Molly Knight’s The Best Team Money Can Buy chronicles the Los Angeles Dodgers rise from Frank McCourt’s mediocre also-ran to the financial and baseball powerhouse the club is today under the Guggenheim group. While the backbone of the story will be familiar to most knowledgeable baseball fans, Knight’s account brings the reader into the clubhouse and inside the minds of Don Mattingly and the Dodgers brass. The result is a well-written book that offers a nuanced look into the dynamics of a big league clubhouse, the headaches associated with managing a team of superstars, and a greater understanding of baseball’s most interesting talent, Yasiel Puig.
One of the book’s most revealing themes is the difficulty of managing in the major leagues. Managing a baseball team is kind of like navigating a ship around an iceberg: it’s important to recognize and take care of surface level responsibilities — avoiding the tip of the iceberg and handling in-game strategy — but it’s what lies beneath the surface that makes the job so treacherous. Mattingly has routinely come under fire for his small ball tendencies and bullpen mishaps as skipper of the Dodgers, and many pundits and analysts have wondered how he’s survived such a tumultuous period with his job intact. While he remains an underwhelming tactician, Knight’s insight demonstrates how his steady hand and likable personality prevents tensions from boiling over, and how he’s deftly handled a star-laden locker room with fewer starting jobs than egos for them. It can’t be easy to call four outfielders into a room to discuss a job share and have Matt Kemp categorically say “I’m a starter” in front of the other three, but it’s just one of many potentially explosive conflicts that Mattingly has delicately diffused during his tenure.
Additionally, Knight praises Mattingly’s adaptability, citing the relationship he’s developed with LA’s analytical front office and his familiarity with new vernacular and sources of information. “We talk about spin rate and things like that” he says of his regular conversations with club President Andrew Friedman, and it’s clear that he’s evolved during his time on the bench. In reading about Mattingly, it’s tempting to contrast his calm demeanor and open mind with crosstown rival Mike Scioscia’s iron fist and distaste for big data’s impact on baseball, and easy to come away feeling positively about his impact on the Dodgers.
The most anticipated part of the book will be Knight’s focus on Puig. Over his first two years in the big leagues, he’s been widely portrayed as some combination of surly, ignorant, arrogant, and reckless. The Puig that Knight portrays is far more interesting: he’s intelligent, often manipulative regarding boundaries and team rules, and very aware of the leeway his talent affords him. To her credit, Knight is totally straight in her reporting: it’s fair game to report on Puig’s constant tardiness, his outbursts at teammates, and tendency to push clubhouse rules to their breaking point. But she also does her best to delve into what makes him tick while also reviewing Puig’s genuine attempts to improve his attitude and behavior. Ultimately, Knight successfully conveys the ‘can’t live with him/can’t live without him’ attitude so many of the Dodgers seem to take toward Puig. Following Miguel Montero’s pointed comments about the Cuban outfielder’s disrespect for the game, she asked a Dodgers pitcher for his thoughts: “he’s right,” the pitcher said. “But I don’t care because he rakes.”
More than anything else though, the stories make the book. Devoted Dodgers fans may already know about the blockbuster pulled off behind Ned Colletti’s back or Zack Greinke’s late season mandate that players start washing their hands after dropping a deuce, but those stories are fresh to almost everybody else and the book is flush with similarly entertaining tales. I won’t spoil all of them — I couldn’t possibly in a short book review — but my personal favorite concerns Andre Ethier. Early in his career, the outfielder had a reputation for being selfish, an attitude best exemplified by his reaction following an at-bat when he advanced a runner to third with a grounder to second late in a one run game. His teammates tried to give him handshakes and high fives when he came back to the dugout, but a frustrated Ethier wasn’t having it. He slammed his bat into the rack, adding “that’s not gonna help me in arbitration!” loud enough to draw a mixture of laughs and incredulity. If that quote isn’t a meme within two weeks of publication, the internet will have failed.
From a commercial perspective, The Best Team Money Can Buy almost certainly would have been a better enterprise if Los Angeles had broke through and won the World Series in one of the two years Knight covered the team. But the Dodgers wouldn’t have been any more or less interesting if they’d won big in October, and the strength of the book is largely unrelated to the club’s success in recent years. The Guggenheim group has built a competitive team but they’ve also assembled many of the sport’s best personalities. It is their stories that make Knight’s book a must read.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now