An Interview with Sports Writer Molly Knight

Near the beginning of the 2015 baseball season, sports writer and New York Times bestselling author Molly Knight had an online conversation with Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy.  A sports writer chatting with an athlete about sports is pretty standard stuff, but this particular exchange was special, because it was the athlete asking the questions. And it piqued the interest of a mob of fascinated Twitter onlookers.

It started with this Tweet from Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32), which he addressed to Molly Knight (@Molly_Knight).

@BMcCarthy: “When do you know when to talk to a player?”

@Molly_Knight: “Wait until they have pants on.” And then, as an aside: “First baseball player I ever interviewed only wanted to know what hotel I was staying at.”

And thus began the type of back-and-forth that you rarely see in any public online forum: a measured discussion between two people who function in a framework where they are typically antagonists. Knight and McCarthy spoke about the dynamic between player and writer—that high-wire act of getting to the fundamental truth about an interview subject without simultaneously revealing too much and screwing them over. McCarthy got into gender politics. He asked Knight questions about her experience as a female reporter in a field that is not only dominated by male reporters, but in and around actual professional baseball fields that are cluttered with some of the world’s most dominant types of men. Knight and McCarthy answered each other candidly and with compassion over the course of 90 minutes.

I happened to be on Twitter that night, reading about baseball. (Some people do yoga to relax. I read rumors about the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation.) It was the first time I’d ever heard of Molly Knight and her book, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse.

Knight has been a Dodgers fan since she was a kid, and she’s been writing about sports for ESPN magazine for nearly a decade. But a couple years ago, she realized there was something special about the story of the Dodgers.  The franchise—embattled by its almost cartoonishly evil former owner, Frank McCourt—began to emerge as one of the best resurrection stories in sports. The team went from bankruptcy to being sold in the most expensive deal in sports history. Its payroll ballooned to nearly 300 million, heads and shoulders above every other team in the league. They had Clayton Kershaw, one of the best pitchers on the planet. Former NBA star Magic Johnson is partial owner. And Knight tracks the whole operatic tale in her meticulously reported portrait of the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers, which came out in paperback last week.

We met for brunch a few months ago in West Hollywood. While we spoke, I tried my best to suppress my longtime love of Dodgers rivals, the San Diego Padres. When it inevitably came to the surface, Knight was as gracious with me as she was that night with Brandon McCarthy.  

—Joe Chandler

THE BELIEVER: The Dodgers went through this wild ownership saga with Frank McCourt. Fans know about it, but can you break it down for those out there who are just learning about this now?

MOLLY KNIGHT:  Sure. So all sports owners are rich white guys. They’re very, very, very, VERY rich.  The top of the one-percent. Some of them do suspect things, but they rarely get called out or thrown out over those things. But what made McCourt get caught, and ousted, was that he was essentially using the team as his own personal ATM.  The Dodgers were leading the league in attendance every year… And he was taking that money and buying houses for himself. He was taking out loans against future season tickets. It got to the point where he could no longer afford to pay his players! So he had to file for bankruptcy. That’s how this book came about—ESPN sent me to LA to cover that mess. McCourt and his wife [who was a co-owner of the team] got divorced, and he refused to pay her off because he thought the Dodgers were his exclusively.  I was going from the courthouse downtown to the clubhouse every day, back and forth. And the players were asking me, ‘Do you know what’s happening with our paychecks? Are our checks going to clear?’ Stadium ushers’ checks were bouncing. It was insane.

BLVR: Players were asking you about it because you were covering the story?

MK: They were asking because this had never happened before. Everyone assumed that because this was major league baseball, someone was going to guarantee their checks. But no one did. It was unprecedented. And McCourt thought nothing of it!  He loved litigation so he didn’t think anything of taking this civic treasure into bankruptcy and becoming a national embarrassment. He wasn’t at all embarrassed by that. He thought of the Dodgers as his property, versus the way he should have, which is as the steward of a civic property. The Dodgers belong to a city. And they belong to a collective—Major League Baseball. You can’t just run one of the flagship franchises into the ground like that and have it not effect other teams. Because teams split revenue: the rich teams share their money with the poor teams. So when the players started asking me about it, that’s how I developed relationships with them. I had information that they wanted.

