be fair, a lot of young players struggle in the playoffs, because they put so much pressure on themselves. Baseball is hard.

Come clean: you arriving at Clayton Kershaw‘s house for a pre-scheduled interview about 10 minutes before he signed his record deal is a nice narrative invented by your publisher, right? There’s no way that’s real. Right?

It absolutely went down the way I wrote it. I have the text messages to prove it!

Hating the manager is a sport unto itself, but Don Mattingly comes off pretty well in this book, far better than his public perception. Is it fair to say that he doesn’t receive enough credit for the job he’s done?

Absolutely. Anyone who spent any amount of time in that locker room in 2014 knows it was a trainwreck. He kept most of it out of the press. I believe the only time he ever addressed it was when the cameras caught him separating Puig and Kemp in the dugout in Colorado, but that sort of thing was happening behind closed doors regularly. I have absolutely been critical of Mattingly’s strategic deficiencies, especially in 2013, and I write about that extensively in the book. But that stuff is small potatoes to dealing with all the egos in that room on a daily basis, tap dancing for the press to protect those egos, and keeping ownership and your front office happy. Plus, he’s gotten better. And unlike, say, Mike Scioscia down in Anaheim, he’s shown a willingness to embrace advanced statistics, which means he has a chance to survive in this game.

Give us a directional hint: what’s the juiciest tidbit you wanted to include in the book but just couldn’t?

A nickname for someone. It has been turned into a verb.

Who was more disappointed that the Dodgers did not win a World Series in 2013 — you or Dodger fans, given what a nice bow that would have tied on the story?

Me, for sure. I grew up a fan, and also felt my livelihood was at stake. My book deal wasn’t done yet when they were eliminated, and I was convinced the offer I had would be pulled off the table. So basically I thought a year of my life (not to mention the money I had paid out of my own pocket to travel) had essentially been flushed down the drain.That was a rough, rough night. I was pretty inconsolable. God bless Dan Shulman and Orel Hershiser and Peter Pascarelli. They had been working the game for ESPN that night. They took me out afterward and got me hammered. I think I took it harder than most players on the team, actually.

Have you been in the clubhouse since the pre-release stories started coming out? If not, do you think certain players would have a problem seeing you or talking to you?

No. I left my job at ESPN to write this book, and I haven’t worked for them for over a year. My book is done. I have no reason to go into that clubhouse. But I have seen a few players for dinner or drinks, and received text messages from a half dozen additional current and former players. The feedback they’ve given me has been overwhelmingly positive. Everything I wrote was true. They’re hoping it will be something that sparks a conversation. And as I said, they knew I was writing a book, so they wouldn’t have told me this stuff if they didn’t want it to get out.

That being said, I know t least one player wants to fight me (not Puig, though he’s probably not thrilled with me either). And I think it’s pretty funny because I went easy on him in my book given what his current teammates and former teammates had told me about him. I actually thought they were being sort of petty, so I didn’t include a lot of their complaints. If he knew things that I know but didn’t write he might not want to fight me! There was also this idea floating around that there was a lone “snitch,” which made me laugh. I wrote this book with the help of dozens and dozens of sources. But I did take the use of the word snitch as validation, because that person wouldn’t have used that word if everything I wrote hadn’t been true.

I don’t think the player who has been the loudest in his displeasure of my book will actually try to fight me. For starters, I’m pretty small, so he’s got like a hundred and twenty pounds on me. Also, given the number of people who know us both, I’m a pretty easy person to find. He hasn’t like, shown up on my doorstep or in my voicemail, or slid into my DMs just yet. :)

Who will play Kershaw in the inevitable movie? Or Puig? A.J. Ellis plays himself, right? Can I play Mark Ellis? I’m also a nice guy who can’t really hit.

The kid who played Sunshine in Remember the Titans would play Kershaw. I would play Puig. The guy who played Landry in Friday Night Lights could play AJ, and you could play Mark Ellis.

About Mike Petriello

Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is MLB.com.