I’m a fan of authors.
This is nothing new, and actually has little to do with my career as, eh, an author. Truth is, dating back to my childhood I’ve always been fascinated by books, and the process, and taking enormous loads of information and piecing it all together into 300-or-so pages. It struck me as really hard yet really rewarding; nightmarish but euphoric. I’ve often equated the process to receiving a really awesome back scratch from someone with sharp fingernails. It’s painful as hell, but the sensations leave you soaring.
Hence, today’s Quaz.
Molly Knight is a writer. A prolific and explosive one. Her work for ESPN on the whole Frank McCourt-Dodgers-divorce-weirdness thing routinely soared from the page/screen, and also led her to writing The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse. Her debut book hit the market last week, and it’s a detailed, riveting inside look at baseball’s most fascinating franchise.
Molly Knight, welcome to the sports author’s club. You’re Quaz No. 216 …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Molly, I’m gonna be sorta lame and start with this: Why a book about the modern-day Dodgers? I guess what I mean is, they haven’t won anything, they’re somewhat disappointing, some of their best players don’t seem overly demonstrative (of course, others do). So … why? When did you come up with the idea? What was the thinking behind it?
MOLLY KNIGHT: I grew up a Dodger fan in Los Angeles and was living in New York when the McCourts (the Dodgers former owners) began their divorce. I had been working for ESPN for a few years and I told my editors that because the McCourts were insane, the situation had the chance to go nuclear and become front page news. My bosses knew I had grown up a Dodger fan and was always pitching Dodger stories about Matt Kemp, so at first they kind of waved their hand at me like, “Yeah, yeah, another Dodger pitch from Molly.” But as soon as word leaked that the McCourts had hired a Russian physicist to think blue, I convinced my bosses to let me write 800 words on it. And then as it kept spiraling out of control and it became clear how much they had looted the Dodgers piggy bank for their own personal use while they cut spending on player salary, it became like this War of The Roses story and took on this whole other life. and my word allotment for the ESPN The Magazine story got longer and longer. I think it finally ran at like 6,000 words or something—my longest story ever at that point. I was 26 or 27, and just thrilled to have a piece that long run in a national magazine. Then ESPN sent me out to LA to cover the trial for the website. Everyone thought the McCourts would settle their divorce and not actually go to trial, though.
I remember flying out and thinking that I would have to turn around and fly right back. But they hated each other at that point too much to be rational. So the trial started and I was off and running. It was totally exhilarating to file stories every day—sometimes two or three a day—because I was used to spending weeks or months on longer form magazine stories. I think I must have written 100 stories on those two people and done twice as many radio hits. Then when it became clear that McCourt was going to be forced to sell the team, I basically moved in with my sister in West Hollywood and continued reporting. I got tired of paying New York rent when I wasn’t there—and I needed a change of scenery for a variety of personal reasons. So in March, 2011 I basically sent for my stuff and continued covering all the craziness around McCourt. Then when he sold the team for $2 billion to this really interesting guy from Chicago, I became even more intrigued. But it wasn’t until the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke, honestly, that I thought about writing a book. And it was because a few Dodger players who knew me texted and said “Shit. We were bankrupt and now we have Greinke and Kershaw and we’re going to win a title. You should write a book.” That’s what happened.
J.P.: The book opens with you in Clayton Kershaw’s home, and a very cool scene of him getting a huge contract. I kinda feel like access like that is rare nowadays; like very few reporters are being invited into the homes of stars. So how did that happen? How did you build that sort of trust with Clayton? And what’s he like as a guy to cover?
