The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse

BOOK: The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse
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About Molly Knight



This book is dedicated to all the women who fought to be allowed to report from locker rooms. Without them it would not exist.


didn’t think Clayton Kershaw
would lose.

Though we’d spoken many times for this book during the Dodgers’ crazy 2013 season, I waited until before Game 5 of the National League Championship Series—when his team was one loss away from elimination—to ask him if we could sit down for an extended interview about everything that had happened after the World Series was over. He agreed.

The Dodgers won later that day to force the series back to St. Louis and keep their season alive. Kershaw had the ball for Game 6. And though Los Angeles trailed in the series three games to two and would have to beat a tough Cardinals team in hostile territory even to sniff a Game 7, everyone around the club assumed that with their ace on the mound victory was a foregone conclusion. After winning the National League’s ERA crown the previous two seasons by posting numbers in the mid 2’s, the twenty-five-year-old lefty had somehow made himself even tougher to hit. When he finished the 2013 regular season weeks
earlier with a microscopic 1.83 earned run average, he erased any lingering questions that he was the best pitcher on the planet. There was no such thing as a sure win in baseball. But sending Clayton Kershaw to the mound in an elimination game was as close as it got.

And then it all went sideways.

Kershaw was torched for seven runs in four innings in a game that defied explanation. There would be no Game 7 after all. The Dodgers were out, having lost to the Cardinals by the same score as if they had forfeited: 9–0. Kershaw took it hard, showing no interest in appreciating his role in taking the Dodgers the closest they had been to a World Series berth in twenty-five years; he preferred to blame himself for their failure to get there because his wiring didn’t allow him any other choice. Two weeks later, the Red Sox beat the Cardinals to become world champions. Two weeks after that Kershaw won the National League’s Cy Young Award for the second time in three seasons. I wondered if he could ever enjoy a plaque he would gladly trade to get just one game back.

I decided to wait a month to reach out about our sit-down, hoping to allow enough time for the sting of Game 6 to fade, even just a little. But then Thanksgiving rolled around, and in December he and his wife, Ellen, spent three weeks in Zambia to oversee the work their foundation did with orphans there. Christmas came and went and so did New Year’s. With spring training approaching, I finally sent him a text message during the first week of January. Would he still be interested in getting together to talk for the book? Sounds great, he replied. And then he asked when I could come to Dallas, where he lives in the off-season. He told me he had to fly to Florida the following Monday, January 13, so we agreed that I’d come out from Los Angeles on Tuesday night and we’d meet on Wednesday.

When I landed at Love Field I turned on my cell phone and cursed. Social media lit up with news that Kershaw was about to sign a record contract extension to remain in Los Angeles. I’d been in sports reporting long enough to know that if there were any truth to that
rumor, the last thing he’d want to do was meet a journalist for lunch. As I thought about cutting my losses and hopping on the next flight home, my phone buzzed with a text message. It was Kershaw. “Why don’t you come by our house around 3 tomorrow if that works?” he asked me. It did. The extension talk must have just been another false alarm in a season full of them. The Dodgers had made no secret of wanting to lock up their star starting pitcher in blue forever, but negotiations early in the season had gotten weird, and the two sides had been locked in a standstill for months.

When I arrived at Kershaw’s house at three the following day, he apologized for my having to park a block away. He and Ellen had just purchased a home across the street from an elementary school, and he forgot that he told me to come around pickup time, when minivans and SUVs snarled his street. (The traffic added an extra minute to my trip.) I thought I’d find the Kershaw residence by scanning the block for the biggest stately pile, but the two-story colonial-style home that wound up being theirs was the same size as every other house that flanked it. He and Ellen had met at a school they attended just around the corner as eighth graders. I rang the doorbell. Kershaw opened the front door wearing a backward navy blue baseball cap, a brown T-shirt, black basketball shorts, and flip-flops. His playoff beard was long gone. His eyes looked bluer than the last time I saw him, too, after the final game of the Dodgers’ season in St. Louis, when defeat bled into them and turned them reddish gray.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped inside his house was the Ping-Pong table just to the left of the entryway. “I told Ellen she could get whatever furniture she wanted within reason if she just let me have my Ping-Pong table,” he said. He showed me what Ellen had given him for Christmas: a tiny contraption that launched Ping-Pong balls toward him like a pitching machine so he didn’t need a second person to play. “Who needs friends?” he said with a laugh. Then he grabbed a picture book of all his memorable moments from 2013 that Dodgers team photographer Jon SooHoo put together, another present from Ellen.
The book ended as abruptly as the season had. Its last page showed snaps from his Division Series–clinching win over the Braves. There was no photographic evidence of the St. Louis series.

