We Had a Fake Dead Ballplayer Interview a Real Author About Her Dodgers Book
Molly Knight discusses her new tell-all about the Dodgers clubhouse with a man who has seen it all: Old Hoss Radbourn
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Molly Knight's new book The Best Team Money Can Buy, which tells the story of the Dodgers' 2013 and 2014 seasons, hits stores Tuesday. VICE Sports invited its antiquarian friend, the noted base ball and Twitter personality Old Hoss Radbourn to pick Knight's brain about the book.
Old Hoss Radbourn: M. Knight, welcome. It's a pleasure to talk with you about this wonderful book.
Molly Knight: Thank you for coming to me so that I didn't have to visit you in hell.
OHR: Indeed. It is pleasant to be away.
Other than myself, I tend to prefer my ballplayers to be quiet, stoic, and utterly devoid of personality. It is the Protestant way. I have noticed, however, that the Dodgers' club house as you describe it seems to be the antithesis of this. Do you think this is a natural by-product of the insane amount of lucre that was spent? Is there a correlation between talent, salary, and outsized personality?
MK: It's a natural by-product of both the money being spent and the fact that they took on a bunch of talented malcontents that other teams wanted to murder but were too scared to dump off the waters of Providence.
OHR: Ah yes, my old stomping (and dumping) grounds. How I miss them.
Do you think a goal of the new regime is to be free of such personalities? Are they interested in the creation of a specific culture and a new identity for the team? Is the team you're describing just a bump on the road to something very different? My sense is that winning *now* matters, no matter the personality of the team, but that there is a different plan for the team that will win down the road.
MK: They want to win now and win later. And that's a great thing for the fans. They brought geeks in—just like the Cubs and the Mets and the Astros did. But while Chicago and New York and Houston went into rebuilding mode and fielded a bunch of stiffs while they waited for the guys in their farm system to be called up, the Dodgers went out and overpaid for stars while they waited for their bumper crop to mature. So it's really the best of both worlds. Money is really the best—especially when your sports team is owned by rich people who like to spend it. The penny-pinching Mets owners remind me of Frank McCourt. They may have the best rotation in the game right now, and their lineup looks like that of a spring training split squad game. It's sad.
OHR: Ah yes, to my second-favorite topic: pitching. One of the reasons I like Zack Greinke is that he seems like a bright fellow, always two or three steps ahead of everyone else in the room. In short, he is quite like me. He's also often misunderstood, and I can't but help think that he's taken a beating in part because he's smarter than the majority of the people who cover him.
You have a wonderful, horrible anecdote in your book where a member of the Padres front office in essence calls him mentally damaged. Why has he been portrayed in the way he has? Do you think that the Dodgers are an excellent fit for Greinke because the other, larger personalities don't put the spotlight so directly on him, despite his talent?
MK: Greinke is misunderstood because he's different, and people never know what to do with different. He doesn't like talking to strangers, and he's standoffish with reporters in a one-on-one setting. But yes, he's so smart, and if you ask him a smart question, you'll get a fantastic, insightful answer. During the playoffs last year I made it a game to see if I could ask him a question that stumped him. A lot of people were asking the same boilerplate ("Talk about..." questions) and so I asked him to tell us the best pitch he threw that night. His dimples came out and he stared down at the ground—which are the two sure signs that you're getting somewhere with him. Then he said it was a curveball he threw to strike out the opposing pitcher, which didn't seem important, but it was a pitcher who had gotten him in the NLCS the year before. I love knowing how he thinks. He's brilliant and witty and honest and weird and I'm basically obsessed with him.
The Dodgers definitely seem to be a great fit for him. He loves to hit, so he's going to be happiest on a National League team. He loves warm weather because he's from Florida and also he is not an idiot. And he wants to be paid what he's worth, again, because he is not an idiot. He also wants to win, and play for a competent front office. Those qualifications narrow his list down considerably. In the three years he's been here I've seen him totally blossom from a super shy person to a pretty shy person who seems to have embraced his inner weirdo. He's grown his hair out, he walks up to hit to "Careless Whisper," and he's even showing up to Fan Fest, things that would have given him a heart attack in the past. On a personal note, as someone who has dealt with anxiety and also overcome it, it's really a beautiful thing to see a person bounce back from how debilitating it can be and absolutely thrive. I hope he doesn't leave LA. I don't think he will. I could see him going to Atlanta to be closer to home if they decide to spend, but other than that I can't imagine a better fit than LA. And Atlanta may be closer to where he's from but the club is further from winning. (This is total speculation on my part about where he could end up if he leaves the Dodgers and not based on any rumor I've heard.)
OHR: In a book like this you have to toe a line between providing insider information and not burning bridges in the clubhouse. I cannot imagine Adrian Gonzalez appreciates the tale of his teammates mocking his neck brace getting out there. What difficulties did you face in providing some of the inside information on the players while maintaining a healthy relationship with them? You're fortunate in that few athletes waste time with nonsense such as books, but do you worry some might become angry with you for letting certain things out?
