As we’ve discussed in the past with writers like Jeff Pearlman, the path to a career in sportswriting is often a well-traveled one.
Usually it’s the sports-obsessed kid who realizes he’s not going to be a professional athlete so he turns to the next best thing: covering sports. He ends up going to journalism school, latches on at some small-town publication, and works his way up through years and years of grinding away at JV basketball games.
Most stories don’t involve pre-med at Stanford, degrees from bartending schools, and writing a New York Times bestselling book on your first attempt. That’s because most writers aren’t anything like Molly Knight.
The author of The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle To Build A Baseball Powerhouse, which reached bestseller status within 10 days of being released, was kind enough to spend 30 minutes of her day full of interviews telling us her story.
From Stanford To Bartending
Knight says her family goes back five generations in Los Angeles, which is a rarity. Part of that heritage includes a deep love of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But Knight never considered making that love into a career and instead attended Stanford University as a pre-med student.
“I majored in biology, but I was really terrible at organic chemistry so senior year I couldn’t bring myself to take the final two o-chem classes,” says Knight. “I had a mini-crisis where I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. A bunch of my friends were moving to New York so I thought I’ll just go ahead and do this. It seems more fun than sitting around and going to grad school.”
While organic chemistry stopped Knight from medical school, she gained a knowledge in other types of chemistry and got a degree from the National Bartenders School and headed off to New York City, reversing the move her beloved Dodgers made in 1958.
“I waited tables while I taught myself how to write. I had never written for anything before, not even a school paper,” Knight says. “If I had gone to a journalism school I would have gotten a great education and training, but I would have been told there were no good jobs. If I had known how hard it was going to be I wouldn’t have done it.”
Blissful ignorance of the difficulty aided Knight and allowed her to keep plugging away without a fear of failure. It also helped that she was having a whole lot of fun as a 21-year-old in NYC.
“I slept on a friend’s couch and I had a blast. I was 21, that’s when you do that stuff. I was out every night in bars, with friends, going to shows. It was so fun. I would encourage everyone to move to New York whether you are trying to be a writer or not,” says Knight.
It also helped that many of her friends were spending their gap years in NYC before heading off to Law School or grad school.
It’s clear she had some fun in New York, but how in the world did she end up working for ESPN, the job most sportswriters can only dream of?
“I started doing music reviews for this indie-rock magazine, making $5 a review. I then got a job at FHM as an intern and then an editorial assistant. One of my editors went over to ESPN, and he started tossing me some freelance work,” says Knight. “I started going into locker rooms and asking guys stuff like ‘What’s in your wallet?’ or doing holiday gift guides and little stuff like that.”
She hung around New York bartending and waiting tables to pay her rent, but after a few years doing whatever odd job ESPN asked, Knight was on contract at ESPN starting in 2008. From a pre-med student that couldn’t handle o-chem to full-time ESPN writer in a short amount of time, sportswriters the world over would kill for a career path like hers.
Knight stayed on at ESPN for the better part of six years, but she left in 2014 in order to write The Best Team Money Can Buy. Leaving what many consider a dream job was all worth it.
The book chronicles the crazy tales of the Dodgers organization, from the McCourt divorce and near bankruptcy of the team, to the purchase of the organization for $2 billion, to the building of a team of superstars and enigmatic figures, to the eventual playoff collapses of 2013 and 2014.
No Hollywood Ending
Knight’s book is being praised by book critics and baseball fans as a riveting inside look at one of the most interesting and insane organizations in sports. Of course, the Hollywood ending to the book would have involved a Dodgers World Series victory, and watching their playoff losses was doubly excruciating for Knight as she saw her favorite team and book subject fall apart.
“I was really worried that if they lost no one was going to bid on my book. I was so nervous, and then Clayton Kershaw just implodes,” Knight says. “I thought my career was over and I had wasted a year of my life. Then Simon & Schuster came back and said that they thought the loss made it seem more real.”
The devastation and self-doubt seems to be a recurring theme for Knight in the course of writing this book, making it all the more rewarding to see how well it has been received. She recalls a week in which she felt the pressure was almost too much for her, but that moment in time ended up being a major turning point in her career, and probably her life.
“I had a total meltdown two chapters into the book. I thought I would never be able to do this, that my career was ruined, that I was going to have to give back my advance,” Knight says. “I had set these expectations for myself that were unreachable. I started writing the book in April 2014 and I thought I would be done by July. I freaked out and I went to my grandmother’s house and hid from the world for a week. Finally I told my editor I wasn’t going to get it done by then and he was like ‘Yeah, duh, I don’t know why you ever thought that.’”
Knight learned to temper her expectations of herself, so long as she did the absolute best she could. She also learned the importance of surrounding herself with knowledgeable, capable, and successful people.
“[ESPN’s] Buster Olney was monumental. He gave me the best advice I got, which was to use a factchecker at the Hall of Fame. The factchecker caught so many mistakes that would have made me look like an idiot,” Knight says. “Olney also taught me how to get a guy like Clayton Kershaw to talk to me. He said to find out who Kershaw respects and let Kershaw see me talking to those guys. Everyone takes cues from their elders, so just like Kershaw would take cues from guys he respects, I took cues from Buster.”
Knight also details how ESPN’s Keith Law and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner helped keep her grounded and supported her when times got really tough with the book.
Unconventional Story, Unconventional Results
Really I was wrong at the beginning when I said there was a classic formula for a great sportswriter. You really can’t predict where the next great sports book will come from: Jim Bouton was an average knuckleballer when he wrote the explosive Ball Four, Michael Lewis was the author of books about mortgage-backed bonds and Silicon Valley before writing Moneyball, and Molly Knight had gotten more use out of her bartending degree than her Stanford education before becoming a sportwriter.
There are a few things in common with just about every sportswriter that Knight exhibits: hard work, organization, and a keen eye for a great story. Knight wasn’t the only person who realized that there was something crazy going on in the Dodger organization over the last few years, but she was the only one to realize what a great book this could turn into.
All of her hard work has produced something that she can be proud of, no matter the sales numbers. It doesn’t hurt that those sales numbers are pretty astounding at the moment either.
“I’ve rarely totally been satisfied with something I’ve done before. I think I’m as close as I’m going to get with this. Yes, I wish I had another three years to write it, but I feel pretty good about it,” says Knight. “That, to me, is the best feeling. There’s a real reward in that.”