Commentary

Colletti is in it for the long haul

Despite turmoil and disappointment, GM helped bring stability to Dodgers

Updated: April 24, 2010, 3:07 PM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Ned Colletti, who had been an integral part of the Chicago Cubs' front office, was stunned when he was cut loose three days after Christmas in 1993. He was out of baseball for almost a year and wanted in the worst way to get back in.

That chance finally came in November 1994. San Francisco Giants GM Bob Quinn wanted to bring in Colletti as director of baseball operations, one level below assistant GM and scouting director Brian Sabean. The offer came on a Saturday, during a meeting in Phoenix, and Colletti immediately flew to San Francisco to get a gauge on the notoriously high cost of living in the Bay Area.

And then, after 11 months away from the game, he turned down the job.

"I said, 'Bob, I can't do it for what they're offering,'" Colletti said. "But it was Brian who pulled me aside and said, 'Let's figure out a way to make this work.' So I commuted back and forth from Chicago."

The Giants footed the bill for Colletti's travel expenses, including the hotel room he needed every night of the work week, until after the 1995 amateur draft, at which point Sabean got him enough of a raise to make a move to the West Coast work. The following winter, with Quinn planning to retire after the 1996 season, Giants owner Peter Magowan called in Sabean and Colletti and told them to plan on moving up one level each when that happened, meaning Sabean would be the GM and Colletti the assistant. They spent much of the '96 season preparing for those promotions.

"Brian and I worked very well together," Colletti said. "I traveled extensively with the major league club. He started traveling at the end of August, so it was both of us. There was one trip to Montreal and New York where we were up until dawn every night trying to figure out how to make the club better. We stayed out until a place closed down, then we would walk around the streets continuing to discuss things.

"Keep in mind that at that time, there was no Pac Bell Park even in the plans. We came to the conclusion that we would have to trade either Matt Williams or Barry Bonds, because their percentage of the payroll was too high. We decided it would be Matt Williams. There was more upside with Barry, even though Matt was more of a favorite in the city. We also thought there was a high probability of injury with Matt and a high probability that the injury would be prolonged. ... The moves we made that winter were pretty good."

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesBarry Bonds

The Giants had finished with a losing record for the third year in a row and had posted their worst record (68-94) in more than a decade. That winter, they traded Williams to Cleveland for Jeff Kent, Jose Vizcaino, Julian Tavarez and a throw-in pitcher named Joe Roa, plus $1 million cash. They acquired first baseman J.T. Snow and $750,000 from the Angels for Allen Watson and a minor league pitcher named Fausto Macey. They signed Darryl Hamilton, a free-agent outfielder with a reputation for being a strong clubhouse leader.

"Within a two-month period, we restocked the club with a first baseman, a second baseman, a shortstop, a center fielder and a good relief pitcher," Colletti said. "And we probably ended up with a lower payroll at the same time."

The next year, the Giants won the National League West. It was the first of four playoff appearances over the next seven years, and it took a one-game playoff loss to the Cubs in 1998 to keep them from making it five. In 2000, they moved from frigid Candlestick Park to a jewel of a downtown ballpark where a left-handed power hitter like Bonds could actually hit home runs into the San Francisco Bay.

And in 2002, center fielder Kenny Lofton's walk-off single in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NL Championship Series against St. Louis put the Giants into their first World Series in 13 years. Somewhere amid the on-field pandemonium after Lofton's hit, Giants infielder Shawon Dunston, who had been the NL Rookie of the Year for the Cubs in 1989, found Colletti, and the two embraced for several seconds.

"Can you believe it?" Dunston shouted into Colletti's ear. "Two Chicago Cubs are going to the World Series."

Grady Little Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesGrady Little's future as manager of the Dodgers became uncertain during a tumultuous end to the 2007 season.

Issues in the clubhouse

It all came to a head during one week in September.

The Dodgers had been in first place for much of that 2007 season, but it was clear by now that it was all slipping away. On the evening of Sept. 18, the Dodgers were swept in the most demoralizing way in one of those exhausting, day-night doubleheaders at Colorado. The nightcap had seemed to be safely in hand until setup man Jonathan Broxton and closer Takashi Saito had given up two runs apiece in the eighth and ninth, the latter a two-run, walk-off homer to Todd Helton.

