Dodgers' Colletti can relax -- a little

Ned Colletti stands in the dugout as the Dodgers prepare for an NLCS game against the Philadelphia Phillies on October 14, 2009. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It was a lazy afternoon early in spring training, one of those perfect Arizona days when there wasn't a cloud in the sky, there wasn't a roster decision to be made for weeks and there wasn't a concern more pressing than where to have dinner that night. Ned Colletti was in a chatty mood.

He was sitting in his Camelback Ranch office, the back wall of which is made of glass, offering a breathtaking view of the main stadium. He was telling an embarrassing story about himself, about meeting Katie Couric at one of Joe Torre's charity events a few years ago and having no idea who she was, managing to fake it until she walked away and Billy Crystal clued him in.

Colletti laughs a lot more these days. The Dodgers' general manager has a long-term contract and a reasonably successful track record, but it's more than that. It is a sense that after four years in one of the hottest of baseball's hot seats, it's all starting to bear fruit.

When Colletti arrived on Nov. 16, 2005, the organization was full of drool-worthy prospects. Now, the roster is full of homegrown stars.

Back then, the front office was a mess, the manager and coaching staff had been fired, the team had just finished 20 games below .500 and this once-proud franchise hadn't made much more than occasional appearances in the playoffs for the better part of a generation.

Now, the organization is relatively stable, there is a universal philosophy being taught at every level of the minor league system, and the major league club is coming off its first National League Championship Series appearances in two decades. Colletti is on a quest to become the first GM in Dodgers history to oversee a third consecutive trip to the postseason.

Not to say these are carefree days for Colletti. The team's Opening Day payroll was the lowest it had been since the season before he arrived, which may or may not be a result of financial uncertainty relating to the ongoing divorce of owner Frank McCourt and former team president Jamie McCourt.

There is the widespread perception that the team failed to improve itself over the winter, even as the rest of the National League West got better and the Philadelphia Phillies, who ousted the Dodgers from the playoffs each of the last two years, further widened the gap.

All that aside, a visibly more relaxed Colletti showed up at camp this spring. He is still the workaholic he always was, ever a man on a mission. But that mission doesn't seem nearly as impossible as it once did.

"There is no way to get away from it,'' he said. "Anybody who says they get away from it during the season isn't telling the truth. You think about it constantly. It is what drives you.''

The old-world way

Ned Colletti Sr. was driven by other things. The biggest was taking care of his young family, and doing it on a salary that didn't go very far in those days in Chicago. Ned Jr. spent the first five years of his life living in a garage that his father remodeled into a four-room house, installing the plumbing and electricity himself, as well as erecting the interior walls.

Ned Sr. was good with his hands that way, and that was how he made his living.

"My dad could fix anything,'' Ned Jr. said.

He worked at a factory for a while, making cardboard boxes. He worked as a maintenance man at Motorola, did some electrical work, some plumbing here and there, a little carpentry work. He even delivered pizza for a time to supplement his income. He saved enough money over the years that in 1960, he and his wife, Dolores, were able to buy a 900-square-foot house in which to raise their two sons.

"It was in Franklin Park,'' Ned Jr. said. "It was literally in the shadows of O'Hare, so close that we could see silhouettes of passengers and the house would shake every time a plane would land. A thousand feet to the south was the freight-train yard. The house was four rooms plus a bathroom. It cost $8,500, and I don't think he ever paid it off. There was no garage. He had to wake up twice a night in the winter to start the car and let it run for 10 minutes, because if it didn't start, he couldn't go to work, and if you didn't go to work you didn't eat. It was the smallest house on the block and the only house on the block without a garage.''

But it was their house, and it was the house Ned Jr. and his younger brother, Doug, remember as the place they grew up. Today, Ned Jr. recalls a mostly happy home and a fairly carefree childhood and adolescence.

"My mom stayed at home and took care of the kids, kept the house tidy,'' he said. "That was the old-world way. My mom never drove, never had a driver's license. My dad owned four cars in the 35 years he drove. ... We had one car where one of the backseat floor panels was rusted out, and as we were driving, you could see the road going by underneath.