M.K.: Clayton is a wonderful person—the kind of man you would want your sister or your daughter to marry. Actually, a player joked with me the other day that he would let Clayton marry his wife. But he is also very guarded and closed off … especially to the media. It helped a little that I was around since when he got called up, so I was a familiar face. But honestly it took years to build his trust, and even then, I think he only really started to trust me after he saw guys he looked up to—guys like Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker and A.J. Ellis and Michael Young—were always chatting with me. Then I think he realized he could tell me things off the record that I would not report. He and I are very similar in a lot of ways—except for the whole best pitcher in the world thing—and I’m wondering if the reader picks up on that. We both had similar upbringings, and we both have dealt with anxiety and control issues. I know how he is wired because I am wired similarly, and sometimes it’s stressful for me to watch him pitch because I know how hard he is on himself.
When you’re writing a book about real people and thinking about them all day long it’s easy to develop emotional attachments to those you feel are kind and fundamentally enhance our planet. I almost threw up last year during Game 1 in the NLDS when he imploded. Partly because I wanted my book to have a championship ending, but also because I wanted so badly for him to put the previous year’s playoff debacle behind him. I felt awful for him; it was like watching someone else’s nightmare unfold in real time.
My being at his house when he signed his contract extension was one of the luckier things that has happened to me in this life, and a total fluke that I explain in the book. We just happened to have our interview set up for that day, and because he’s such a stand-up person he didn’t blow me off even though, literally, his agent called with the news roughly three minutes after I walked in the door. I guess I would call him a friend, in that I have grown to care about him as a person, but I don’t, like, go out for beers with him like I do with some of the other guys. He’s a new dad. I text him or e-mail him when I have a question about something I’m writing, and he is always gracious and tries to help. But it took a long time to build that relationship. He is a fantastic human and I’m honored to know him.
J.P.: Molly, I’m very big into career paths, but for the love of God I can’t really grasp yours. I see this (Molly Knight has written about baseball for ESPN The Magazine for the past eight seasons. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Glamour, and Variety. She lives in Los Angeles) everywhere, but I wanna know how this happened for you. Where are you from? When did you get the writing bug? Why baseball?
M.K.: I grew up in the suburbs of LA and went to college in the Bay area. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I earned a degree in biology, then changed my mind and moved to New York to write with no experience whatsoever, $300, and license from the National Bartenders School in Redwood City. To support myself while I sorted it out, I poured drinks and waited tables all over lower Manhattan for years while I wrote for free, sent clips everywhere, took any internship I could, before finally getting a shot to freelance at ESPN. I was very broke for a long time. I remember a month when I was 23 where I had no money in my checking account and my credit card was at its $2,000 limit and I could not really afford food so I just went to like, every PR-sponsored event there was just to eat. I’d get a press release for some violent video game that looked absolutely awful but I would go to the damn party because there would be food and beer. But I was 23 and having the time of my life so I didn’t care. I was fortunate enough to stop freelancing for places that never paid or paid five months after the fact, when ESPN started giving me more and more work. I supplemented that income with with bartending and waitressing, until they put me on contract in 2008. While I didn’t grow up dreaming of working for ESPN it turned out to be a dream job. I have always loved sports, and from the time I was 6 or 7 I would rattle off baseball players’ stats to anyone who would listen. I had a blast for the seven or so years I worked for them.
J.P.: You were with the Dodgers for the rise of Yasiel Puig. I was a Met fan when Dwight Gooden first came up, and it was just electric. And I always felt people outside of New York didn’t quite get the magnitude. Maybe it’s that way with Puig. So can you explain, as fully as possible, what it was like to behold his rise?
M.K.: It was, in a word, insane. He basically had the best rookie month of anyone since Joe DiMaggio, which was made even crazier by the fact that he had never heard of Joe DiMaggio. This is a guy who stood in front of a water cooler in spring training in total awe that Gatorade could be blue. He had only ever seen it in yellow. His month would have been bananas by any standard, but he was joining a team that was a) in last place and b) had just sold for $2 billion a year earlier and was supposed to be on the fast track to the World Series. The Dodgers not only had a bad record when he was called up, they were so wrecked by injuries that they were unwatchable. Five of the eight guys who started alongside Puig for his first game are no longer in the Majors. Don Mattingly was about to get fired. It was awful.
