Dodgers confident they have a gem in Little

The Dodgers held an organizational meeting at Chavez Ravine earlier this month, and front-office executives, coaches and scouts spent two days assessing the franchise's talent and where things go from here.

New manager Grady Little was content to sit back, listen and scribble notes in a yellow-lined pad during much of the proceedings. But when he expressed an opinion, it was forceful enough to resonate throughout the room. Contrary to what half of New England thinks, the man is eminently capable of stringing together a coherent sentence.

"Grady is a street-smart guy who grew up in the country," said Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti.

You remember Grady Little. He went 188-136 in two seasons with the Red Sox and managed the team to a wild-card berth in 2003. But a misguided show of faith in Pedro Martinez's staying power in the American League Championship Series branded him a failure and a punch line. And just like that, everything that made Little so endearing -- from his Texas cotton farming background to his Southern-fried colloquialisms -- barely seemed to matter.

Most people make a questionable decision on the job and live to tell about it. Not Little. He spent the past two years roaming the baseball wilderness, first as a consultant to Cubs general manager Jim Hendry and then as a roving catching instructor with the club. No offense to roving catching instructors, but this was like Tom Hanks making "Bonfire of the Vanities," then being banished to a career as a game-show host.

Some men might have been bitter; some might have viewed the hiatus as a chance for personal growth. Little sort of rolled along in his unflappable way, refusing to curse his fate or rationalize the decisions that got him here.

Opportunity finally arrived in November with a phone call from Colletti, a former sportswriter and Cubs PR man who had just spent a decade as Brian Sabean's No. 2 man in San Francisco. Colletti is aware of the power of labels, and he has an affinity and compassion for those who work hard to overcome them.

"It struck me as perplexing that Grady hadn't gotten a chance to manage again," Colletti said. "But the more I talked to people who had seen him in the heat of the battle, the more I realized that maybe this is a golden opportunity. Maybe he just didn't find the right place, the right time, the right situation to come back quickly. That happens. So much of this game is timing."

Three interviews led to a job offer, an acceptance and a press conference at the winter meetings in Dallas. And now Little is home in Pinehurst, N.C., filling the hours until spring training doodling lineup cards and thinking about baseball even on the putting green.

The good news is, there are 40 golf courses in Moore County, so tee times are readily available.

"I'm shaky at best," Little said by phone, when asked to assess his game. "Usually I do whatever I need to do to make a bogey."

A bogey would be an upgrade over what his new team accomplished last year. After starting 12-2 under Jim Tracy, the Dodgers went 59-89 the rest of the way to finish 11 games behind San Diego in a terrible National League West. They ranked 12th in the league in runs scored, 14th in slugging percentage and first in soap opera scenarios.

Tracy and former Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta had issues behind the scenes. Milton Bradley and Jeff Kent aired their differences in the papers. And owner Frank McCourt and his wife, Jamie, seemed so concerned with polishing their image in the media that some members of the press bashed them just for the fun of it.

Yet the Dodgers were so riddled with misfortune, improvement is virtually assured in 2006. According to STATS Inc., the Dodgers amassed 1,366 days on the disabled list last season, third most in baseball behind Washington (1,650) and Seattle (1,538). The eight position players in Los Angeles' Opening Day lineup logged 366 disabled list days, most in the majors.

As a result, Kent was the only Dodger to amass the requisite plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. When Olmedo Saenz racks up 225 at-bats in the 4-5 spots in the order, your offense clearly has issues.

Colletti, taking no chances, has made a slew of changes this winter. He's signed free agents Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra, Bill Mueller, Kenny Lofton, Brett Tomko and Sandy Alomar Jr., acquired Danys Baez and Lance Carter from the Devil Rays for pitching prospects Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany, and added Jae Seo from the Mets in a deal for reliever Duaner Sanchez.

Some moves look better on paper than others. Seo, who went 8-2 with a 2.59 ERA in New York, is an underrated pickup and might be ready to blossom. Conversely, a two-year, $8.75 million commitment to Tomko seems a bit extravagant, even if the Padres also were pursuing him.

But the overall picture is still positive. The Furcal and Garciaparra acquisitions give the Dodgers some juice with the ticket-buying public, and all of Colletti's contracts are of sufficiently short duration that they won't block the progress of the organization's mother lode of prospects.

The challenge of molding these disparate parts into a team falls to Little, and as a manager that players universally like and respect, he appears well-suited for the job. Colletti spoke to a dozen people from all corners of the baseball world during the hiring process and received glowing reviews. He even heard from a player or two who called unsolicited to give Little endorsements.

The résumé speaks for itself. In 16 years as a minor-league manager, Little learned to deal with homesick kids in Rookie League and disgruntled veterans in Triple-A ball. He worked in a demanding media market in Boston, spent 10 years in a winning environment in the Atlanta system, and embraced the concept of flexibility at every step along the way. The Dodgers expect to promote pitcher Chad Billingsley, catcher Russell Martin, third baseman Andy LaRoche and several other elite prospects in the next year or two, and they wanted a manager who's not married to the veterans.

"Sometimes a manager is reluctant to play a kid," Colletti said. "I needed Grady to be open minded that if a young player is ready, we'll give him an opportunity. Grady assured us that he has no reservations about that. He's completely on board with it."

To this day, people in Boston's front office insist the Pedro fiasco alone did not cost Little his job. The modern manager has a variety of tools available -- from computer printouts to video to advance scouting reports -- and the Red Sox felt Little was too prone to trust his gut rather than rely on the data at his disposal. There was some grousing about questionable game strategy and dubious bullpen management as well. "Too reactive, rather than proactive," was the common refrain on Little's performance.

But the beat writers who trooped into Little's office each day at Fenway Park and listened to him explain his lineup combinations and in-game decisions came to regard him as more than competent. And if the Red Sox thought Little was such a disaster, would they have hired a successor, Terry Francona, with such a similar approach to clubhouse management?

"I'll combine the use of any numbers we gather up with my gut instinct," Little said. "But if that's a label that's put on me, I can't see it's going to change tremendously. Whatever we did enabled a ball club in Boston to reach the seventh game of the ACLS. A lot of teams would like to be in that position."

To this day, Little remains a punching bag in Boston -- more vilified than the common pothole. His tenure in Los Angeles will either substantiate the rantings of chat-board Grady bashers or provide comfort to old-school types. For what it's worth, Bobby Cox hasn't done too badly as a "ball guy" with a knack for cultivating a positive clubhouse environment.

"People think Grady is a good ol' country boy because of that southern drawl, but his mind is a steel-trap mind," said Rich Donnelly, the Dodgers' new third base coach. "He might talk real slow, but he listens fast."

That sound you hear is the Dodgers calling and Grady Little saying, "thank you" for the opportunity. Maybe he never felt a need for redemption. It's here, regardless.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.