BLVR: That’s a prime position to be in.

MK: Normally the reporter/athlete dynamic goes like this: the reporters in the gutter and the athletes in the penthouse. But when you have something they want, it becomes more of a give and take. More of a “Can we go get a drink tonight? I need to know what’s happening.” Because players don’t really care about the owners being jerks, so long as they’re getting paid. They didn’t care about McCourt being cheap until their paychecks were threatened. Then they were like, “Okay, whoa.”

BLVR: So that was the moment when you decided to write the book?

MK: People wondered if I would write a book about the McCourts, but I didn’t want to write a “there’s no hope” kind of story. This was going on when the economy was collapsing. McCourt’s divorce began in the fall of 2009. There was a climate in the US of people being very frustrated with the super-rich. And as much as I was appalled by what the McCourts were doing, I didn’t want to write a negative book, because that’s not actually that interesting.  So as soon as The Dodgers were bought out of bankruptcy—for 2.15 billion dollars—and they started adding all these superstars to the roster, it became clear they were poised to be a powerhouse within one year. That’s a far more interesting story.

BLVR:  You also got a little lucky. There was the new ownership. They clinched the Western Division title. There was the amazing story of the rookie Yasiel Puig, who’d defected from Cuba the year before only to come to Los Angeles and sign a seven-year, 42-million dollar contract. There were two brawls.

MK: It was so lucky. During 2013 I still had a full time job at ESPN. I was doing other stories—football stories, basketball stories, baseball stuff… But I would spend every day I could in that Dodgers locker room. I was a crazy person that year, working eighty hour weeks, filing stories from stairwells, traveling with the Dodgers.  It really was an amazingly interesting season to write about. Instead of writing a book proposal and then getting an advance, I just wrote a list of all the crazy and sad and funny and dramatic things that had happened. I emailed that list to my literary agent and he printed it up, physically walked it into different publishing houses and let people read the printout. We sold it to Simon and Schuster, to an editor who loved Don Mattingly. He asked me if I was okay with portraying the Dodgers—a team I’d been a fan of since I was a kid—in unflattering ways. I told him that I was comfortable with that, because people are complex. No one is 100% or 100% evil.

BLVR: Because the book could have been, “Here are the heroes of the Dodgers…”

MK: Right. When I first wrote the book there was one character who just didn’t work.  It felt like he was negative and petulant and whiney. He wasn’t interesting. I thought, “Something here is missing.” So I spent a weekend reading about his past, and trying to put myself in his shoes. Eventually he made it into the book. And after it came out, I got a text message from his mother.  She said, “I wanted to thank you for how fair you were to my son.” It was greatest text message I’ve ever received. There’s no greater compliment then for a mother to say, “You know who my child is.”

BLVR: This could have easily been a book about Yasiel Puig. But I know you didn’t want the book to be exclusively about him, even though he has such an interesting story. How old was Puig when he was called up to the majors?

MK: Twenty-two years old. He’d escaped Cuba by boat. He was smuggled into the United States by a Mexican drug cartel. It’s a complex story. When Puig came up, there were people who were mad at him for all the wrong reasons. They felt he represented a change to baseball – the bad kind. There are those who want baseball to be exactly the same as it was 100 years ago. But Puig played with flair. He flipped his bat in excitement. And there were these old white male columnists shaking their fists at him, and there were certain fringe elements in certain fan bases that were pretty racist towards him. I thought, “Screw this. I’m going to write the truth about this kid. I’m going to defend him.” I love the bat flips. I love it. I love him for playing with emotion. People get mad at me when I compare him to Lindsay Lohan, but I make the comparison out of love because I love Lindsay Lohan. I think she is the most talented actress of her generation. The stuff she did as a youngster is so great. She came from a very unstable beginning. She obviously did not have “proper” rules or boundaries set for her. And on top of that, she was the household breadwinner. It was backwards. Now she’s troubled. Of course she’s troubled!

