Over the past two seasons, reporter Molly Knight was a frequent presence in the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse and in various press boxes across the country where the team happened to be on that day. Because she and I used to work for the same employer, ESPN, a lot of people asked me what she was working on. Her reporting was there for everyone to see, but where was it ending up?
As a friend of Molly’s, I knew what she was up to -- researching the new book titled “The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse” -- but I wasn’t sure how much I could say.
Well, it turns out all that one-on-one time she was spending with players, coaches and executives was worth it, because she turned it into a great read about billionaire owners trying to throw a bunch of expensive parts into the same engine and hoping it purrs on down the road. On the eve of the book's publication -- it will be released Tuesday -- Molly agreed to chat about her book:
You have a lot of great character sketches and scenes in the book, most of which have nothing to do with the Dodgers’ right fielder, but all anybody seems to want to talk about, as usual, is Yasiel Puig and how he makes his teammates feel. How does that make you feel?
Molly Knight: I have mixed feelings. I don’t want it to just be known as “The Puig Book,” but that being said, he’s also really, really fascinating, probably the most fascinating baseball player alive. He’s certainly a lightning rod. Everyone has an opinion about him. There’s a ton of support from people who love him and a ton of hate from people who don’t love him. I get it. It’s hard to get people to read a book on a topic they don’t have any interest in, and there’s a lot of interest in Puig. So I’m happy if it gets the book attention, and it’s overwhelmingly positive if it gets the book read.
All right, so we get that he fascinates people from afar and sometimes irritates people from up close. So play amateur psychologist for us: What is Puig like, and what drives him?
MK: I think he’s a lot smarter than people give him credit for being. He’s very savvy and good at taking the temperature of the room. He knows exactly what’s going on. He’s been able to play dumb in some situations to turn them to his advantage, whether it’s acting like he doesn’t speak English or just playing it dumb when it comes to rules. There’s a story in the book about [former Dodgers scouting director] Logan White going to scout Puig and being unable to figure out how to get online. White's computer kept crashing until Puig stepped in and fixed it in a second. Just because someone doesn’t speak English perfectly doesn’t mean he’s an idiot.
Puig is also different from other guys. Latin American players, especially Cuban players, get a reputation for being a certain way, playing a certain way, maybe having more fun than American players or being more flashy. He also has a bit of a temper and a bit of a "forget-you" type streak to him when it comes to rebelling against rules. Some people want to give him a pass when it comes to the lost-in-translation stuff, but they’re not looking at him as an individual. He may have gotten railroaded by some members of the press, but he might also be a bit of a brat. Some people may not want to admit it, but it’s a little bit of both.
OK, so imagine you’re Don Mattingly for a minute -- the post-mustache version, of course. How do the Dodgers fix it?
MK: They shouldn’t let Puig FaceTime during games. The pitchers hate that. They hate that he’s always the last one on the field. That has nothing to do with the right way or the wrong way to play the game. That’s just basic decency, manners and respect. They need to find someone who can lay down the law with him.
A lot of fans keep saying to me, "How come we didn’t know this? Why are you just telling me now?" Well, I get my information from players who got so frustrated, they wanted to talk about it. It doesn’t really matter what we think of Puig, what matters is what the team thinks of him. There are really only two rules in baseball: show up on time -- and show up on time. No one should get mad because he celebrates home runs. It’s more about basic work ethic. If he doesn’t start doing that, he’s not going to have a long career.
If he’s that unpopular, shouldn’t the front office consider trading him?
MK: He rakes and he’s cheap and he’s young. He’s got good value. I wouldn’t trade him unless you get a hell of a haul in return. Yeah, he’s annoying, but he hasn’t done anything yet that’s made him irredeemable. It’s not like he’s been arrested for domestic violence. He’s like a rebellious teenager who gives a finger to the rules. It hasn’t reached the point of no return. If he still puts up a .900-plus OPS, he can pretty much do whatever he wants. That’s the sad reality of it. I just don’t know if he can continue to not prepare and not lift weights and still continue to produce.
When you cull the rosters of other teams for their most talented -- and usually, highest-paid -- players, then throw them all in one room together, isn’t a certain amount of dysfunction inevitable?
MK: They’re smart. [Team president] Stan Kasten told me, "Look, it’s not about 25 guys going to dinner together. It’s about mutual respect. You’re different than me, I’m different than you, we’re not best friends, but we’re still going to win and share a common goal." That said, they took on players coming out of messy situations: Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford. There is a reason why teams were willing to part with these phenomenal, superstar players at 50 cents on the dollar in some cases.