After that game, Dodgers manager Grady Little's opening remark to the media was markedly different from what he had said after any game during his two seasons with the club.

"This was a tough one," he said, his voice discernibly downcast.

What Little told Colletti in a downtown Denver bar later that night was even stronger, although it wouldn't be made public for quite some time.

"He told me he was thinking seriously about not coming back," Colletti said. "This would be off and on throughout the remainder of the season."

Little had been given a contract extension that spring that guaranteed his employment through 2008 with an option for 2009. But the clubhouse was unusually challenging that year. There was a growing fissure between a group of promising young players who had mostly come up through the minors together and seemed to have an outsized sense of entitlement, and a handful of veterans who were rubbed the wrong way by that attitude.

[+] EnlargeJeff Kent
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireJeff Kent

Two days after that pivotal doubleheader, Colorado completed a four-game series sweep, ending any doubt that the Dodgers' season was toast. As the players somberly showered and dressed before taking a flight to Arizona for their next series, Jeff Kent, a veteran second baseman who wanted one more shot at the World Series ring he'd never gotten, decided to make that rift public by revealing it to reporters.

The following day, a beat writer asked a couple of those youngsters, first baseman James Loney and outfielder Matt Kemp, to respond to Kent's comments. Both responded defiantly, the normally low-key Loney saying, "Who said he's a leader?''

The clubhouse divide clearly had an effect on the field. The Colletti era had reached its nadir.

"Both sides were wrong," Colletti said. "What I saw at the end of that season really disturbed me. Teams we were better than, they took it to us, and we cowered. We didn't fight back. I told them there were a handful of teams in professional sports, or at the highest levels of collegiate athletics, where the logo they carry is the one other teams come shooting for. The Dodgers are one of those teams, and you need to be prepared for that."

When the season finally ended, Little told Colletti he would make a decision on his future while driving home to North Carolina. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees were making their third consecutive first-round playoff exit, and manager Joe Torre was at the end of his contract.

Little's uncertainty, as well as the uncertainty of Yankees management about whether it wanted to keep Torre around for a 15th season, created a perfect storm of sorts. Although Little was still under contract, Colletti couldn't help but wonder what kind of impact Torre, whose strength as a manager was handling a clubhouse full of egos, might have on the divided Dodgers, especially with Kent coming back for another year.

The dark moment would give rise to a new dawn.

"It did lead us to a new chapter," Colletti said. "It led us to Joe and a different coaching staff, and it brought us to a younger core of players."

Joe Torre
AP Photo/Reed SaxonJoe Torre and general manager Colletti chat during batting practice.

High stakes and fierce loyalty

Ask Ned Colletti whether he is difficult to work for and he'll say, "I don't work for myself. You would have to ask other people." And so you do, but you know that none of those people is going to tell you he is tough to work for, at least not on the record. But everyone, Colletti included, seems to agree: He is moody, emotional, temperamental, demanding and a bit of a roller-coaster ride to be around.

"I would rather be called passionate," Colletti said.

"It's an open dialogue, both ways," said De Jon Watson, one of Colletti's three assistant GMs and the guy Colletti brought in to run the player-development department after Terry Collins left to manage in Japan. "I may propose some off-the-wall things, and he is open to hearing what I have to say. He has great listening skills, and before it's over, he will come up with some really challenging questions. He speaks his mind, and he is passionate. Before you get caught up in the day-to-day, he reminds you to step back and look at where you're going from a player-development standpoint. He makes sure you're not missing anything."

A few years ago, a published report said there was friction between Colletti and Logan White, another assistant GM who runs the scouting department and has been responsible for drafting a large percentage of the current major league roster and almost every one of the team's current minor league prospects.

According to the report, White, who had a vested interest in making sure as many of his draft picks as possible stayed in the organization, had owner Frank McCourt's ear on that subject, which handcuffed Colletti as he tried to improve the major league club by trading prospects for big league-ready talent.

Colletti and White deny any such friction ever existed.