And then this kid comes up to the Big Leagues and not only does he hit the snot out of the ball but he plays the game like he’s got bumble bees in his pants. Baseball can be dull, but not with him. He made even routine plays seem exciting. And of course he came with a swagger that pissed everyone off because rookies are not supposed to have personalities. It took him a week to get hit in the face and incite a riot with the Diamondbacks.
The Dodgers went from being unwatchable to the most talked about team in baseball because of Puig. And the new owners whi were so desperate for stars to light up their new television network had a superstar. So they set about building their marketing campaign around a volatile kid who grew up in a country isolated from the rest of the world who overnight became a multimillionaire A-list athlete in Los Angeles who was worshiped and had access to everything. In a way it felt like what happens to Hollywood child stars. Too much, too soon. He wasn’t given rules or boundaries because he saved everyone’s job. And now no one can get him to listen to anything they say because they were bad parents in the beginning.
J.P.: I saw in one bio where you’re identified as a “lifelong Dodgers fan.” Do you still consider yourself a Dodgers fan? And do you feel like it’s OK for sports journalists to having rooting interests? Or a conflict? Or neither/both/all of the above?
M.K.: I grew up a diehard fan, and I don’t think I could have written this book without that context. Like if I went to go write a Yankee book I could read about their history but I wouldn’t have lived it. That being said, it’s not a if I can’t be critical of the team. When Frank McCourt ran the Dodgers into the ground and took the team into bankruptcy it felt like he was spitting on the graves of my ancestors. He had to go, and as it became clear just how recklessly he was looting the franchise it only motivated me to report harder. It actually felt like important work; a group of us journalists covering him published the truth about his business dealings and kept hammering away until he was forced to sell.
I go back and forth. I want them to win but I don’t cheer in the press box. Sometimes, when they’re acting like jerks, I take a break from watching. That being said I’m a fifth generation Angeleno. I would like for my grandmother and my great aunts to see the Dodgers win another title in my lifetime, absolutely. I want some of the players I grew to really care about to win rings. They’re just human.
J.P.: I started covering baseball in the mid-1990s, when women were finally welcomed into the clubhouse, but there were still some dinosaur players who behaved like pigs. I’m wondering what it’s like now, in 2015, for you. Any incidents? Awkwardness? Or are all good?
M.K.: When I started out in locker rooms eight years ago it was very different than it is now. Some players were 10 to 15 years older than me, and it just seemed like there were a lot more red-asses, and guys who would try to embarrass me or put me in my place. When I started out I was just doing some menial, front-of-the-book stuff stuff for ESPN The Magazine, like getting answers for holiday gift guides or asking, “What’s in your wallet?” Most guys were and are respectful, but I would get the guys who would list their favorite sex toys when I asked what was on their holiday shopping list. And I’d write down the names of products I’d never heard of and they would all laugh.
The first baseball player I ever interviewed in a locker room was actually the worst. He wouldn’t even answer any of my questions; he just wanted to know what hotel I was staying in that night. I was worried that they were all going to be like that, but I just happened to run into the worst one.
But now it’s pretty much awesome. My first year in the locker room was the first year of a huge crop of Dodger rookies—Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney, Russell Martin. And while I’m not friends with all of those guys—and we haven’t always gotten along—none of them have ever been disrespectful, or dismissed me for being a woman, ever. So that was huge.
I don’t date professional athletes. I’m typically attracted to nerdy intellectuals, artists, writers, etc. From my perspective, if you are a female sports reporter who is serious about her career and reputation then you better be damn sure you are going to marry or enter into longterm domestic partnership with an athlete you date, because if you sleep with a guy on a team, literally everyone in the league will know about it within a week. I have seen it happen. Doesn’t matter if it’s the 25th guy on the worst team in the league. Everyone—from players to coaches to clubbies—will know. Baseball players are so bored and they have nothing but time on their hands to gossip about anything and everyone they can.
