They made it to the NLCS in 2008, 2009 and 2013, but they haven’t been to the World Series since Los Angeles topped Oakland in 1988. When the Guggenheim Partners bought the Dodgers from Frank McCourt for a staggering $2.15 billion in 2012, controlling partner Mark Walter went on a spending spree to put the team over the top.
But as George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees learned when the Boss threw cash at free agents during the 1980s and early 1990s, money can only take a team so far.
“Being the richest team wasn’t as important as being the smartest,” Molly Knight writes in her new book, “The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse” (Simon & Shuster; hardback; $26; 324 pages).
Knight, who covered baseball for ESPN: The Magazine for eight years, tells the story of the 2013 Dodgers, calling them a group of players who “were less a team than they were twenty-five separate corporations."
It rings true. The Dodgers had brilliance with pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who won the NL Cy Young Award in 2013 with a 16-9 record, a 1.83 ERA and 232 strikeouts. Kershaw has led the league in ERA the past four seasons and won 72 games between 2011 and 2014 — but he has been 1-5 in the postseason and collapsed in Game 6 of the NLCS.
Cuban refugee Yasiel Puig took baseball by storm with an outstanding rookie season — 19 homers, 42 RBIs and a .319 average — but his quirks and work habits made him no friends in the Dodgers locker room or around the league.
In a vivid, descriptive style that sharply defines this book, Knight writes that Puig “stood six foot three and weighed 240 pounds but carried it high in his chest and shoulders, like a wild animal that raised its hackles to look bigger to enemies.”
Matt Kemp was a talented but injury-prone outfielder who sulked when he wasn’t starting or was playing out of position.
Meanwhile, teams like the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals have spent less money but have had more success because they understood that a team concept, smart trades and developing their minor-leaguers were better investments. The Giants have won three World Series since 2010, while the Cardinals have won two National League pennants and won the Series in 2011.
Knight gives the reader a behind-the-scenes look at how the Dodgers tried to do the same. It hasn’t been an easy road, as the new ownership group (which includes NBA legend Magic Johnson), attempted to transform the Dodgers into “the Lakers on grass.” Winning wasn’t enough; the group wanted to field a team with enough star power to impress Hollywood’s biggest stars, and in doing so, “hoped to captivate a nation obsessed with celebrity.”
Knight’s strength in this book is her clarity, which is also peppered with some colorful analogies. Colorful, but not overdone or forced.
She notes, for example, that “the advent of the Internet transformed baseball from a children’s game to a chew toy for adult control freaks and obsessive-compulsives.”
That would include the inner workings of how the Guggenheim group acquired the Dodgers, as the partnership paid an exorbitant amount because Walter correctly anticipated the lucrative television revenues that would kick in. And it did: Time Warner paid $8.35 billion for 25 years of Dodgers broadcast rights. That gave the Dodgers even more money to operate with, and they used it in August 2012 to land big-name players like Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford.
Knight also shows how manager Don Mattingly, whose job seemed to be in jeopardy after a 30-42 start in 2013, maintained a steady course and guided his team to the playoffs. That helped the Dodgers go 42-8 after that slow start to take command of the NL West and win the division by 11 games. They beat the Braves in the NLDS before falling to St. Louis in the NLCS, when Kershaw was roughed up by the Cardinals in Game 6.
The Dodgers’ success occurred despite some personality conflicts. Knight mentions an incident where Puig and pitcher Zack Greinke nearly came to blows in Chicago when the pitcher tossed Puig’s suitcase off the team bus. Puig and Kemp also had a few run-ins during the season. And after the season, the normally even-keeled Mattingly had a few sharp words for upper management.
“The Best Team Money Can Buy” is an excellent example of how money can only go so far in creating success in major-league baseball. Certainly, a franchise with deep pockets can outbid the competition, but it takes chemistry, careful planning, shrewd deals and sometimes just plain luck for a team to win it all.
While the Dodgers appeared to be a lock in the 2013 playoffs, that didn’t happen. Knight gives a respectful nod toward legendary broadcaster Vin Scully, paraphrasing one of his signature on-air calls to describe the Dodgers’ downfall: “In a season of improbable highs and lows, the impossible had happened.”
Whether the Dodgers’ cash will bring a title this year remains to be seen. But Knight’s description of the 2013 season provides a fresh view of ownership’s philosophy and how the group hopes that approach will result in Walter hoisting that World Series trophy.