"But we didn't know we were on the verge of missing anything. We didn't miss any meals, and we always had a place to sleep.''

Ned Sr. was always one of the first guys to help out if someone needed it.

"My dad used to tell me, 'You will get far more out of life by giving to people and helping people than you ever will by getting from people,'" Ned Jr. said.

The Dodgers, and believing in signs

Colletti favors practicality over symbolism. His job doesn't allow much time for symbolism. But on the morning of Nov. 15, 2005, he was confronted with more symbolism than he could ignore.

Frank McCourt came to Colletti's suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel at 6 a.m. to continue the meeting that had begun the previous day. The first thing the two of them did was order breakfast.

"The gentleman came in and set up the room-service cart, and as he was doing it, he said that this was his favorite room in the hotel,'' Colletti said. "He said he had been working there for decades, and that this was the room Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and the rat pack had hung out in. The carpet was different, the furniture was different, but the bar and the piano were the same. I was a huge Sinatra and Dean Martin fan, so I thought that was pretty cool, maybe an omen.''

They were nearing the end of a process that is usually spread over several weeks, but in this case was crammed into a few days.

McCourt, who had owned the Dodgers for a little more than 20 months, fired his previous GM, Paul DePodesta, a couple of days after the World Series, and the matter had been handled awkwardly.

Jim Tracy had been sent packing as the Dodgers' manager a day after the regular season ended, and DePodesta was close to concluding his search for Tracy's replacement, settling on former Angels manager Terry Collins, who at the time was the Dodgers' player development director, though it's not clear whether Collins was ever actually offered the job.

McCourt now says Colletti, who at the time was San Francisco's assistant GM, was on his short list of candidates from the beginning, although it took him a while to get around to interviewing him. There were initial flirtations with Theo Epstein, Pat Gillick and John Hart. By the time McCourt asked the Giants for permission to speak with Colletti, the general managers' meetings were only a week away.

Giants owner Peter Magowan didn't want Colletti to go, especially not to the archrival Dodgers, and certainly not until after the GM meetings, which were in Indian Wells. When those meetings concluded, Colletti drove to Los Angeles and met with Frank and Jamie McCourt for eight hours.

"You could tell the process was going to be very quick,'' Colletti said. "They had a lot of questions on a vast array of topics, and it was very much a rapid-fire Q-and-A. I had a lot of questions for them, too."

That was on a Friday. Magowan, who had granted a 72-hour window for the McCourts, met with Colletti on the following Monday.

"We talked about where we had been as an organization,'' Colletti said. "I said I really had to follow through. Frank called and asked for a second interview and I said yes, but we needed a 24-hour extension on the window. Peter said he would only give me until noon on Tuesday. I went home, grabbed a suit and flew to L.A. We met at the Beverly Hills Hotel from 2 until midnight, with a 45-minute break for a salad at the Polo Lounge.''

The interview was intense, challenging, exhausting, but Colletti gave as good as he got, which was exactly what McCourt was looking for. Colletti pretty much heard what he wanted to hear, as well.

"I talked about the goals and objectives of the organization and how serious I was about those,'' McCourt said. "I wanted him to have a very clear sense of what he was walking into, and he was undeterred by it. It was what he wanted.''

McCourt left at midnight and returned the following morning at 6.

"By 10, Frank had offered me the job,'' Colletti said. "By noon, we had a deal.''

The only thing that gave Colletti pause was leaving the Giants after working alongside GM Brian Sabean for 11 years, nine of them as his top assistant. They had forged an enviable professional bond, and they had put together a club that made it to the World Series in 2002.

"I would still consider my career successful even if I hadn't gotten this opportunity here,'' Colletti said. "I figured out a long time ago that I would rather be the No. 2 person in an organization with a chance to win than be the No. 1 person in a situation where winning 81 games was going to be a difficult test.''

Family first

Ned Jr. had worked to put himself through college, the first member of his family to go unless you count the uncle who came home from World War II and went to night school until he had a degree in architecture. Ned Jr. had gotten a journalism degree from Northern Illinois University, then had gotten his first full-time sportswriting job covering the Big 10 Conference for a paper in Danville, Ill.

