During my time working for the Dodgers, covering the team from the inside out, I marveled at the ease with which Ken Gurnick navigated the clubhouse.
Even though the same employer signed the players’ paychecks and my own, I often felt like an intruder. In contrast, Gurnick was part of the fabric. I recall how the longtime Dodger beat writer chatted as easily with a short-lived Dodger like Mike Bolsinger as with franchise icon Clayton Kershaw.
That comfort level comes through in Penguin Power, the Ron Cey memoir that I wrote about recently. Gurnick shaped and chronicled Cey’s many stories and reflections — and don’t get the idea it was like taking down dictation.
The skills and institutional memory that Gurnick developed over a four-decade career mattered deeply, particularly to Cey, who said “Kenny was the guy who was actually the perfect choice for me.”
“It was mostly a conversation back and forth,” Gurnick said about the process in an interview. “I would throw him a question, and then his answer would lead to another set of questions — and it was pretty easy to veer off because there were so many things that went on. I felt it was my part of job to keep in on track. … He went in with certain ideas that he wanted to talk about, (and) I went in with certain ideas I felt the Dodger fan wanted to hear.”
Obviously, Gurnick’s rapport with Cey didn’t develop overnight, and that speaks to the massive change in clubhouse rhythm across Gurnick’s career. His first year on the Dodger beat (1982) was Cey’s last with the Dodgers.
“It’s been much easier having a 40-year relationship with a player I covered for one year,” Gurnick said, “than the players I covered (more recently) for five to 10 years.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the relationship the Dodgers fostered between players and the media back in the O’Malley (ownership) days. We weren’t treated as I think beat writers today generally are by clubs. The players accepted their role as spokesmen and didn’t hide from it, and they were always available and encouraged to be available. The media and players developed much different relationships than they have now. The suspicion wasn’t there.”
That doesn’t mean that Gurnick was welcomed to the clubhouse like a long-lost brother. But they didn’t try to put Baby Ken in a corner, either.
“Here was this team of veterans coming off the World Series, and this was my first year covering baseball,” Gurnick said. “I got a quick education. They hazed me pretty good, with Tommy (Lasorda) yelling and screaming at every story I wrote … (but) they welcomed a fresh face on the beat. That beat was incredibly competitive and filled with big-name, well-known writers, and I think I was kind of a young fresh face.
“They would give you a hard time, but the next day it was over.”
Gurnick credits Kershaw as a throwback to that era for understanding that “the media is the conduit to the fan,” although Gurnick shortchanges himself. It’s fair to say that Kershaw doesn’t place his trust haphazardly, and yet I remember so well how he welcomed Gurnick into his clubhouse space and talked to him casually like he would with no other reporter.
In those moments, time stopped, as if neither felt any pressure to be anywhere else or do anything else than shoot the breeze. But maybe that’s an outsider’s perception, because Gurnick indicated that in the current era, you couldn’t afford to be loose with pregame time.
“In 1985, I had total access,” Gurnick said. “I could go up to any player almost any time before the game and get questions answered. In 2020, I might have a three-minute window with a player before a game. … I’m not gonna waste that asking how his kid did in Little League, when I need a question answered for a story I’m doing.
“Part of what I used to enjoy most of the job — which was really to get to know the players and give an accurate portrayal — I don’t think anyone can really do that anymore. That’s the way I learned how to do it, but in my last five years, I found that becoming almost impossible – not just the Dodgers. A lot of clubs have put a priority on managing the media.
“It’s not only that the writer doesn’t get to know the player, but the player doesn’t get to know the writer — and they don’t want to get to know the writer.
Gurnick then made a comment that made me laugh out loud.
“Because access is so limited,” he said, “it necessitates a lot of standing around, and then we get criticized for standing around.”
There was no standing around with Cey in writing Penguin Power. Gurnick said that the pair engaged in 20 interview sessions.
“This wasn’t the type of book where you interview 200 people,” Gurnick said. . “This was just a sit-down with him. So I enjoyed the time. I enjoyed the memory lane aspect of it.”
Gurnick also praised Cey’s memory. The longtime third baseman would recall a moment from nearly 50 years ago, and almost invariably, Gurnick would go to Baseball-Reference.com to verify it and find the recollection perfect.
Penguin Power doesn’t whitewash the past as if the grass were always greener and everything was rosy in Dodger blue. More than once, Cey notes how Al Campanis — the Dodger scouting director and then general manager who included Cey in the legendary draft haul of 1968 — rarely was in his corner.
Some quiet tension also emerges when it comes to the face of the 1970s Dodgers, Steve Garvey.
“I would say there was an annoyance, and it almost wasn’t really directed at Garvey,” said Gurnick, ”It was partly with the media and partly with the club using Garvey as the front man, because he was good at that role and he accepted it.
Gurnick noted that Garvey’s teammates “were puzzled at his defensive reputation,” which they didn’t see as Gold Glove-worthy. That wouldn’t be unusual, because for decades, Gold Glove awards were more a combination of popularity and even offensive skills than a true evaluation of defensive expertise.
“Everybody knew he was very limited,” Gurnick said. “He worked really hard to be really good at what he did well, and I know that Ron appreciated this. Great at digging balls out of the dirt and saving errors. But he couldn’t throw, and everybody knew that too. … It was like the elephant in the room that maybe no one acknowledged, (because) Garvey was good at so many other things.”
Baseball comes with challenges for everyone, and Cey makes it clear that he was no exception. But man, playing ball from childhood until a few months shy of his 40th birthday was a pretty great way to live, and Gurnick is happy to have played a part in sharing that sentiment with Cey in Penguin Power.
“It’s not only his autobiography, but I also think it’s a tribute to that era, which I do think (that Dodger team) has slipped through the cracks a little bit as far as the credit it deserves for the things it accomplished,” Gurnick said. “My role was to bring that out with him (while) still giving his perspective on his career.”