"I don't think I need to dispel something that was never true in the first place," Colletti said. "I think we get along fine. I have complete control over the baseball-operations department and always have. People are here by my desire, and I have never been told to keep somebody or let somebody go. There isn't friction. But there have been constructive conversations with a lot of people, including some of my best people. That is how you get better. I somewhat require strong conversation. Otherwise, you never get to the finish line of a conversation."

White readily concedes that it hasn't always been comfortable for him since Colletti arrived, but that hardly makes him unique within the Dodgers' front office.

"It's like with any relationship," White said. "You know you're going to have moments where you might have a disagreement, and it's usually player-based. My wife and I disagree sometimes, but it's a strong relationship. Ned has those moments with everybody. The thing I think was unfair to Ned and myself was that people said Logan got in the ear of the owner. If I talked to Frank, it was always with Ned included in the discussions. But if someone wants to write [otherwise], there is nothing you can do."

Colletti is fiercely loyal to those he trusts, and in his four years with the Dodgers, he has formed a bond with his inner circle that rivals the one he once had with Sabean. Every year around the holidays, Colletti, a diehard NHL fan, organizes a multi-city trip to Canada. Everyone at the upper levels of the front office is invited, but not everyone likes hockey, not everyone likes cold weather, and some people have family commitments that time of year.

[+] EnlargeJoe Torre
John Williamson/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesAs the season ended, Joe Torre was suddenly available, having just spurned an incentive-laden offer to stay with the Yankees that he deemed "an insult."

The usual crew includes scout Vance Lovelace, Watson and special assistants Rick Ragazzo and Bill Mueller -- the same Mueller who was one of the first players Colletti signed when he took over. The itinerary usually is set based on where the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing because Colletti forged a close friendship with their president and GM, Brian Burke, when he was the Anaheim Ducks' GM and Colletti was new in town.

When Burke's son, Brendan, was killed in a car accident in February, the entire crew, without any prompting by Colletti, flew in from around the country to attend the funeral, which was held in Canton, Mass.

Colletti has received a humanitarian award from A Place Called Home, an organization that helps inner-city kids, and he volunteers for A Better L.A., a group that works to prevent violence. He had it written into his new contract that he and the Dodgers would make an annual contribution to Guide Dogs of America.

But anyone who thinks that makes him a softie has never been in his private box during a game. For those who are there on a regular basis, the tension can sometimes be suffocating. And when you are in the presence of a man who can fire you at his whim, and that man isn't the sort to hide his emotions, well, it can be a little intimidating.

"When we're up 10-1 in the top of the second inning, it's OK," assistant GM Kim Ng said, only half-joking. "But it's great. I think the thing that you would love for the fans to understand is that this is our livelihood. Our careers depend on these wins and losses. If it gets a little intense, then so be it. The shelf life of a general manager is pretty short. On average, if you take out the outliers, I would say it's about three years. If I were in that position, would I be living and dying with each pitch? Absolutely."

Bringing Joe Torre to L.A.

Weeks had passed, and Colletti said he had received no answer from Little. Meanwhile, Torre was suddenly available, having just spurned an incentive-laden offer to stay with the Yankees that he deemed "an insult." Colletti thought it was time to explore the possibility of bringing Torre to Los Angeles.

"I called a mutual friend and asked if Joe would be interested," Colletti said. "Joe called me back within half an hour. I asked if he wanted to talk, and he said, 'I would love to, do you want to meet halfway? I'll be in Vegas this weekend.' So I flew in Saturday morning and met with him at the Wynn hotel. I took a back elevator to his suite, and we met for five or six hours."

Torre had done his homework on Colletti, mostly by talking to Don Zimmer, who had been one of Torre's coaches with the Yankees for several years and had managed the Cubs during Colletti's time in the front office.

"Zimmer loves him to death, and that was enough of a commentary for me," Torre said. "I had met him in passing. When he came to meet up with me in Las Vegas, I was very comfortable with him. He was very down-to-earth, just being himself, and I would like to believe I'm that way, too. I knew I was talking to somebody who had been around the game a long time."

Colletti flew back to Los Angeles and met with Frank and Jamie McCourt. The next day, Torre and his wife, Ali, flew in and met with Colletti and the McCourts at one of the owners' houses.