By the fall of 1980, he had landed a job covering the Philadelphia Flyers for the old Philadelphia Journal. He replaced a beat writer named Bob Ibach, who later would become a valuable contact. Ned Jr. was all about the NHL, which was a close second to big-league baseball on his list of passions.

And then came a phone call that would change everything.

"I had been in Philly for a week when my mom called and said my dad had developed pneumonia,'' Colletti said. "It turned out to be a tumor on his lung. He was 49. I flew back to Chicago, and they took out my dad's lung. He had been a smoker, but he had stopped in 1975. They told him he had a 10 percent chance to live five years.''

Adding to the strain, the Philadelphia Journal suddenly closed its doors later that year, leaving Ned Jr. jobless.

But the fall of 1981 offered promise, when Ibach, the Flyers' beat writer whom Colletti had replaced, was hired as the chief publicist of the Chicago Cubs.

He offered Colletti a job as his assistant. It carried a salary of $14,000 a year, far less than the $19,000 he had been making at the Journal.

"I was offered that job, but my dad said, 'You can't afford to do that.' So I initially turned it down," Colletti said. "A couple of weeks later, he called and said, 'If you can still take that job with the Cubs, you should probably come home and help your mom.' My brother was a junior in college, and that would allow him to stay there.''

In January 1982, Colletti went to work for the team he had grown up rooting for. In between, he would drive his mother to the hospital to be with Ned Sr.

"She didn't drive,'' Ned Jr. said. "It was 15 miles to the hospital. I would take her there at 6 in the morning, then go to work, then go back to the hospital until midnight, and I would do that every night.''

On April 27, 1982, Ned Sr. died.

Tough calls and delicate situations

The early days with the Dodgers were riddled with potential land mines.

Colletti's first act as GM was to meet with his top assistant, Kim Ng, and scouting director Logan White. His second was to field an incoming call from Eric Gagne, the team's former Cy Young Award-winning closer, who had spoken out publicly at the end of the season about his concern that the franchise lacked direction.

The Giants didn't have the budget that the Dodgers did, and the Dodgers had a lot of moving parts, a lot of divergent personalities. Ng and White had been considered for the job that he ultimately had landed, all of which could have created an awkward dynamic.

"I made the decision I was not going to do what a typical GM does, which is come in and start firing everybody,'' Colletti said. "Plus, San Francisco wouldn't let me bring anybody with me. I didn't add to my staff initially. But I inherited a staff that had employees who had been hired by Al Campanis, by Fred Claire, by Kevin Malone, by Danny Evans, by Dave Wallace and by Paul. I had a vast array of personalities, cliques, philosophies and factions.

"I had a meeting with about 30 people, and I told them I was coming from an organization that did twice as much with half the staff. So let's go.''

Perhaps the most uncomfortable situation that had to be dealt with immediately was the status of Collins, who had been the apparent choice for manager when DePodesta was fired. Colletti, who was going to the Tampa Bay area that weekend anyway to attend Sabean's wedding, met with Collins at his home in St. Petersburg. The GM told Collins that he wanted him to stay on as the Dodgers' director of player development.

"I told him I wanted him to be a part of the organization,'' Colletti said. "We ended up working together for a year before he went to Japan [to manage], and he was great. You look at Matt Kemp, Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Russell Martin, Hong-Chih Kuo. Terry ran player development when they were growing up, and he had a hand in their success.''

Collins agreed, but he also wasn't the only one who had to be persuaded to do so. Less than a month into Colletti's tenure, the night before he flew to Dallas for his first winter meetings as a GM, he was visiting his daughter, who at the time was attending Miami University in Ohio. The school had a strong hockey program, so Colletti, an avid hockey fan, went to a game. But he didn't see much of it.

