CHICAGO -- Back when he was a bright-eyed young baseball executive, Ned Colletti had a goal of ending the Chicago Cubs’ championship drought.
A native of the northwest side of Chicago, Colletti worked for the Cubs in media relations before baseball operations saw a better use of his talent. That was back in the 1980s, when the Cubs finally ended a long postseason drought.
Now, many of the decisions Colletti made as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ general manager during a near decade-long run that ended after the 2014 season have been making life as difficult as possible for his hometown team and former employer. The Cubs, up 3-2 in the National League Championship Series, are on the verge of breaking through into the World Series and the Dodgers are trying to stop them.
Colletti isn’t the Dodgers’ primary player personnel decision-maker these days after turning over those reins to president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi. But Colletti's influence on this NLCS is massive.
A sweep around the field shows the impact Colletti continues to have on the Dodgers. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez was acquired by Colletti via trade, shortstop Corey Seager was drafted under his regime, and infielder Justin Turner was brought aboard even though the New York Mets decided he wasn’t worthy of being tendered a contract back when he was still arbitration-eligible.
Want another key Colletti draft pick? How about center fielder Joc Pederson? And right fielder Yasiel Puig represents the club’s return to the Latin America market, something Colletti lobbied for after the Frank McCourt ownership era had ignored an entire region that had been so valuable to the organization in the past.
The player-development department under Colletti has its hands all over this NLCS too. That group was responsible for converting a strong-armed catcher named Kenley Jansen into one of the game’s top closers. Jansen’s impact on this postseason has been enormous.
But none of that recognizes what might have been the two biggest decisions during the Colletti era. Not only was staff ace Clayton Kershaw drafted when Colletti was in charge, but NLCS Game 4 starter Julio Urias was signed as well, in another example of the Dodgers’ return to the Latin American market.
“Obviously, you look around the field, and there are a lot of players that Ned was directly responsible for,” Friedman said. “It’s a real benefit to me that he is still involved in the organization. We had a good relationship before I got here and it’s continued to grow. He’s enjoying the success of this year every bit as much as every one of us, as he should be.”
Colletti is most visible now doing television analyst work for SportsNet LA, working about 100 games from the studio this year alone. But he still is a member of the front office, one of six current or former general managers the Dodgers have on staff. His current title is senior advisor to the president and CEO.
He still checks in with the team’s primary decision-making group often, giving input when asked and offering information and knowledge when he uncovers it. While it could have been an awkward transition -- handing over his roster-building power while still remaining active in the organization -- Colletti says the working relationship is strong.
“I’ve known Andrew since he first got into the game,” Colletti said. “He would come to the GM meetings and hit me up his first year. He kind of reminded me of somebody that nobody knew who he was, because he was so fresh into the game. And I can remember the first session he was in, going over to introduce myself and saying hello. It was like the new kid in class, and we always, always talked a lot when he was in Tampa and I was here.”
As Friedman acknowledged, Colletti says their relationship has only grown.
“And I’m happy for him, happy for the organization,” Colletti said.
In 2002, the Angels (then known as the Anaheim Angels) won a championship under a new front office. In a gesture of thanks and appreciation, former general manager Bill Bavasi was invited to take part in the celebration and enjoy the championship spoils. Bavasi’s influence on the roster obviously was enormous.
It is a similar situation with Colletti and the Dodgers, minus the championship the club is pursuing, except he never left.
“I’m really pleased for everybody; I’m pleased for the players,” Colletti said. “All across the board, everybody here deserves a little bit of credit. It’s not easy to win. Winning is a lot harder than people think it is, and for this organization to win [the National League West] four times, it says a lot.
“It says a lot that we are sitting in the NLCS again for the second time [in four years]. But there is no one person that does everything. There is a long list of people that have all contributed to where the club sits today.”
Like the players on the field, the Dodgers’ team of general managers has been learning each other’s strengths, while each adds his own unique spin to the proceedings.
“This is my 35th year in Major League Baseball,” Colletti said. “When I first started with the Cubs, Dallas Green was the general manager. He had a very, very small staff. But the game has evolved so much in the last 35 years that you need so many different people.
“You need intellect, you need life experience, you need institutional knowledge. You need all those components, and I think that the best and the brightest are those that combine as many different experiences as they possibly can -- because people that have been around a lot have seen a lot.”
Colletti has seen plenty, and that’s just taking into account his time with the Dodgers. Colletti started his Dodgers GM run in 2006, and in the nine years he held the position, no National League general manager won more games. Overall, the Dodgers won the third-most games in that stretch (783), behind only Atlanta (785) and St. Louis (789). The Dodgers also advanced to the postseason five times under Colletti, including a berth in the NLCS twice.
His first impact move as GM was to trade for Andre Ethier, who is on the NLCS roster. Later that summer, Colletti presided over the 2006 draft that landed Kershaw seventh overall. Both players remain fan favorites.
The fact that Colletti has remained on board with the club after leaving his GM post is not unprecedented but is still remarkable, as is leaving a GM post with a ready-made winner on the field. Most new front-office groups are brought in specifically to alter a bleak landscape. When the Cubs’ current front-office team took over, it stripped the roster to its core, taking the fan base through multiple losing seasons before this current team could rise from those Wrigley Field ashes. After Colletti handed over the keys, the Dodgers have kept purring along by winning division titles.
“It’s a great feeling, because most of the time when a general manager leaves, they are not leaving it better than they found it,” Colletti said. “Most of the time, you’re inheriting something that needs a lot of work. Certainly, they have done a lot of work here, but they also benefited from the work that was done before they came.
“But one of the key things about it is they have always respected that too. And my relationship with Andrew is great. I didn’t know Farhan until he came here, but it’s been great, and we sit around and talk all the time. We always end up laughing about something, even when something crazy is going down.”
If the Dodgers can rally in this NLCS, more laughter will be on tap. For now, there is some work to be done for a roster that was constructed by many minds over multiple GM eras.
“Well, I’m proud of them all,” Colletti said about the players who grew after he brought them aboard. “It started with Clayton as part of my first draft, and then Corey and Joc. There were some key guys. … I’m happy for all of these guys because they have worked hard to get to this point.”
The biggest of all of Colletti's finds will take center stage Saturday in Wrigley Field, with the Dodgers’ season on the line. The club feels good about its chances.
“Clayton, it will be tough to ever find anybody better than Clayton Kershaw,” Colletti said, proud, like a father perhaps, and content with how it has all turned out.