It was clear where all of this was headed. Eventually, the decision was made to buy out the remainder of Little's contract.

Joe TorreAP Photo/Matt SaylesJoe Torre speaks during a news conference introducing him as the new Dodgers manager.

Torre quickly agreed to terms on a three-year, $13 million deal, and was introduced in a grandiose news conference in center field at Dodger Stadium, emceed by Vin Scully. The Torres, the McCourts and Colletti, all dressed to the nines, addressed the crowd from high atop a specially constructed dais.

It was in striking contrast to Little's introduction two years earlier, when he had been flanked only by Colletti and Tommy Lasorda in a hotel ballroom that served as the media work area at the winter meetings in Dallas.

In Torre, Colletti now had a manager whose pedigree was far longer than his own, a guy with four World Series rings to his credit who certainly wasn't going to cater to the front office's every whim or be beholden to anyone. It was potentially an awkward pairing. But two years in, the results -- consecutive division titles and first-round playoff victories -- speak for themselves.

Torre's Hall of Fame credentials aside, though, there is no question as to who is in charge.

"To me, Ned is very easy to deal with," Torre said. "He is very honest, and he tells me how he feels. I'm glad, because he is very straightforward. There was one night a couple of years ago when I sent [Clayton] Kershaw back out for the eighth inning at a time when we were trying to limit his innings, and I heard about that. Ned came in and told me after the game, and that was fine. He respects my baseball knowledge, and we talked it through."

The roller coaster of expectation

It would be an exaggeration to say speculation about Colletti's job security began from the moment he was hired, but it wouldn't be a gross exaggeration. Back in those days, anybody who worked for the McCourts was in perpetual danger of being fired. By the time Colletti was brought on board, McCourt had owned the team for a year and a half, and he had either gotten rid of or accepted resignations from two general managers, a field manager, two communications directors, a traveling secretary and a host of lower-level employees.

Ned CollettiMichael Zagaris/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesColletti's extension was announced on Oct. 21, but the length of that deal wasn't revealed.

Colletti knew he was walking into a minefield. But he also knew he would be working for an owner who cared about fielding a winning team, which was the one requirement Colletti placed above all others in deciding whether to take the job.

Colletti spent that first winter frantically rebuilding the big league club, almost from scratch, filling in whatever gaps he could with major league-ready talent until all those coveted prospects could blossom. But after making the playoffs in 2006, the Dodgers hit that bump in 2007. By the middle of 2008, the club appeared to be going nowhere in Torre's first season, and the Colletti downfall watch was officially on.

Colletti had committed a total of $127.2 million of the McCourts' money to Juan Pierre, Jason Schmidt and Andruw Jones. And when a story broke in the summer of 2008 that Colletti had a deal in place to acquire reigning American League Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia from Cleveland but that McCourt had nixed the deal because he didn't want to pick up Sabathia's salary, it was predicted in some media circles that Colletti's ouster was imminent because of the popular assumption he was the one who had leaked the story.

But McCourt says he never had that assumption.

"Keep in mind that speculation refers to chatter and so forth," McCourt said. "It doesn't reflect at all what was going on between Ned and I and the conversation we were having. Again, I have found in this business that there can be two conversations going on: the real one between the principals, and what is going on around them that is sometimes driven by speculation more than fact."

Colletti doesn't deny that McCourt is a tough boss. But then, so is Colletti. To that end, the relationship between the two seems to work extremely well, even if it isn't always pleasant.

"Frank pushes your thought process,'' Colletti said. "He pushes it to a different level, then he pushes it to another level, and you get better at what you do because of how he forces you to think it through."

Those words are similar to something Kim Ng said about what it's like to work for Colletti.

"A lot of times, Ned will keep asking the same questions in different ways to make sure you have conviction in what you say," Ng said. "I know I have to argue my point, and it really makes me think through what I'm going to say before I say it."

Even if McCourt wasn't thinking about firing Colletti in the summer of 2008 -- a point when Colletti still had more than a year left on his contract -- there was a segment of the population that seemed to be clamoring for it. There was a website called FireNedColletti.com (since taken down), and there were constant reminders on talk radio and blogs about the money given to free agents who hadn't panned out.

