Dodgers' extreme makeover only latest twist in Ned Colletti's saga
Colletti, the Dodgers GM, has added several expensive stars in recent weeks
He was the first in his family to go to college and got his work ethic from his dad
Colletti began his career as a sportswriter before transitioning to baseball
Every Sunday evening when he was a boy, Ned Colletti would walk down to Al and Joe's delicatessen, on a corner near Chicago's O'Hare Airport, and buy five slices of boiled ham, cut so thin as to be translucent. The ham would be Ned's father's lunch for the workweek to follow: a single slice, pressed between two pieces of bread, for each day.
Ned Sr.'s collar was of a blue far deeper than that worn by the Dodgers, the team with which the older of his two sons is now in his seventh season as general manager. He fixed things, first machines that made cardboard boxes for a company in Chicago, then as a maintenance man for the Motorola corporation, and he fixed them every day, on an hourly wage. Ned Sr. would get paid each Friday. Then he would take his sons, Ned Jr. and Doug, to the local bank to cash his check, and then to Al and Joe's to pay off their debt for the ham and the family's other meager groceries. "A couple dollars, two or three," Ned Jr. says. "It was still money."
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Since Colletti became the Dodgers' GM in November of 2005, the team has won more games, 584, than all but two others in the National League, the Phillies and the Cardinals. Los Angeles has had one of the game's 12 highest payrolls each of those seasons, but in the last six weeks Colletti has gone on an unprecedented spending binge, overhauling his team with what looks like the reckless abandon of a member of the nouveau riche on a shopping bender.
Of course, the Dodgers are newly rich thanks to their new ownership, which includes financier Mark Walter, former Braves and Nationals president Stan Kasten and Lakers legend Magic Johnson -- a group which bought the team from the financially troubled and penny-pinching Frank McCourt in May for $2.15 billion. Since July 25, Colletti has traded for Marlins third baseman Hanley Ramirez, to whom the Dodgers will pay $37.5 million through 2014; Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino, who will be paid $2 million for two months of service; and, most shockingly of all, three of the most disgruntled and exorbitantly compensated members of the underachieving Red Sox in first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, starting pitcher Josh Beckett and injured leftfielder Carl Crawford. The remainder of that trio's contracts adds up to some $260 million.
Colletti insists that each acquisition -- as well as those of starting pitcher Joe Blanton and reliever Brandon League, a pair that added another $5 million to this season's payroll -- was a calculated one, intended not just to immediately boost an injury-ravaged club that was only one game back in the NL West at the July 31 deadline, but for years to come. It helps that the franchise is anticipating an upcoming cable TV deal that will likely be worth more than $4 billion. "Since [the new owners] came in, they've preached being bold, doing big things," says Colletti. "Finances are always going to be a part of the equation, but it's not a dominant part. For the last six weeks now, the decisions that have been made have been made on a baseball playing level."
"Ownership really wanted to reestablish credibility with the fan base, as fast as possible," Colletti continues. "It's easier to do when you're acquiring these guys than if you say, 'Well, we've got a couple players down in A ball that are going to be good in two or three years.' This isn't a two or three year type of city. If we could get it together, we were entrusted to go with it."
That Colletti suddenly had more money than he could ever imagine at his disposal did not mean he was about to squander it. "He's always been aggressive when he's needed to be, and apparently he's gotten an open pocketbook," says Giants GM Brian Sabean, who was Colletti's boss in San Francisco from 1994 to 2005. "But if I know Ned, I know that a lot of preparation and consideration had to go into this."
The staggering sums involved only serve to distract from what Colletti has accomplished. He turned three major leaguers who have never played in an All-Star game -- first baseman James Loney, starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi and reliever Josh Lindblom -- and seven prospects, none of whom has ever been ranked higher than 90th on Baseball America's annual Top 100 prospects list, into a cache of proven stars, all 32 or younger. "It's not like we went and out and loaded up with players who have the sun starting to set on their careers," says Colletti. "They're in the midst of their primes."