Colletti spent most of the evening on the concourse, waiting for each period to begin so the concourse would clear out and get quiet and he could make phone calls. It was the ultimate exercise in multitasking: Colletti used those calls to finalize the signing of free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal and to persuade Vance Lovelace, a respected scout who lives in the Tampa Bay area, to turn down an offer from the Devil Rays and stay with the Dodgers. After a lot of coaxing -- and convincing that the organization's scouts, some of whom had felt marginalized under DePodesta, would be a valued asset in the Colletti regime -- Lovelace agreed to stay. He is now one of Colletti's most trusted advisers. So is Ng, in her ninth season in the organization, during which she has worked under three GMs.

"I think at the beginning of any transition, it's really about trying to build trust and having that person be confident in you and your whole staff,'' Ng said. "At the same time, you're concerned about yourself and also concerned about your staff. I give Ned a lot of credit for being really open-minded and giving everybody a great chance to stay on.''

That winter, Colletti signed Furcal, free-agent infielders Nomar Garciaparra and Bill Mueller, free-agent outfielder Kenny Lofton and free-agent catcher Sandy Alomar. He also traded the combustible Milton Bradley to Oakland for Andre Ethier, who arguably was the team's most valuable player in 2009.

And by the end of the winter meetings, Colletti had completed his hurried managerial search, settling on former Boston skipper Grady Little. The following season, the Dodgers finished tied with San Diego atop the NL West and made the playoffs as a wild card.

Although they were quickly swept out of the first round by the New York Mets, there was a sense that the franchise had been turned around.

'Never forget the business side'

The Cubs brought Jim Finks in as president in September 1983 for his leadership skills, and also so that GM Dallas Green could focus on the baseball operations side. Finks held mandatory staff meetings during the offseason at one of the popular watering holes across the street from Wrigley Field. He would always make a brief presentation, pay the tab for the group, then quietly slip away and let his people bond.

One night, he pulled his young public-relations man aside.

"He told me that I was going to have a career in sports if I wanted one,'' Colletti said. "He said, 'You're going to find that most organizations are a house divided between the business side and the baseball side. One day, you're going to be on the baseball side. Never forget the business side.' And I never forgot that."

It was one of three pivotal moments for Colletti during his time with the Cubs. The second came in November 1984, when Green asked him to help prepare for an arbitration case with first baseman Leon Durham, which the Cubs won.

"So I started doing more with that, with contracts, etcetera. I was still overseeing the PR department, but my role started shifting out," Colletti said.

The third moment came after Green was long gone. Colletti had formed a friendship with Jim Frey when Frey was managing the Cubs. Frey returned in 1988 as GM.

"After a week or two," Frey said, "Ned said he could start putting some stats together and doing comparative stats, just to give me a little heads-up on free agents and trades. ... All of a sudden, this guy had all the information about players, comparative stats, all that stuff. He came in with a whole file on every player. I was quite impressed.

"After a couple of years of that, we actually made him a vice president and an assistant to me.''

Frey was replaced after the 1991 season by Larry Himes. Colletti, who had become an integral part of the front office, stayed around for two years, long enough to start feeling comfortable, then was cut loose three days after Christmas in 1993.

"I had just won an arbitration case over Mark Grace with a $1 million gap," Colletti said. "We had the typical turnover that you have whenever a new GM comes in, but I thought everything was fine. To be told after Christmas, when all the other jobs were taken, was tough.

"It was a hard lesson that you're not defined by your job. There is far more to life.''

Some hits, glaring misses

In his first four years as Dodgers GM, Colletti traded Bradley for Ethier, acquired Manny Ramirez, hired Joe Torre, and the club reached the National League Championship Series twice. And yet...

Juan Pierre, five years, $44 million. Jason Schmidt, three years, $47 million. Andruw Jones, two years, $36.2 million.

All three deals gave fans and the media pause when they were made. Pierre had an on-base percentage that was far too low for a leadoff man. Schmidt's velocity was down, an indication there might be something wrong with him physically. Jones was coming off the worst offensive year of his career. All three deals blew up in Colletti's face.

Not one of those players is still with the organization, but the Dodgers are still paying off all three of their contracts.

"Anybody who sits in this seat knows there are a collection of deals they wish had turned out differently,'' Colletti said.

Pierre was the first to arrive, in November 2006.