Colletti It frustrates me from time to time. Sometimes, people don't understand all the dynamics that go into it. There are no guarantees. But I don't take it to heart. I think I benefit from how I was brought up and where I came from.

-- Ned Colletti, on the scrutiny surrounding his job

"It frustrates me from time to time," Colletti said of all the noise. "Sometimes, people don't understand all the dynamics that go into it. There are no guarantees. But I don't take it to heart. I think I benefit from how I was brought up and where I came from. I worry about what I can control, and the one thing I can control is my effort. I know what my effort is, and I know what my thought process is."

It started to turn around for Colletti on July 31, 2008, the day he somehow acquired talented but temperamental outfielder Manny Ramirez from Boston. Ramirez's impact on the lineup was almost immediate, even if his impact on the team's fortunes wasn't. But eventually, the Dodgers turned their season around, following an eight-game losing streak with an eight-game winning streak that included five consecutive wins over the team the Dodgers were chasing in the N.L. West standings, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Ultimately, the Dodgers parlayed a modest 84 wins into a division title, then swept the Chicago Cubs in the first round of the playoffs, their first postseason series victory in 20 years, before losing to Philadelphia in the National League Championship Series. Colletti appeared to have saved his job, but there would be no extension until the following October, when the team won another division title and another first-round series before losing to the Phillies again.

Colletti's extension was announced on Oct. 21, a few hours before the final game of that second NLCS. In a clear effort to minimize any future speculation about his job security, the length of that deal was never announced and has never come to light -- although one of the reasons for that is that the contract contains a complicated set of options that makes it nearly impossible to assign a specific number of years to it.

As it turns out, though, Colletti hadn't had any reason to worry about his job for quite some time, anyway, not since the day months earlier when he and McCourt had shared a lunch at the Polo Lounge -- the same place where they had dined together during that exhausting initial interview back in November 2005.

"In my mind, I had made that decision well before we ever started the negotiations," McCourt said. "I remember sitting down with him at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I said, 'Keep doing what you're doing, and you will be here a long time.' That was my way of saying he was my guy. I thought we worked well together, and we would take care of the details later on."

Al Campanis
Bernstein Associates/Getty ImagesAl Campanis spent 19 years as Dodgers GM.

Long-term commitment

McCourt has talked almost from the moment he bought the club about the importance of establishing stability and continuity, but it took him a while to put that into practice. Now, he has made a long-term commitment to Colletti.

McCourt also spoke in those early days of the importance of restoring the Dodgers' brand, of re-establishing the team's place as one of baseball's premier franchises.

There is no denying that there have been growing pains, that Colletti has made his share of mistakes, that he is a better GM today than he was three or two or even one year ago. There also is no denying that he deserves credit not only for rebuilding the big league club from the train wreck it was when he arrived, but also for doing it mostly without trading away the rich pool of minor league talent he inherited.

Among the youngsters he did trade, Edwin Jackson became a front-line major league starter and now pitches for one of the Dodgers' primary division rivals in Arizona, and Carlos Santana is now widely viewed as baseball's top catching prospect. But the Dodgers' transformation, which ran from the lowest depths of the minor league system all the way to Chavez Ravine, didn't come without tough decisions.

Along the way, Colletti and McCourt formed a partnership that is beginning to look as solid as the one Al Campanis once had with the O'Malley family during an almost-unthinkable 19-year run as the Dodgers' GM. Only time will tell if Colletti sticks around that long. But he is here for the foreseeable future.

"Over the last four years, we have spent a lot of time together and talked about a lot of things," McCourt said of Colletti. "I have enjoyed it all, the discussions we have had about baseball and how to continue to get better and better and better and fulfill the promise we made to the community and to the fans. We see eye to eye on a lot of things. Maybe our approaches are different, and sometimes we debate different things. But in terms of having an overarching philosophy and a system in place, I think we're all on the same page.

"You don't go through a season without ups and downs. They either make or break your relationship. In our case, we have been very fortunate, because it helped make, or cement, our relationship. I think we both have grown up in ways in our lives and our careers, and I think Ned knows he has a very, very strong partner in me."

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter or ask him a question for his next mailbag.

Tony Jackson

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