To their credit, the Dodgers didn’t want to do what the Cubs, Mets and Astros did and go into full rebuilding mode. The farm system was a wreck, and the owners were like, "We’re not doing that to our fans. We’re not going to be awful just so it helps the future." They tried to build the minor league system and the major league team at the same time. It was entertaining to watch. Different players get annoyed, but if I’m a fan, I’d rather watch Puig and Matt Kemp and Gonzalez. That’s way more fun than a team like the [San Francisco] Giants. They’re great, they’re the champs, but I don’t know how many tickets Joe Panik, Matt Duffy or Ryan Vogelsong sell. The Dodgers needed stars for their TV network. That was just as important as winning.
Back to Puig for a moment. Did the players’ distaste for some of his actions affect the team’s play on the field?
MK: Honestly, I thought they were going to win it all in 2013. I’m pretty sure they would have beaten the [St. Louis] Cardinals if Ramirez hadn’t been hurt. He crushed it in the NLDS. Then he got hit in the ribs by a 97 mph fastball during that first at-bat in the NLCS. It was an MVP-type loss, and they couldn’t overcome it, especially because Puig gets so emotional in the playoffs. They couldn’t rely on him, but it wasn’t fair [that hey had to]. He was a rookie.
Last year, the Dodgers were better than the Cardinals, but they had no bullpen. I don’t know if the dysfunction led to losses. I look at teams like the Cardinals and Giants and, much as I hate to admit it, nobody on those teams takes selfish at-bats. I don’t like that the [Kansas City] Royals bunted their way to the World Series. But in the playoffs, you only have 27 outs. It’s not good to have players take selfish at-bats. I don’t think the Dodgers lost last year because they were annoyed at Puig. I think they lost because they didn’t have a bullpen.
I used to be friends with a reporter named Ron Bergman, who covered the world champion Oakland A’s teams of the early 1970s as a beat writer for the Oakland Tribune. Those teams were famous for in-fighting -- they’re even remembered as the Fightin’ A’s -- but he said most people have it all wrong. He said those players fought like brothers fight. They all moved through the minor leagues together and spent all sorts of time together. They loved each other, but they feuded. Was the situation with the Dodgers of a darker shade of turmoil?
MK: Of course. They were all strangers thrown into a room together. “Orange is the New Black” is my favorite show. When I was writing the book I watched that show a lot, and it dawned on me how similar prison is to a baseball clubhouse in some ways. You’re on a team and spending time with people you didn't choose to be with. Some of the guys were just called up and don’t know how long it’s going to last, some guys are about to be [designated for assignment], some guys don’t get along, some guys are mad because they know the team isn’t going to keep them next year. Baseball is also unlike other sports because -- contrary to what a lot of people think -- players usually hang with people based on what language they speak. There are so many different cultures and ways of living within the team. You don’t get to choose who your locker is next to. Did it go so far as guys saying they were going to go meet on a dark corner and fight? No, but certain players have certain people whom they never want to see again.
It seems like your reporting style involves relationship-building. With that said, many baseball players view the clubhouse as their sanctuary, and any player who shares what happens in there with reporters or the public is viewed as a snitch. Does it bother you that the Dodgers are already upset that people leaked some of these anecdotes to you?
MK: No, because there are like 40 snitches. It’s not like one person told me everything. There are so many different stories in this book, I talked to so many people. People should be looking at why all these players and other people were so frustrated that they would want to talk to a reporter about it. Players in that clubhouse wanted this to come out.
Puig’s behavior sucks the life out of the room. That’s all they talk about at times. It’s like the annoying kid at summer camp. All they do is talk about what he did today. First, it was like a team-bonding experience, but then it started sucking all of the oxygen out of the room. I could have included other things that I learned about but didn’t write, stuff that would have been really damaging to people. I just tried to tell the story of what goes on in the locker room without taking gratuitous shots. It’s not a book about infidelity or drug use or things that could ruin someone’s life. It’s about the ups and downs of the clubhouse.
Did you give Puig a chance to address the accusations lobbed at him in the book?
MK: I tried to sit down with him every week for years. He would never talk with me. I tried so many different channels. He just doesn’t do sit-down interviews. I hope he gets it together. He’s a really good player and he’s really fun to watch. It’s not that hard. Pay attention and show up on time. That’s it.
From what you’ve heard, is the clubhouse genuinely better this year? I’ve heard some yes some no. Also, what does the future hold for this organization?
MK: Yeah. Hanley Ramirez’s weird standoff with the media last year was bizarre. He still showed up and did his thing. But he was a totally different person. I think there are fewer personalities that can take the oxygen out of the room [this season]. I have faith in the new front office. I think they are great and they are going to get them there. They need pitching. Right now, if they had Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy, they would have the same record as the Cardinals and would be playing like Dodgers fans expect. Fans are acting like this team stinks. No, given that 40 percent of the rotation is lost for the season, they’re actually doing pretty well. I expect them to trade for Johnny Cueto if they can, and I’m hopeful that they can get to the World Series.
At that point, would you write another book about them?
MK: No. I’ll write another chapter to this one. I’ll do one for the paperback. But that would be ideal. Dodgers fans would be happy, and I hope they would then buy the book.