"As I recall, the other outfielders who were available on the free-agent market were Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee, J.D. Drew, Gary Matthews Jr. and Dave Roberts,'' Colletti said. "The only everyday outfielder we had was Andre Ethier, and he hadn't played much in September.''

Drew had left the Dodgers in a bind by exercising the escape clause in his contract. Lee owns a cattle ranch in Texas and wanted to sign with Houston, which he did. Soriano, who is from the Dominican Republic, didn't want to play on the West Coast because it was too far from home. Roberts was getting older and had a history of injuries. And Matthews was coming off the first really good year of his career and, so far, the last.

That left Pierre, who had no power and no throwing arm but was a burner on the base paths. He also was on the verge of signing a four-year, $40 million deal with San Francisco.

"We needed the reliability of a player we knew could play," Colletti said, "and we gave him 44 for five. Juan Pierre played exactly as we thought he would play. He was close to a .300 hitter, and he could track balls down. He lacked power and arm strength, but he was a good worker and a great influence on some of our younger players. And a lot of free-agent outfielders were very well-paid that winter.''

By his second year with the team, though, Pierre wasn't even an everyday guy. The Jones signing and the emergence of Ethier and Matt Kemp meant there no longer was room for him, and he was relegated to fourth-outfielder status. This past offseason, after re-establishing his value by performing well while playing every day in place of Ramirez, who was suspended for 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy, Pierre was traded to the Chicago White Sox with two years and $18.5 million left on his contract. The Dodgers are paying $10.5 million of it.

Next came Schmidt, who had a track record. He was a three-time All-Star who had won as many as 18 games in a season, and he had pitched 213 1/3 innings the year before; both Colletti and newly hired trainer Stan Conte had a history with him from their Giants days.

"We signed him knowing there was a lot of wear and tear on his shoulder, like anybody that had thrown that many innings in the big leagues,'' Colletti said. "We knew the velocity on his fastball was slightly down, but we also knew he had a good changeup and a good breaking ball. He was a pitcher, not just a thrower. We thought at some point, he might need a cleanup [operation], but the medical tests showed nothing new from the previous four or five years.

"All anybody can do is take an MRI and an X-ray. Sometimes, an MRI doesn't show everything. It wasn't until the operation that we found out what the true problem was.''

After making six starts for the Dodgers, Schmidt went under the knife that June. He was found to have damage to his labrum, biceps tendon and bursa. He didn't appear in another big-league game until 2009, and when he did, he appeared in only four of them. If you're counting, that's $470,000 for each of the 10 starts Schmidt made for the Dodgers.

"In hindsight, do we wish we hadn't done it?'' Colletti said. "Absolutely. I wish we had never crossed that bridge. But at the time, we had two healthy starters in Derek Lowe and Brad Penny.''

A stunning drop-off

A year later, the Dodgers signed Jones. Pierre had been a disappointment in his first season, and the club desperately needed more offense. Ethier and Kemp were potential superstars, but they weren't there yet, and Colletti liked the idea of their competing with each other for playing time.

Jones was everything the Dodgers were looking for, a five-tool outfielder who had been a five-time All-Star with the Atlanta Braves. But he was coming off what for him was a down season, posting a career-low .222 average with 26 homers in 2007. But he had driven in 94 runs, and the Dodgers desperately needed a run producer in the middle of the order.

But Jones showed up for his first spring training with the Dodgers 11 pounds heavier than he had been the year before. He was awful in the field, then underwent knee surgery in May.

By season's end, Jones had hit .158 with three home runs and 14 RBI. The following January, he agreed to restructure his contract in exchange for being granted his release so he could sign with another club, which he did (with Texas). He is now with the Chicago White Sox, but the Dodgers still owe him about $18 million.

"My recollection is it was the greatest drop-off from a superstar player in the prime of his career,'' Colletti said. "From my perspective, I don't believe he came into camp in the best shape he could have...

"Do we wish we had never entered into the deal? There was no way to predict a fall as great or as rapid as it was. But we did it for the right reasons.''

Part 2: Turmoil in the clubhouse and trying to establish stability »

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