We walked into the kitchen. He offered me a bottle of water and asked if I was hungry. A half dozen bananas and a vanilla-frosted Bundt cake sat on the counter undisturbed. Ellen had just left to run errands, so we were in the house alone. I told him that if he needed to kick me out so he could go sign a contract for half a billion dollars, he should feel free to do so. He laughed and shook his head. “Yeah,” he said, tossing me a bottle of water and opening one for himself. “A lot of rumors, huh?” We sat down. Thirty seconds later his cell phone rattled against the kitchen table. He looked down at it and frowned. “Hmm, it’s my agent,” he said. “I actually do need to take this.” He answered, without getting up from the table. Casey Close spoke from the other end of the line. “Congratulations. They met our terms,” Close said. Kershaw scratched the top of his head with his right hand and smiled. Close told him that there was still some paperwork to sign, but that it was just a formality. After twelve months of negotiating, his mammoth contract extension was finally complete. “It’s done, man,” Close said. Kershaw nodded and thanked him. “It’ll probably leak in the next twenty minutes,” said Close. “But just wait until after the Dodgers announce it on Friday to comment.” Kershaw thanked him again. The conversation lasted less than three minutes. Kershaw took a deep breath and hung up the phone. The room fell silent. I was now 100 percent certain he would ask me to leave. He didn’t.

“So,” he said. “Where were we?”

I was dumbfounded.

“Don’t you have, like, a million calls to make?” I asked.

“Everyone who needs to know already knows,” he said.

Was there a bottle of whiskey he needed to open or a touchdown dance he needed to do? “Nah, I’m good,” he said. “Let’s do the interview.”

He was serious. I laughed out loud.

I first met Clayton Kershaw six years earlier when he was a wide-eyed nineteen-year-old rookie in big-league camp. I had spent the first three years of his career watching him make hitters much older than him look silly on television, and the last three trying to figure out how he did it in person. I’d committed the angles of his breaking pitches to memory, and heard teammates talk about how his freakish physical gifts were matched only by how hard he worked. I listened to him, time and again, as he stood in front of his locker after his starts and talked about whether his fastball was working that day or it wasn’t, and how good his curveball felt as it left his fingertips. I talked to hitters who said his slider was invisible. I’d had a front-row seat to the truth but I missed it. At that moment I realized I was sitting across the table from a stone-cold assassin, a man so focused on completing the task in front of him, however mundane, that he didn’t even postpone an interview to celebrate a phone call telling him he was $200 million richer.

Because he had, by choice, remained a bit of a mystery to the general public by keeping the press at a safe distance, once he made the decision to talk to me he was determined to knock it off his to-do list even though this news had given him an out. His astounding ability to focus and shut out any noise he didn’t want to hear told a story that his pitching lines didn’t. The idea of stepping into the batter’s box against this man seemed even more terrifying. I flashed back to when his catcher and best friend on the team, A. J.
Ellis, described Kershaw to me as a person who set his internal GPS at the beginning of each game and seldom altered course, regardless of the changing road conditions. Beyond his ability to make a baseball dance, I now understood why the opposition was at such a disadvantage. His life had just changed forever and he hadn’t even flinched.

We began a wide-ranging interview that lasted an hour and a half. As he talked about growing up in Dallas his cell phone shook even harder. Four minutes after Kershaw hung up with Close, his little secret was splashed across Twitter:

Seven years for two hundred and fifteen million, with an opt-out after five.

It was the largest deal for a pitcher in baseball history. One commenter pointed out that Kershaw would make
seventy-five cents per heartbeat over the life of the contract—if he stayed in Los Angeles for the full seven years. In saying yes to the terms of the agreement, Kershaw joined Michael Jordan as the only other American athlete to earn an average of at least $30 million a season over the course of a multiyear deal. And, just as important to Kershaw’s nagging itch to control his life, he was granted the ability to hit the eject button after five years just in case bad things happened that he couldn’t foresee in that moment.

If he played out the entirety of his contract he’d hit the open market again as a free agent at age thirty-two. If he bolted after five years he’d be just thirty. Either way, this deal left him primed to sign another one just like it right as he was leaving his twenties, when the viability of the new Dodgers model would be more clear. After the incredible run Los Angeles went on to close out the 2013 season, its clubhouse was relatively stable. But Kershaw knew it took only one superstar ego to engulf the rest of the locker room in flames. The Dodgers’ new owners were rich beyond belief, and that money allowed them to load their roster with all-stars. A handful of them were time bombs dressed as humans, which scared Kershaw, because what he wanted more than anything was to win championships. At the beginning of the season, the Dodgers wanted Kershaw to sign a fifteen-year extension, which, being longer than half of his life, was impossible for him to comprehend. Eventually they settled on a third of that.

BOOK: The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse
7.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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