Indeed, through some lenses even the Red Sox trade is not outlandish. The Angels, in December, gave first baseman Albert Pujols a $240 million contract that won't expire until he is 41. The Reds, in April, committed $225 million to first baseman Joey Votto, and they will pay him until he is at least 40. The Tigers, in January, signed free agent first baseman Prince Fielder to a nine year, $214 million deal that will last until he is 36.
For their $260 million, the Dodgers acquired not only Gonzalez -- whom Colletti has coveted since Gonzalez's days with the Padres -- but also Beckett and Crawford, players who are young enough to recapture their elite production of the not-too-distant past. Beckett, after all, is 32, and had a 2.89 ERA just last season. Crawford, though Tommy John surgery will prevent him from playing until 2013, is 31, and two years removed from an MVP-caliber season in which he hit .307, with 30 doubles, 13 triples, 19 home runs and 47 steals. Even if they disappoint, the Dodgers won't be paying them into their dotages, as each of their deals expires when they are 36 or younger.
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Ned Colletti's unlikely journey to the stewardship of history's most expensive sports team began in a garage in Chicago. His parents -- his mother was named Dolores -- were married in 1951, and by the time Ned was born three years later his father had turned the two-car structure at the back of his brother's property into a 400 square foot home. In 1960, the family moved to a larger residence out in Franklin Park, the one near Al and Joe's deli. This was a proper house. It had 800 square feet of space, and cost $8,500, and was so close to O'Hare runway that Ned and Doug could make out the faces of passengers in the windows of planes as they took off.
Ned loved sports. He played soccer when nobody played soccer, as his father's parents had emigrated from Sicily. He played hockey, which explains why his two front teeth are now artificial. And he played baseball, and watched it as much as he could. When he was a teenager, he would take a train and two buses dozens of times a year to Wrigley Field. He would arrive when they opened the gates, at 10:15 in the morning, and position himself in the first row of the leftfield bleachers, as far toward center as possible. "You could see the pitching, see the defenses, see the changeups, see the sliders," he says.
His physical gifts did not keep pace with his passion, so as his time at Franklin Park's East Leyden High neared its end he decided that he would go to college to learn to write about sports. No Colletti had ever before gone to college. Ned managed to get himself into Triton Junior College, in the Chicago suburb of River Grove, and then transferred to Northern Illinois. After he graduated he was hired to cover high school sports for the Chicago Daily News. After it folded, he went down to write for a paper in Danville, Ill., where he covered college sports from 1978 to 1980: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Larry Bird and Bird's great rival from Michigan State, Magic Johnson -- Colletti's future boss. Then he left to cover the Flyers for the Philadelphia Journal, and just a week after he had arrived, his mother called.
"I had stopped by the house in Franklin Park on my way to Philly," he says. "My dad came out to the car, as I was pulling away, and he says, 'I'm really proud of you.' That's the first time I'd ever heard it. The look in his eye kind of scared me. I said to myself, my goodness, I hope he's OK. He wasn't OK. He thought he had pneumonia. He had a lung tumor." His father was 49.
By then Colletti had a young family and a new duplex in Philadelphia with an interest rate of 17.5 percent, and was trying to carry both on a salary of $18,000 a year -- at least until his paper went belly up in December of 1981, leaving him with just the family and the duplex. It was then that Bob Ibach called. Ibach had been Colletti's predecessor on the Flyers beat and had been hired by new Cubs GM Dallas Green to run the team's public relations department. Ibach offered Ned the chance to come home to be his assistant. The salary was $13,000. "I called my dad," Colletti says. "He said, 'You can't work for $13,000, you're an adult, you've got a family, you can't be doing that.'" Colletti turned the job down. A week later his father called back. "I think you should take it," Ned Sr. said. "I'm not going to make it."
Colletti started with the Cubs as an assistant in PR and publications on January 3, 1982, at a salary of $14,000. Ned Sr. passed away that April, still the owner of that small house near the airport. Baseball had brought Colletti back to his hometown, and he had only begun to apply his father's values to his burgeoning new career.