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At the Letters: The Best Team Money Can Buy

A Review of Molly Knight’s Book and a Lesson in American Shopping

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The Best Team Money Can Buy:
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse
By Molly Knight
Simon & Schuster, 2015
336 pages
Available at the Seattle Public Library and King Country Libraries

I have neutral feelings on the Dodgers as a team. Personally, I admire Kershaw and am amused by Puig’s antics and adore Joc Pederson’s relationship with his brother (and okay, maybe quietly resent Corey for getting all the Seager-based attention), but I never find myself pulling for them. Part of it is their fanbase. Dodger fandom, in some ways, feels like a status symbol, a hat that’s worn by Hollywood stars—they’re just like us!—because that’s the team that plays nearby. It’s a very performative fandom, in my experience. The other part of this is general, old-fashioned resentment about the idea of buying your way into relevance. The Dodgers are the robber barons of the MLB, blue-clad Veruca Salts; in a way, it’s really the Dodgers who are America’s team. Molly Knight’s book is a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the organization, but it’s also a meditation on a particularly American mindset: like wealthy but absent parents with a troubled teen, the Dodgers’ solution to their problems has been to throw money at them.

In reading the story of the Dodgers’ rebuild, it’s interesting to draw parallels with what Dipoto and the reshuffled owners’ group have been doing in Seattle. The Best Team Money Can Buy picks up at the end of the McCourt years—the embattled owners whose messy divorce was the costliest divorce in California history, who bankrupted the team over their eight years owning it—and chronicles the team since the Guggenheim Group with their endlessly deep pockets took over. The Mariners aren’t cheap, but they certainly don’t spend like the Guggenheim Group, who put the “goog” in “googleplex of money.” However, Stan Kasten, whom general manager Ned Colletti installed as team president, had a more measured, Dipoto-like approach, developed over his time running the Braves. Kasten values a strong farm system over rent-a-players and believes in keeping salaries in check, which made him an odd match for the new make-it-rain owners group. But the Dodgers were reeling from the bad press of the McCourt years, and needed to make a big splash in order to win back alienated fans with many other entertainment options. Seattle isn’t quite the market size of Los Angeles, but Jerry Dipoto faced a similar challenge in bringing back fans to a team that had only managed a winning record three times in the past decades, while undertaking a rebuild of a depleted farm system. He wouldn’t have Guggenheim money to do it, however. For Stan Kasten, all he had to do was name a player, regardless of salary owed or trade status, and the ownership would start constructing a deal, as they did for Adrian Gonzalez, who was locked down by Boston until he wasn’t. The Dodgers went after stars, treating the rest of the MLB like a supermarket and they were shopping on an empty stomach. Dipoto, on the other hand, went to the store with a carefully drawn-up list, did that squatty, low-to-the-ground walk that guy in the Malt-O-Meal commercial does, and paid with a fistful of coupons. Reading about the Dodgers’ lavish signings will make you appreciate Jerry’s moves all the more.

The next several chapters of the book detail the roster construction, and specific deals made for players from Greinke to Puig to Kershaw. Knight has spent a ton of time with the Dodgers, and the book is studded with the kind of anecdotal gems that result from such access, especially regarding the team’s ace, Clayton Kershaw, whom Knight has spent years writing about. But this leads to a strange Catch-22: because of the access Knight has enjoyed, the observations are an intimate, behind-the-scenes look not available to the average reporter; yet because of this same access, the observations—especially the Kershaw sections—are clouded, tinged with personal admiration and sympathy even as they attempt to cast an objective eye on the players.

There are echoes of the newly-assembled Mariners in the Dodgers coaching staff, as well. Returning pitching coach Rick Honeycutt is praised for being able to resurrect the careers of ailing relievers, leading Colletti to sign “broken former closers to fill out the club’s bullpen.” While Dipoto didn’t chase after closers per se, he certainly did rummage through the as-is table to construct his bullpen. The third base coach, Tim Wallach, is a startling parallel to Manny Acta: a successful manager in AAA whose name was thrown around as a potential successor to Joe Torre and was seen as heir apparent should things go sideways for manager Don Mattingly. Finally, the Dodgers were lucky that former superstar Mark McGwire decided he wanted to be closer to his kids. Knight gushes, “Many exceptional athletes are so naturally gifted that when they try to teach what they do to others they just can’t. McGwire was a rare exception. And because he hit most of his home runs when they were kids, players lined up to receive his secrets.” Hmmm, sounds familiar. The final piece Knight discusses as part of the coaching team is bench coach Trey Hillman. Hillman, the ex-Royals manager, noticed that when Kansas City promoted young players to the majors, they weren’t prepared for the jump. Knight notes, “In a perfect world, each team in a club’s minor-league system would use all the same signs and preach identical philosophies on things like advancing runners and defensive positioning, so that when players were called up to the majors they wouldn’t be so overwhelmed with new information. In reality, communication was a mess.” After the 2010 season, the unemployed Hillman mailed a folder with his ideas for streamlining communication to all thirty teams. The Dodgers hired him. I’m not really one for alternate timelines, but it would have been nice to have this C the Z business starting back in 2010.

The Best Team Money Can Buy is ultimately a story of failure. Money can’t buy wins, it turns out, and the Dodgers lineup was lopsided. They had four bat-first, highly-paid starting outfielders but no genuine center fielder among them (sound familiar?). The rotation was stacked with stars but the bullpen leaked oil and the defense behind those stars was sub-par. Players got hurt, got mad at not being played, or got mad at other players. This doesn’t make for the best narrative, which is the problem with writing about the very recent history, or about eras-in-progress. As fun as it is to read a book starring players who mostly still playing the game, the narrative suffers because it has no shape. The story isn’t done being told yet. The book opens with a narrative of Kershaw, details the roster construction, and tells how it played out in 2013. 2014 takes up a much smaller slice of the book and feels like a coda, underdeveloped and ancillary to the story of the first season under the new regime. It didn’t work, and then it didn’t work again. The book lurches forward a little into 2015, and then just kind of ends. It ends with Kershaw, to make a nice circle back, but that feels more like a gesture towards symmetry in lieu of an actual ending. Knight’s writing is clear, funny and engaging, and if you’re looking for a light summer read or are interested in team construction, this is a great book for you. Otherwise, you’re probably okay with waiting for a new edition to come out once the Dodgers close this particular chapter.