BLVR: The dedication of your book reads, ‘To all who all the women who fought to be allowed to report from locker rooms. Without them I would not exist. ” Where do you think things stand now for female reporters?

MK: Right now in the US, we are moving towards accepting different roles for women and men. In my work, I’ve never felt disrespected for being a woman. With certain players, maybe we don’t click, maybe we don’t have a lot to say to one another, but I’ve never had the impression that a player is thinking, “Ohhhh shit. There’s that woman again.” I have knowledge of the game. I am respectful. I won’t walk up to a player while they’re changing their clothes and put a tape recorder in their face before they’ve had the chance to put on their underwear. It’s about human decency.

But it’s unfortunate that more women don’t go into sports reporting because as a woman, I do get different stuff than the male reporters do. These players are around each other eight months of the year, every day all day, and it’s just… Dudes. So when I’m there, sometimes they unload. They talk about what’s bothering them. I had a very famous player text me and say, “There’s a lot of pressure right now. I miss my family. Alcohol gets involved.”

BLVR: And you think that if you were a male reporter, it would be different?

MK: Maybe. News outlets should have people from all different walks of life. All ages, all races. Because you never know what variable a player is going to respond to.

BLVR: Are things changing within the structure of the MLB? Are there more opportunities within ownership and management groups for women?

MK: Farhan Zaidi the GM of the Dodgers [a Canadian-American of Pakistani descent] is more fired up about the lack of women in front offices than I am. I think I’ve sort of accepted it, and been demoralized by it. But he’s worked in other sectors. His thought is that it’s insane to be sitting in a boardroom with no women. It’s jarring.  He wants to hire the best candidates. He has the same idea as Warren Buffett—why are we only pulling from half the candidates?

BLVR: Has this book caused you to burn any bridges?

MK: There are employees and some players who are mad about the book, sure. But the players who are mad about it have not read the book, and I doubt that they will. I was so careful to be as fair as I could. And the types of people I would like to maintain relationships with are also the types of people who read books, and who understand the book I wrote was not a slam piece.

BLVR: Is there something in your book you wish people were talking about more?

MK: I was at Clayton Kershaw’s house when he closed his 215-million dollar contract.

BLVR: That’s pretty cool.

MK: It was such dumb luck to walk into his house and then three minutes later he gets that call. I didn’t feel confident as I started to write this book. But being there for that story—that gave me some confidence. He got the call that told him he was 215-million dollars richer but right afterwards we continued the interview.

BLVR: How long did you stay at his house after that call?

MK: An hour! And his wife was out buying meat because all his buddies from high school were coming over later.

BLVR: I love that he didn’t leave the room for that phone call.

MK: It’s cool that he trusted me. I suppose it was far enough along in the negotiation process for him that it wasn’t a surprise. Still, I would have been dancing with bourbon and tequila that whole day.

BLVR: I’m a Padres fan and I sometimes resent the Dodgers for getting Adrian Gonzalez [four-time Padres team MVP.] I feel like he was going to be the next Tony Gwynn [Padres right fielder who is considered to be one of the best and most consistent batters in baseball history.]

MK: Let me stop you right there and say there will never be another Tony Gwynn. When I was ten, or eleven, I was at Dodger stadium standing there with my ticket stub. I wanted his teammate’s autograph—I don’t even think this guy was famous. But I wanted his autograph. And the teammate blew me off. But Tony Gwynn saw what happened, jogged over and signed my stub. That never happens, let alone with the guy who is also the second greatest hitter of all time, and one of the best players to ever put on a uniform.

Photograph by Andrew Brick.

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