Ned Colletti's wild ride (cont.)
For a decade now, a prevailing trend in baseball has been to hire young men precociously gifted in mathematics or finance and versed in advanced statistics to serve as general managers: Theo Epstein, Jon Daniels, Andrew Friedman, Jon Daniels, Josh Byrnes, Jed Hoyer, Alex Anthopoulos, Ben Cherington. When Colletti was hired to run the Dodgers -- as the successor, and in some regards the antidote, to Paul DePodesta, who was a 32-year-old Harvard graduate who had been fired just a year and a half into the job -- he was anything but a wunderkind. He was 51 years old, and he had been working in baseball for more than 22 years.
Colletti had spent those years learning as much as he could, and working as hard as he could. "Some people talk about how hard they work, try to get you to tell them how good they are," he says. "I've always just hoped people would notice."
He volunteered for every road trip during his first seasons with the Cubs -- to save on meals, but also to learn the game, from lifers like Lee Elia, John Vukovich, Ruben Amaro, Sr., and Billy Connors. He watched every inning of every game for three straight years, and dissected what he'd seen with them afterwards. After a while, Green noticed that Colletti was almost always the first to arrive at Wrigley and the last to leave, and invited him to help him out with the club's arbitration cases.
So began a two-decade front office apprenticeship, with the Cubs until 1993, and then with the Giants starting in 1994. Colletti's tenure with San Francisco, most of which he spent as assistant GM, included a stretch of eight consecutive winning seasons. By the time Frank McCourt hired him to run the Dodgers, Colletti had a firm theory about what worked in assembling a winning baseball team. Talent was important, but there were hundreds of people across the game who could spot talent. Numbers were important, and Colletti has gradually enriched his statistics department over the years. It is now run by a man named Alex Tamin, a lawyer by training.
But equally crucial to Colletti is the character of the people on his teams. While some general managers view players as chess pieces, Colletti tries his best to get to know them as well as he can. "You always see him down here interacting with the players, talking with them and seeing how they're doing," says centerfielder Matt Kemp. "I've never been a part of any other organization, so it's hard to compare. But I've heard of different situations in other places." (Kemp, who two seasons ago publicly clashed with Colletti over a perceived lack of effort -- perhaps the cardinal sin, in Colletti's book -- now has many reasons to praise him, including the eight year, $160 million extension he signed last November.)
"People are the key component," Colletti says. "What makes them think, how they tick."
Colletti's manager, Don Mattingly, concurs. "I believe in the numbers. They tell you a story, and there are certain things that you really should be paying attention to," Mattingly says. "But there's also another side of it, guys getting along, guys being good teammates, playing hard every day. There's a power of a group of people working in a direction, and I think Ned really gets that."
To that end, Colletti has stocked his front office with people who are like him, and his father: people who are grinders, people who are loyal, people like his assistant GM's De Jon Watson and Logan White, and his director of player personnel, Vance Lovelace, and his pro scouting director, Rick Ragazzo, and his special assistant, Bill Mueller, all of whom have been with him for years. He has consistently sought them out for his clubhouse, too: Brad Ausmus, Mark Loretta, Aaron Miles, Jamey Carroll, and current players like Mark Ellis, Jerry Hairston and Adam Kennedy.
Players like those, Colletti believes, foster a baseline ethos that allows superstars like Clayton Kershaw and Kemp to maximize their talent, and his club to persevere through hard times. Recall how last season's Dodgers were 14 games under .500 as of July 6, yet went 45-28 the rest of the way to finish above .500. Recall how this season's Dodgers, even with Kemp on the disabled list for two months, were 53-45 on the night before they began their acquisition spree by trading for Ramirez.
Colletti also believes that his team's character will benefit Ramirez and the other players who have recently joined it. "When Josh Beckett first got here, and I said hello to him," he says, "it looked like he had a lot of weight lifted off his shoulders."
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Despite their reinvigorated roster, the Dodgers are 73-65, 4½ games behind Sabean's Giants in the NL West, and 1½ behind the Cardinals for the National League's second wild-card spot. "The proof will be in the pudding," says Sabean of his friend's efforts to make the postseason. "I don't think anyone in baseball is cowering because of all these moves."
The Dodgers might reach the playoffs, and they might not. Not all of Colletti's gambits as the club's GM have worked -- see, most notably, the two-year, $36.2 million deal he gave to Andruw Jones in 2007 (OPS+ as a Dodger: 35) and the three year, $21 million deal he gave to Juan Uribe in 2011 (OPS+ as a Dodger: 53) -- and this season's might not, either. "I can control one thing: my effort," he says. "I have no control over anybody else's effort, anybody else's thought processes, anybody else's priorities. I've never worried about my effort. Never. Whatever will happen, will happen. But my effort will be beyond reproach."
It is how Colletti has lifted himself from that cold garage in Chicago all the way to a suite in Dodger Stadium, which is in many ways a journey that was begun by his father, Ned Sr., who is never far from his mind. When Colletti turned 51 and a half, he sent an email to his younger brother, Doug. "It said, 'I'm as old as Dad was when he died," Doug recalls. "When he gets up every day, it matters. The day matters to him. There's no doubt that both of us, when we go to work in the morning, we know the name that's on the back of our jersey, so to speak. Going to work means a lot to us. Dad's been gone for 30 years, but with your work ethic, you can still emulate him and make him proud."
"For me, where I come from, I never forget it," says Colletti. "Every day, I drive up Sunset, I go up Elysium Park, I come up that hill, and I work at Dodger Stadium. What an amazing thing. And some of the people that I call my friends? Sandy Koufax comes to see me in spring training -- to see how I'm doing. Willie Mays hasn't seen me for two months, and says, 'Ned, I miss seeing you.' Willie Mays misses seeing me? How could that be? I've been blessed beyond measure, the chances and the opportunities I've had, the people I've met and the life I've had."
If it sounds as if Colletti feels that he has reached the culmination of something, he doesn't. There are, for him, always more things to learn, more things to fix. There is always more work to be done.
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