J.P.: I’ve written a bunch of books, but never one where I’ve embedded myself with a team. So, soup to nuts, what was your process? Like, how’d you handle notes? Interviews? Did you write as you went along or at the end? Did you find it awful, wonderful?
M.K.: Oh gosh. Well, it was awful and wonderful and terrifying and exciting and nerve-wracking all at once. I went to most games, so I took notes in my notebook every day. And then whenever I would freak out that my book was going to suck I would literally write down a list of all the things that I had learned so far that were funny/interesting/sad/ridiculous to reassure myself that even if my writing was awful that i had stuff that Dodger fans would find interesting. I taped a most of my interviews on an app on my iPhone, and there was a hellish moment during one of those iPhone updates where my phone restored itself to factory settings and I thought I had lost everything and I like, crawled to the Apple store and was sitting on the floor in there with no appointment waiting for someone to help me. I don’t really remember much about it except that I was very calm and sort of out-of-body and I explained to the boy genius helping me that if he couldn’t bring my phone back to life it was not his fault but my life would basically be over. The poor guy looked like he also wanted to throw up. But he fixed it and saved the day! After that I bought a back-up drive, and every single day I would save my work to my back-up drive and also e-mail whatever I had just written to myself to be safe.
I’d never written a book before, so I just started with 500 words a day. Then I bumped up to 1,000. The editing process was insane, because I only had eleven months to write and edit the thing. Originally the book was going to come out on Opening Day 2015 but then after the 2014 season ended the Dodgers fired their general manager and traded and ditched a bunch of my main characters. So I had to keep writing. Ultimately I decided to end the book on Opening Day with Matt Kemp facing Clayton Kershaw as a member of the Padres because it felt like everything had come full circle. Also, I was always so struck by how much Kemp and Kershaw had in common—as far as background—but they couldn’t be more different had no real relationship in all the years they were teammates. I had no idea how I would end this book but then when that happened it was like, that’s it. We sort of end on a new beginning. And it’s strange and sad and unknown but also hopeful, I think.
J.P.: I’m fascinated by the little things with the book process. You named your book, “The Best Team Money Can Buy”—which is also the title of a 1978 bio of the New York Yankees. There also, “The Worst Team Money Can Buy,” about the mid-90s Mets. I’m not criticizing you. Hell, my Showtime Laker book is called, eh, “Showtime.” But how did you decide on the title? Do you have any say? Do you like it?
M.K.: That’s a great question. When I pitched this book, the working title was “The Best Team Money Could Buy,” with the idea that it was a placeholder until I would come up with something better. But the problem with coming up with the title of a baseball book is everything is so overdone and cliched. Try it. Anything dramatic with the word “Field” or “Game” or “Ball” is done in headlines every day. As time went on, I never did figure out anything better—and I actually started to like the title because it’s hopeful and also sort of smart-ass’y, which is maybe how I would describe myself. The real bitch was the subtitle, let me tell you. I think naming my children will be easier. I wanted a verb that described up-and-down seasons, but I did not want to use the word “rollercoaster” because it’s cliche. It had like eight different subtitles. For a while it was “the strange saga of the LA Dodgers” which I hated because it was vague and also sounded too negative—which I don’t think the book is, even though there are parts that are dramatic. My editor and I debated verbs for months, before deciding on “wild” at the last minute. I like that word and use it a lot in my everyday life, and it was important for the title to use language I use. “Struggle” balanced it out. I have a lot of friends in the Bay Area who thought that my title was literal, and were like “Well why are you calling the Dodgers the best team? Didn’t the Giants just win?” So “Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse” helps them realize it’s sort of tongue-in-cheek.
J.P.: What’s the greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
M.K.: Greatest: the day I got my finished book in the mail. Lowest: working for a men’s magazine and having to cull through the photos women would send in of themselves in various states of undress hoping to be selected for a “hot date” front of the book section. I was to call these women, many of them who were clearly damaged, and ask them to tell me things like, say, their wildest sex stories. I would literally go into a storage closet where there was a phone and act like I was calling them but put my hand on the dial tone lever. I was not good at that job and I did not last long. But being good at that job would have made me a person with no conscience so it evens out.
