Essay: In Pursuit Of The Dream
In her new bestselling book, "The Best Team Money Can Buy," Molly Knight writes about the entertaining era just after the Los Angeles Dodgers were bought out of bankruptcy in 2012, and the personalities and issues that rose along with the team's success. Here, Knight, who covered baseball for eight seasons for ESPN The Magazine, writes about her unconventional path to journalism and her experiences of being a woman in the locker room.
The first time I walked into a Major League Baseball locker room, I knew I had made a mistake. And by "mistake," I don't mean the way one uses the word to describe showing up to a dentist's appointment at 2:30 instead of 2 because Google Maps seized and died. I mean that I was pretty convinced I had screwed up my life.
Some kids know what they want to be when they grow up from the time they're in kindergarten. I didn't have a clue. When I graduated from junior high, my main plan was to try as hard as I could in high school so that I could get into a decent college, where I would then decide what to do with my life at an on-campus carnival where they handed out jobs. But pretty quickly after I got to college I decided, sort of on a whim, that I had enjoyed AP Biology enough to venture into a career in medicine.
I wanted to help people, is what I said when anyone asked. And at that point, in my limited view of the world, the only way I could be sure I could accomplish that goal was by literally saving their lives. But by senior year, I was faced with the crushing reality that my brain wasn't wired to grasp organic chemistry, or any kind of chemistry, really. I would sit in lecture halls and stare at what the professor had written on the whiteboard, certain it was written in Japanese or Farsi. And then I would go to the nightly help sessions they held for all of us slow kids and go home feeling even dumber.
So I ditched the med school idea and decided to become a writer instead. When I made that decision, at age 21, I didn't know what it meant. I had never written an original piece of fiction, or taken a journalism class. I had no idea how (or where) my college newspaper was put together. People are always surprised that I didn't cut my teeth on the sports beat at the Stanford Daily, as if I bucked the odds to land at ESPN without that experience. Honestly, I think it was an advantage.
When I moved to New York to become "a writer," I had no idea how hard it would be to support myself writing, which was lucky, because had I known, I might not have done it. I never sat in a newsroom with some jaded adult warning me that "THERE ARE NO JOBS" and I would die penniless, miserable and alone in a rural shantytown where someone would find my body, weeks later, decomposing on stacks of the free town newspaper I had to sell all my cats to print.
I arrived in New York in the mid-aughts with not a single clip to my name and $300 in my pocket. I crashed on a friend's couch in the East Village and got a job bartending across the street. I went about teaching myself how to write by going to coffee shops every day and crafting super-serious think pieces about indie rock bands, like the kid who played a young Cameron Crowe in "Almost Famous." I was broke and brokenhearted from a relationship that had just ended, but in a way I had never been happier. I went out with friends every night and then woke up and wrote about it for my blog the next morning, whether it was about a concert or play I somehow saw for free or just another dumb $2 PBR night at a dive bar.
Then, after a year or so I spent as an editorial assistant at a men's magazine, a friend of mine got hired as an editor at ESPN The Magazine. He began tossing me little freelance assignments -- and when I say "little," I mean, like, one-line jokes or calling someone named Coby Bryant and asking him what sharing that name was like.
But then one day, one of the heads of the magazine called me into his office because he wanted to know who I was. I still don't know why. He asked me a few questions and asked me what I was doing for Memorial Day weekend. I told him I was traveling. He noted there was an MLB team where I was going. "You should just go into the locker room to see what you can get," he said, with no further instruction. (I learned later it was just a test to see if he would hear back from the public relations department about how I had made an ass of myself and the company. Literally, not making an ass of myself was the main assignment.)
So off I went into my first major league clubhouse. It was May, and a zillion degrees on the East Coast, but I wore jeans and a turtleneck because I was nervous about wearing anything too provocative. Even if my task was to ask questions like, "What's in your wallet?" and, "What are your Fourth of July plans?" I still aimed to be taken seriously.
Major league locker rooms typically open 3½ hours before a game starts and close when the team goes out to take batting practice. The home team takes BP first, so reporters usually only get half an hour or so in that locker room. The visiting team goes next, so their locker room is open for an hour and a half. I didn't know any of this. I also did not know the unwritten rule that a reporter does not, under any circumstances, speak to that day's starting pitcher. Or that reporters are not allowed to sit on any of the 300 chairs or couches in the middle of the locker room and are expected to stand at all times. No one told me these things. In retrospect, I am surprised I was not thrown out of the stadium.
The first professional athlete I ever tried to interview hit on me. He refused to answer any of my questions with anything other than, "What hotel are you staying in tonight?" That was the moment where I was sure I had made a mistake, and that the past three years of my life had been nothing but a series of mistakes.
