In my opinion, the most important thing a nonfiction writer can do is get out of the way. Let the story tell itself, and if it’s a story worth telling, it will work. Obviously, it’s not actually that easy — an author has to write every word of every sentence. But a good nonfiction book will seem as if it has written itself; if you can get through the entire book without ever thinking about the author, it is a success.
My latest read, “The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse” by Molly Knight, nails it. Knight is an excellent writer with a remarkable skill at telling a story — even a story that she was a part of — without ever making you think about her as a writer.
I am not an impartial observer. I am a lifelong Dodger fan, and I also had the opportunity to talk with Knight a few months ago about this book and the Dodgers in general. She is clever, funny, passionate, and countless other positive adjectives. I went into this book desperately wanting to like it, which I rarely do. I often read baseball books that I expect to like — anything by Joe Posnanski, Rob Neyer, Jonathan Eig, or Jane Leavy is a good bet — but I don’t often go into a book wanting to like it.
Wanting to like the book probably made me a tougher critic; my least favorite book of all time is not the worst book I ever read, but it is the only other book I went in wanting to love. The author’s writing style constantly took me out of the narrative and made me think things like, “Wow, this author is really proud of his vocabulary and his knowledge of obscure poetry.” It’s not that Knight isn’t intelligent — she is an excellent writer and a keen understanding of baseball — she just doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it.
Knight had access to players, coaches, and executives to a degree that you rarely see, so she is able to tell some outstanding stories about the Dodgers teams of the past few years. Some of the stories are hilarious, like the story of Zack Greinke standing up during a tense team meeting to give what his teammates thought was going to be a rare pep talk from the soft-spoken starter, only to find that instead he was chastising them for their hygienic deficiencies in the bathroom (pp. 201-202).
Other stories have an insight that we don’t often get to see, including a view of Yasiel Puig that avoids the polar extremes that most Puig commentary resides in. Puig is not a baseball god who can do no wrong in Knight’s book, but neither is he a disrespectful monster who cares only about himself. He is portrayed in three dimensions, good and bad qualities expressed in true stories that resist the urge to pass judgment. (There is a 36-page chapter on Puig called “Puigatory.”)
Perhaps my favorite anecdote in the book comes right at the beginning. The prologue is the only part of the book where Knight speaks in the first person; throughout the rest of the book, even her own experiences are told in the third person, with extensive notes at the end letting you know that “the reporter” in question was her. In the prologue, though, Knight tells the story of when she sat down with Clayton Kershaw to interview him for the book. I won’t spoil the whole story for you, although you can actually read the entire prologue in the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon. As a teaser, though, it turned out that Knight happened to be sitting in Kershaw’s kitchen with him, interviewing him for the book, when he got the call from his agent informing him that his seven-year, $215 million contract extension with the Dodgers had been finalized. It is unprecedented insight and access into one of the biggest professional moments in the life of the best pitcher on the planet.
I said this book is not about the author, and that is true. But knowing that it was written by Knight adds another dimension to its impact. The dedication at the beginning of the book says it all: “This book is dedicated to all the women who fought to be allowed to report from locker rooms. Without them it would not exist.”
There is nothing about the book that benefits from being written by a woman, but the entire thing is remarkable because a woman wrote it. The fact that Knight was given the sort of access she was, with no regard to her gender, is a stark change from locker room culture of just a few short decades ago. In short, the fact that you can read the entire book without ever knowing it was written by a woman is an enormous accomplishment.
“The Best Team Money Can Buy” is not just for Dodger fans. It is a baseball book that happens to have the Dodgers as the central characters. The story about the friendship between Hyun-jin Ryu and Juan Uribe (pp. 83-84) humanizes players in a few short paragraphs better than almost anything I have read. Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier — nearly every Dodger of the past three seasons is portrayed in a way that goes much deeper than the standard three hours a day we see on television.
I am not a literary critic, so I am not calling this a book review. But I love baseball and I love books and I love baseball books, and this is one of the best I’ve ever read.