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How Guggenheim turned the Dodgers into 'The Best Team Money Can Buy'

Molly Knight at Dodger Stadium with her new book
Molly Knight at Dodger Stadium with her new book "The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse."
John Rabe/KPCC

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"The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse" is author Molly Knight's chronicle of how far down Frank McCourt dragged the Dodgers, and how far up the new owners want to take it. 

John Rabe met with Knight at Dodger Stadium to talk about the book — as they watched the Phillies pummel the Dodgers from seats on the first base line.

Interview Highlights 

Can you imagine, if Frank McCourt (Dodgers owner from 2004-2012) managed to make it through bankruptcy and still owned the Dodgers, what Dodger Stadium would be like today?

"Well, it would be a pretty depressing place. He would still be in litigation with his wife, because she would be appealing to get what she felt was rightfully hers, the team would probably have a payroll like the Mets, we wouldn't be looking at these beautiful scoreboards with high definition color, our feet would be sticking to the ground from the beer and the gum. I'm going to be able to find my car later and not worry about what happens in dark parking lots."

How did the Guggenheim group manage to win the secret auction [for ownership of the Dodgers]?

"Frank [McCourt], in his infinite shadiness, decided, instead of having the auction, he was going to terrify the bidders the night before and sort of meet with them separately, and figure out what their bid was going to be. And he met with [hedge fund billionaire] Steve Cohen, and according to other people who saw the piece of paper with the offer Cohen made, Cohen offered Frank $2 billion for the Dodgers. Frank then went to the Guggenheim group and slid that piece of paper across the table to Mark Walter and said, 'Can you meet this?' And [Walter] said 'I can, but I'm going to make you an offer, and if I make you this offer, that's it, we have a deal, there is no auction tomorrow.' And Frank said 'OK.'"

The Guggenheim group had a ton of money, but their president, the guy they hired to run the Dodgers, Stan Kasten, is known for wanting to have a clean slate.

“He hates paying players. He hates it. It’s almost like he feels it’s coming from his own wallet. He just feels like, as soon as you give them that big money, nothing but problems. They get hurt, they lose motivation. Your team is hurt because of it.”

But Mark Walter, the owner, wanted to make sure that the fans came back. The fans that had left in droves because Frank McCourt was such a jerk.

“And [Walter] didn’t want to have a rebuilding era like the Cubs are coming out of, like the Mets are hoping to come out of. No, no, that wasn’t acceptable. They wanted to win immediately. Or at the very least they wanted to have superstars who would draw fans and who would light up their television network. It’s sort of the reason why the team was worth $2 billion. And to their credit, they’re trying to rebuild the major league team and the minor league system at the same time. And they’re spending through the nose to do that, but they’re backing it up.”

One of the key examples of the rebuilding is how you start your book, when you met Clayton Kershaw at his house in  Texas.

"That was the most fortuitous day of my life. Clayton is a very private person, it took years to build his trust. He's a great, great man, he's just very protective of his private life, which I can understand, being the best pitcher on the planet. I landed in Dallas and I saw that there were contract extension rumors, and I texted him like, 'Uh, are we still on?' and he was like 'Yeah!' I got to his house the next day at 3 o'clock on the dot, and his agent called at, I believe, 3:06 or 3:05 to tell him that his deal was done, and it was just me and him alone in his house, just sitting there. I believe I was definitely more freaked out than he was."

How big was this deal?

"$215 million for seven years, the largest contract for a pitcher in major league history and the largest average annual contract for a professional athlete in U.S. history."

And you offered him the chance to cut the interview short and deal with this stuff. And he said, no, he was going to do the interview. What did that tell you about his character?

“So, Clayton’s phone is going off like crazy, vibrating the hell out of the table. I turned my recorder off because I was getting nervous that he was missing a text message from his mother, from his wife, from his best friend. And he’s like, ‘Oh, no, let’s just knock out this interview right now.' He is a person who has this insane ability to be focused and be present where he is.”