My face turned every shade of maroon and I was so embarrassed it was hard to breathe. (The turtleneck probably didn't help.) I assumed every day would be like this. What I didn't know then was that I just happened to encounter the absolute worst sexual harasser on my very first day on the job. When he walked away to the training room, laughing about our encounter, one of his teammates apologized for his behavior and offered to do my silly quiz. I never forgot that kindness.
Those first few years were the hardest. I was in Houston reporting a story on the Rockets and a well-meaning older man who checked reporters' credentials at the locker room door would scream, "Lady in the locker room!" whenever I walked in. Once, at Denver Broncos training camp, I was mistaken for the masseuse, which got awkward because people are even more naked around masseuses. Last year, I wrote an essay for the Baseball Prospectus annual, but I still encounter players who assume I don't know what a sacrifice bunt is.
But there is a distinct advantage to being a woman in the locker room that I definitely used in writing this book. Most people who write about baseball are older white men named Mike or Jon or Dave. If you are a woman or a person of color, you've got a much better shot of a player remembering your face or your name. When I worked at ESPN the Magazine, they did a phenomenal job of hiring a diverse group of people, and not just when it came to race or gender. It was a brilliant, common-sense strategy. If I ran a newsroom, I would hire as many people from as many different walks of life as possible just to keep the perspective from getting stale.
One of my colleagues was a big dude who looked like he used to play football. He definitely got different stuff than I did. Player A might feel more comfortable talking about life with a dude who looks like him. Whereas Player B might be more comfortable talking about something serious with a woman because he's not used to sharing his feelings with another guy.
I noticed from Day 1 that I was getting different stuff from my male colleagues -- not always better, not always worse, but different. Especially in baseball. The baseball season is so long, and these guys spend way too much time around nothing but other men. It creates a weird dynamic. Guys began to overshare. Sometimes my asking a question like, "How are you?" would lead down a path where the player would talk about homesickness, addiction, anxiety, depression, marital problems, you name it.
I dedicated my book to all the women who fought for locker room access, because without them it would not exist. That wasn't a ceremonial dedication. To me it felt like thanking Thomas Edison for the lightbulb.Molly Knight
I once asked a guy who his best friend on the team was, and after he told me, I asked why. He said it was because the guy basically saved him from drinking himself to death. I don't know if it's because I'm a woman, or because I have dealt with a lot of these issues and people can pick up on that and they trust me to treat their stories with care, but it just kept happening.
I realized something else, too. If you want to know what a star athlete is really like, you'd better ask his mother or his wife. I can't remember the last profile I did where I didn't speak with one or both, and my book was informed by a lot of the observations and insights of Dodger moms, wives and girlfriends. While I think men and women are equally smart, I have found that women generally have higher emotional intelligence because of the maddening way society discourages young boys from developing healthy relationships with their feelings. I couldn't understand why my male colleagues weren't talking more to the wives, girlfriends and moms. Then I realized it was because most alpha males would never give out the phone numbers of the women in their lives to another man.
I dedicated my book to all the women who fought for locker room access, because without them it would not exist. That wasn't a ceremonial dedication. To me it felt like thanking Thomas Edison for the light bulb. While I've had uncomfortable moments of catcalls, being flashed and being publicly embarrassed (I remember once I was asking questions about a holiday gift guide and two players listed names of various sex toys I had never heard of and I dutifully wrote them down until they both laughed at me and ripped the notebook out of my hands), the women who came before me endured a fresh hell I cannot imagine. I've never been physically assaulted or sexually molested in a locker room. I've never been terrorized by Reggie Jackson. I've endured embarrassing moments, but honestly, so have my male colleagues. Being in a room with strangers changing their clothes is embarrassing for everyone involved.
The good news is, it seems to be getting better every year. When I started out in locker rooms, I was the same age as a lot of the rookies. Now the veterans are my peers. My generation doesn't seem to care as much about keeping women in the kitchen. The Spurs hired Becky Hammon as an assistant coach last year and made her the head coach of their summer league team last month. The Kings named Nancy Lieberman an assistant coach last week. The Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter to be a coaching intern during training camp. Teams are no longer afraid to hire the best candidate for the job, even if that candidate happens to be a woman. Sure, there are going to be a couple of guys in every locker room who might feel strange about having a female coach, but I think the vast majority of players would absolutely look at her the same way they view their male coaches and evaluate her ability to do her job based on how skilled she is in her position instead of dismissing her solely because of her gender. Opportunities for women in sports have never been better.
Earlier this year, I did an informal Twitter interview with Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy, and I asked him if he's more uncomfortable with a woman interviewing him in the locker room than a man. He said absolutely not, that it wasn't an issue whatsoever and that basically the only thing he cares about is whether a reporter is knowledgeable about baseball and not a disrespectful doofus.
That's all a gal could ask for.