MK: A certain infielder is mad at me and he hasn't even read the book—and probably won't! And that's his prerogative. I haven't talked to him, I just heard from others that he is mad, which I find kind of amusing actually. I'd be upset if players were challenging the veracity of what has leaked from my book, because I busted my ass to get everything right. I literally drove five hours to fact-check one silly story in the book because I woke up in the middle of the night right before the book went to the printer worried that I had somehow gotten it wrong. I could write a book about all the stuff I didn't write! I didn't include anything that would ruin anyone's life or marriage or career, and of course there's always that kind of stuff out there. But I didn't want to write a scandalous book. I wanted to write a fair book that showed as many sides to a story as I could. You might see Matt Kemp yell "Trade me to the fucking Astros!" in one scene and think he's a jerk, but then on the next page you see why he got there emotionally—how he injured himself literally running through a wall for his team, the extent of which was missed, and then he came back and basically learned he had been replaced. He wanted to play so badly, and didn't always handle it well. But it was extremely difficult. I could see both sides to that.
Sure, some of it will be uncomfortable for some of them to read. But it happened. And let's be honest, most of these guys won't read my book because these are not dude who read books. I would guess maybe five guys on this team will read the whole book -- and even that's probably an overestimation. For some it's because they don't want to read what's written about them, but for most they don't have the patience. Also: they don't care! My book is the biggest thing in my life but a tiny blip in their lives—if it even registers at all. I had a lot of anxiety writing this book, because I was writing about living, breathing people. I agonized over hurting people, so I tried to be as fair as possible. Mostly I wanted to write a book fans would enjoy. That's why I wrote it. I grew up a Dodger fan.
OHR: I am glad you brought up Matt Kemp. One of the things that struck me was that several of your protagonists had difficult youths. Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, two of the most talented men on the team, have in some ways extremely similar backgrounds. I found I could relate to both men: felling steer in my pappy's slaughterhouse at age 8 made me self-sufficient, but I found myself angry and sullen toward my career's end once my talent and body eroded.
MK: I was fascinated by the fact that Kershaw and Kemp had such similar upbringings—they are both only children raised by single moms who worked their asses off to make ends meet and grew up in neighboring states in football country—but they had nothing in common beyond that and no real relationship, even though they respected each other. It's so interesting to see how people are shaped by early hardships.
OHR: This leads to perhaps the most controversial—certainly the most exciting—figure in the book: Yasiel Puig. Much of what I've read about Puig elsewhere has been negative. Some of this negativity seems warranted. But the Puig present here strikes me as a rather immature and naïve fellow who was handled a bucket of money and the keys to the city with little to no protection from the organization. I can only imagine the sins I would have committed in such a scenario. Sure, the Dodgers provided security, but they didn't really seem to help him get ready for the real world. Do you think the Dodgers have some culpability in how Puig is perceived, and do you think they'll work harder at helping some of their other younger, foreign players become a bit more self-aware and self-sufficient?
MK: The Dodgers absolutely had a hand in how Puig turned out. When Puig was called up the team was a disaster. Millions and millions of dollars were at stake and jobs were on the line. Don Mattingly was perhaps a bad series away from being fired. Ned Colletti might have been right behind him. Plus you had a new ownership group that had just spent $2 billion dollars to win and win now. Everyone was under enormous pressure, and the team was in last place and unwatchable. Puig provided a spark, and everyone—from the front office to the coaches to his teammates—looked at him to carry the team. They became so dependent on him that they didn't have the room to set boundaries and discipline him when he screwed up. He only spent, like, a minute and a half in the minors. And on top of that he's new to the United States and thrown into a circus. And he was so good, so quickly, that no one knew how to act. Everyone acted stupid around him, because the numbers he put up were stupid. So now, of course he is going to have a hard time following rules all of a sudden...
...But I don't blame the Dodgers for Puig's rocky road. At the end of the day he's the one setting the alarm to show up on time, treating co-workers with respect, etc....Talent is one thing, but work ethic is another. Kobe Bryant may not be the most popular person in the Lakers locker room. But guys respect him because he works harder than anyone. I don't think players all have to get along and be best friends for the team to be good. But basic respect is probably vital.
OHR: Let us instead follow up on Puig. In which direction do you think he goes? And do you think the Dodgers are aware of their role in this?
MK: I'm optimistic he'll start to work harder. I've heard that since stuff from my book leaked about how all his teammates want to kill him that he's actually been showing up for early BP. That's great. He's still so young. He's got time to put it together. And it's not as though he's done anything criminal or fundamentally evil that makes him irredeemable, like your old friend Ty Cobb. It's frustrating because people who haven't read my book think I hate Puig. I don't hate Puig. I'm so sensitive to everything he went through to get here, and to the institutionalized racism that infects a lot of the media coverage of young men of color. I'm not an old white male columnist shaking my finger at him. I love his batflips and I don't even get mad when he misses the cut-off man if he dazzles the crowd with an incredible throw home from the wall. I'm a baseball fan; I'm part of the crowd too. I want to be entertained and he can be spectacular. But if I had written a book that talks about Puig and didn't mention how his behavior impacts the Dodgers locker room then it would not have been an honest book.
