Molly Knight's new book, The Best Team Money Can Buy, is an entertaining chronicle of two Dodger seasons. In 2013 and 2014, a deep-pocketed ownership group attempted to buy their way to a championship, falling short both times at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals. Knight, who wrote for ESPN the Magazine, was granted behind-the-scenes access to the players and executives throughout those seasons, and comes away with an acute portrait of a bunch of quarrelsome millionaires attempting to cohere into a team.
The most headline-grabbing details have to do with Yasiel Puig, the talented but undisciplined Cuban refugee who captivated fans with his speed and power when he was called up in 2013. Puig seems to have clashed with most, if not all, of his teammates, and Knight supplies plenty of juicy clubhouse details. Puig insisted on being allowed to travel with his entourage, a shady-seeming gaggle who glommed onto the superstar in the way that underworld figures used to do with Joe DiMaggio. This earned Puig the resentment of his teammates, who take turns venting their frustrations with the rookie as the seasons go on.
Each Dodger star gets his due. Knight offers sympathetic portraits of two aces, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Kershaw is a warm presence, if a little boring. We are told about his parents' divorce and his alienation from his father, but all of that drama is safely in the past. Anchored by his faith, Kershaw is steadily excellent. Even his postseason disasters don't get him down. He is, by a long shot, the sanest person around. The same is not true for Greinke, a brilliant pitcher who goes around saying awkward and dickish things to his teammates. As we learn, this is the result of a social anxiety disorder, which he labors to control. In Knight's telling, Greinke becomes a fully complicated human being.
The most affecting portrait is of Matt Kemp, the Dodgers' would-be superstar outfielder. Kemp has “all the tools,” in baseball parlance, and put together a dazzling season in 2011. But after that, he struggled with injuries and a growing sense of isolation. It is genuinely painful to watch Kemp flounder, failing to live up to his much-discussed “potential” and increasingly resentful of the Dodgers organization. Puig's arrival is the beginning of the end for Kemp, and he ultimately flees to San Diego.
The manager, Don Mattingly, comes off as a likable dope. The players seem to be fond of him, which is a plus, but he is often flummoxed by late-inning strategy. Mattingly's primary challenge is corralling a bunch of egos into a winning ballclub, which he does with mixed results. One of the more eye-opening passages details just how self-interested players can be. In one game, outfielder Andre Ethier advances a runner to third on a groundout — an unselfish act — but gripes afterward about its effect on his contract. “That's not gonna help me in arbitration,” he says.
As for the ownership group, it mostly gets a pass. Mark Walter, the CEO of Guggenheim Partners, is portrayed as smart, decent and modest. “I'm nothing special,” he says early in the book. “Just the king of common sense.” This is probably how Walter sees himself, but it is unconvincing as a portrait of the owner of a $2.15 billion sports franchise.
When Walter bought the team in a bankruptcy sale in 2012, most people thought he had overpaid. While Walter professes not to care about this perception, he is at pains to refute it. For one thing, he says that hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen came in with an offer of $2 billion — which seems to be new information — so he had to top that. For another, the Dodgers' TV contract was about to expire. In an age of declining TV viewership and DVRs, live sports were seen as more valuable than ever to advertisers. Viewers want to watch games live, and thus they have to watch the ads.
This is typically presented as a penetrating insight. What it is, in reality, is a theory of value. It may be true or not, or true but only up to a point. In paying $2 billion for the team — more than twice what any team had sold for before — Walter was pushing that theory to the limit. Fortunately for him, he found someone who believed it even more deeply than he did, Time Warner Cable, which agreed to pay $8.35 billion to lock up the rights to Dodgers games for 25 years.
This brings us to the great crime of Guggenheim's ownership, which is entirely omitted from Knight's book. To put it simply, Time Warner Cable overpaid and now fans are paying the price. Time Warner customers can watch the games. But DirecTV and other cable operators have refused to pay Time Warner's high asking price to carry the Dodgers channel — reportedly $5 per subscriber. As a result, games have been blacked out on those services for a year and a half. Roughly two-thirds of Dodger fans still cannot watch the games on TV.
Walter's theory of value — that live sports should command a premium due to DVRs — has reached its breaking point. Now the operative theory is the “greater fool” theory. Guggenheim found a greater fool in Time Warner Cable, but DirecTV has been unwilling to become an even greater fool. Time Warner Cable is hemorrhaging money and may have to write down the value of the Dodgers contract by $1 billion.
Guggenheim blames Time Warner Cable for this, but that's a dodge. Guggenheim is partners with Time Warner Cable — the Time Warner Cable logo even graces the Dodger dugout — and Guggenheim owns the channel. If they wanted to resolve this, they could do it today.
Walter doesn't see the urgency. “We're not talking about widows and orphans on the three sides of this transaction,” he told the L.A. Times earlier this year. That comment overlooks the fans who have been blocked from watching the games, and who are the ultimate source of the team's value.
Under the previous ownership regime, fans got so mad at Frank McCourt that they boycotted the games. Attendance dropped 22 percent in 2011. Now fans have been effectively locked out. Even as Guggenheim spent lavishly on a winning team, Dodger TV ratings hit an all-time low last year, with just 42,000 households watching a typical game, a decline of 70 percent from the year before.
This is more than a footnote in recent Dodger history — it is essential to the story.