J.P.: We both wrote books involving Magic Johnson. Big difference—he never talked to me for mine. What’s your take on Magic Johnson, baseball team owner? Because I don’t 100 percent buy it. I think he’s smart, charismatic, popular. But do I believe he has much say in running the franchise? No. Am I off?
M.K.: He is smart and charismatic but he knows nothing about baseball. The good thing about Magic, though, is he seems smart enough to know there’s a lot he doesn’t know. He leaves the baseball stuff to the baseball people. He’s not one of those guys who will weigh in on everything regardless of his grasp on the subject, which I really respect. I didn’t get a sit-down interview with him for my book, but I also didn’t ask for one because he really isn’t that involved in the day-to-day running of the franchise. That being said he’s a freakishly competitive person who really wants to win everything he puts his name on. Some people don’t think he has much skin in the game here, but he put in, like $50 million of his own money into the team. By comparison, I think I read that Jay-Z only put $1 million into the Brooklyn Nets. So, yes, he wants the Dodgers to do well.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MOLLY KNIGHT:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Roxette, Justin Wayne, Mark Ellis, Babyface, Einstein Bros Bagels, Josh Beckett, Los Angeles Times, Roger Angell, Marla Maples, Halle Berry, The Fonz, “Say Anything”: This is really hard–but here goes: Mark Ellis, Los Angeles Times, Roger Angell, Roxette, Halle Berry, Babyface, Einstein Bros Bagels, Josh Beckett, Say Anything— not my jam, The Fonz—Travolta was the hotter version of this in Grease, I don’t know who Marla Maples or Justin Wayne are.
• What’s the worst sentence you’ve ever written?: Oh, God. So many. Um. My editor would probably say the sentence I wrote where I compared Puig to a peacock and said that the dandruff from his feathers seemed to be rubbing off on the rest of the team. My editor is a very understated, even-keeled guy but I think he actually shrieked when he read it and he definitely crossed it out with exclamation points. It did not make the book. We never spoke of it again.
• We both live in California. I’m despondent about the drought. What the hell are we gonna do?: I don’t know. I see all these jerks in my neighborhood who run their sprinklers all day and I want to scream. The grass in front of our apartment building is dead and it looks so sad and depressing and I was going to bitch to my landlord about it because it’s the only dead grass on our block but given the drought we’re in I’m sort of going to treat it as a badge of honor. But more practically? The only way we are going to get people to start making better decisions to help save our planet is to hit them in their wallets. It would be great if those parking enforcement people who patrol the streets of West Hollywood every day also ticketed people who let their sprinklers run in to the gutter. We need to fine households that use the most water. We should also say that like, cities that start with the letters A-L can only water on Monday/Wednesday/Friday and M-Z can only water on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. No one can water Sunday (or whatever day makes sense). And then we ticket the hell out of everyone who breaks these rules.
• How’d you land the name Molly?: I think my parents just liked it. But they thought I was a boy until I was born and were going to name me Michael.
• Three memories from your senior prom?: 1. We had our senior prom at the Disneyland hotel and 50 of us stayed in this suite that was the entire top floor of the hotel. It had a sauna and a gazebo and was so fun and we had a blast. My date was fantastic and there was no drama whatsoever; 2. Being on prom court with a bunch of other dorks, and being really glad my friend Kristi won prom queen because doing one of those wedding spotlight dances would have caused me to have a panic attack. I was not exactly the most confident teenager; 3. Not getting in trouble. After my junior prom I did not come home until 11 am the next day and got grounded for, like, six months. But it was totally not my fault.
• Five reasons one should attend Stanford over Harvard: 1. Weather; 2. Weather; 3. Weather; 4. Football; 5. Weather
• Five greatest sports journalists of your lifetime?: Could never pick five.
• Can I borrow $5.65?: Sure.