OHR: If that bastard Cobb can find redemption then I am sure all will be well for Puig's reputation long after he finds eternal slumber.
The book is full of anecdotes that make the locker room all the more real and exciting, especially to people who never go there: Puig making video game sounds when he felt he wasn't being given enough attention; Juan Uribe not being able to pronounce Skip Schumaker's last name and instead calling him "Chewbacca"; and especially Greinke's Poop Speech. Are there any others that you left out that you wish you'd been able to work in?
MK: Oh gosh. There are so many anecdotes. But at this point I forget what made the book and what got cut. I haven't read the finished book all the way through and I probably won't for a good ten years. Too close to it.
OHR: Not even one?
MK: None that I can say that wouldn't get me in trouble.
OHR: That's fair.
This strikes me as a book that's in search of an ending, and I suspect you were hoping that the team would make the World's Series. But this is a story about the middle of things, a time between the drek of what was and something better yet to come. At several points you contrast the Dodgers with the Cardinals, who spend far less money, seem to be far less colorful, and win the championships much more frequently. Are you making a statement about how teams should be run?
MK: I really hate the idea that gritty teams that like each other win championships, and I have railed against it for years. But the fact is the Cardinals and the Giants keep representing the National League in the World Series every flipping year, and it's really annoying for me because they are the epitome of unselfish, grinding teams that play as one. I keep waiting for the showboats who hate each other to win. The Dodgers have a lot of great players, but unfortunately many of them take selfish at-bats. Some are unwilling to take walks; some don't study the pitchers they're about to face because they're either insolent or lazy. And then they step into the batter's box with no plan and just flail. And you can't do that against San Francisco or St. Louis because their catchers are too good: Posey and Molina will hang you out to dry. The Giants and Cardinals don't have guys who are unprepared. Is that why they win titles? Well, maybe not. The Giants won last year because of Madison Bumgarner, and the Cardinals win because they are the deepest organization in MLB. But preparation certainly doesn't hurt.
The whole chemistry thing is something I am begrudgingly coming around to accept. That's not to say I would take a team full of negative WAR scrubs who like each other over a team of jerks who rake.
OHR: Fortunately I don't know what that means.
Do you think base ball needs a team like the Dodgers? Isn't it fun to have a rowdy bunch of All-Stars alternate between dominating a game and falling apart at the seams?
MK: Absolutely. Ninety-nine percent of fans don't give a damn about a guy being able to hit the ball to the right side to advance a runner. They want to see dingers. They want to see a cocksure right fielder miss the cutoff man because he honestly believes he can throw a ball 400 feet quicker than any other man can run ninety. They want players as fun to watch as Puig. And that's what I want to see, too. I get bored with the other stuff, just like fans. But what I think and what fans think really doesn't matter at all compared to what his teammates think. And if his always being the last person to his spot in right field for every half inning is driving Dodgers starting pitchers to distraction, then that's not good. The question is: does it matter in the standings? The Hall of Fame is littered with men who were not popular in their own clubhouses.
OHR: Does it matter?
MK: I've asked a bunch of Dodger players and I get different answers. Some say probably not. Some say that at times it has become such a distraction that it sucks all the oxygen out of the room. The pitchers, especially, get roiled by his still being in the locker room fiddling on his phone while they're out there making warm-up pitches between innings. But does it lead to losses? I feel like that's really hard to quantify.
OHR: What have you learned about how hard it is to win a championship? I have no experience with such difficulties, of course—I carried my team in '84 and made no mistakes. But here things go wrong all the time—Ramirez getting hurt in the NLCS and then refusing a painkiller; Mattingly blundering his way through a playoff round; Ned Colletti using the statistics of years' past to find guys necessary to right the ship, and usually failing in his attempts—and each one of these blunders proves to be catastrophic. Now that you've done a microhistory of a team for a few years, have your thoughts changed about the difficulty of running one and winning it all?
MK: Oh God yes. Baseball is brutal. The Dodgers can pretty much control winning the NL West five out of every six years because of their cash advantage, but the playoffs are a crapshoot. The Nationals were the best team last year and didn't advance past the first round. The Royals bunted their way to the World Series. The Giants got to face Edinson Volquez in a sudden death play-in game because Clint Hurdle burned Gerrit Cole in the Pirates' meaningless regular season finale. Then they won a crazy extra inning game versus Washington that swung the NLDS. Then, during the NLCS, St. Louis lost Yadi to injury. The Cardinals are basically the Cubs without Yadi. Two Dodger players texted me when Yadi went down and said the Cardinals would not win another game in the series. They were right.