An Interview With Former Dodgers GM Ned Colletti
It’s 6:45am on a Tuesday morning in April, and Ned Colletti is on his way to Pepperdine University to teach one of his Sports Communication classes. He should arrive there in about 30 minutes or so, but this is southern California traffic, so it could be an hour and 30 minutes too.
Teaching is just one of the many things that keep Colletti busy these days. He still holds an official position with the Los Angeles Dodgers, as Senior Advisor to the President, and he’s a regular guest analyst on SportsNet L.A. He’s also traveled around recently in support of his new book, The Big Chair, which was released late last year.
Despite all those obligations, it pales in comparison to his time running a Major League Baseball team, which Colletti made a career of for over 30 years. He remembers those 16 hour work-days well. “For almost 35 years it was non-stop, working almost every day of the year,” he said.
While those years were a busy and demanding time, they represent the apex of Colletti’s career, one that’s left a lasting impact, both on and off the field.
Early Challenges and Opportunities
Colletti’s journey to becoming a prominent executive for three different professional franchises starts just outside of Chicago, where he grew up. Coming from a humble upbringing, he didn’t have much other than his hard work ethic and perseverance. “I wasn’t an Ivy Leaguer,” he confessed. “I wasn’t blessed with extraordinary intellect. I was blessed with the willingness to work hard.”
A big sports fan growing up, Colletti realized he didn’t have the skills to play professionally himself, and decided that covering sports may be a better direction to pursue. One of his first sports jobs was working for a Philadelphia newspaper, covering the Flyers. Hockey, like baseball, was always a passion of his growing up.
“Baseball has always been my number one passion, but hockey has always been a close second to it,” he said. “Most of my early days were spent watching one or the other… or both.”
Colletti would eventually return home to Chicago after life threw him some curveballs. The paper he wrote for in Philadelphia folded, his father became sick with cancer, and he had a child on the way. It was an extremely trying time.
Despite the challenges, opportunity would soon present itself. Colletti was offered a media relations job with the Chicago Cubs in 1982, which got his foot in the door. However, he made far less money than he had previously, and still struggled financially. But his hard work, and willingness to do whatever was asked of him, paid dividends. He eventually moved his way up to baseball operations, and started helping with arbitration cases.
“I was just relentless in everything I did,” he explained. “I would have to create my own brakes at times.” Even so, Colletti gives a lot of credit to Dallas Green, general manager of the Cubs at the time, for his early opportunities in Chicago. “I’ve learned from great people all through my career. You don’t do anything by yourself, good or bad.”
After 13 years with the Cubs, Colletti moved on to the San Francisco Giants organization, where he eventually became the assistant general manager. He’d stay there until 2005, when perhaps his biggest career opportunity came along.
The Dodgers finished the 2005 season with a 71-91 record, good for the third worst mark in the National League, and their second worst mark since the franchise moved to Los Angeles. An overhaul would follow, as the team parted ways with their manger, Jim Tracy, and general manager, Paul DePodesta.
The team rebuilding started with hiring a new general manager, and Colletti’s name was on a short list of candidates. He would go through a lengthy and grueling interview process with team owner Frank McCourt, who conducted three rounds of interviews in a 72-hour period, mostly to test Colletti’s mettle.
In the end, he got the job.
That began a nine year stretch for Colletti serving in the Dodgers front office. That time, and that role, would be the pinnacle of his career.
“It was probably the highlight,” he admitted, when describing his time with Los Angeles. “To get to the top of a profession with such an iconic franchise… there’s only a couple of jobs like that in the world.”
Looking back on his tenure with the Dodgers, there’s plenty of successes that can be seen. Some failures as well. Even now, fans are spilt on how to rate Colletti’s span with the team.
In his first season, Colletti helped orchestrate a 17 game turnaround from the previous year, and lead the Dodgers back to the playoffs in 2006. During his nine-year stretch with Los Angeles, Colletti had the highest winning percentage of any other general manager in baseball, and the Dodgers would have the third highest winning percentage in the National League, finishing with a losing record only once. The team made the playoffs in five of his nine years, and advanced to the NLCS three times.
A World Series appearance, however, would still elude Colletti and the Dodgers.
“It was obviously disappointing,” he said, referring to the Dodgers post-season struggles. “A championship is what you ultimately aspire to get to. But getting to the post season is not easy, and a lot of it is impossible to predict.” Colletti paused for a second and continued, “Sometimes it’s going to go in your favor and sometimes it’s not.”
Championship or not, Colletti was responsible for many moves that undoubtedly made the Dodgers better. He traded for players like Andre Ethier and Manny Ramirez. He helped bring in international prospects, like Yasiel Puig and Julio Urias. He also signed Justin Turner, who was discarded by the New York Mets before coming over to the Dodgers and developing into one of the best third baseman in the league.
Another one of Colletti’s crowning achievements is the surplus of top prospects that he helped bring in. Many of the Dodgers stars today were drafted under his watch, including Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, and Cody Bellinger, all who are now centerpieces of the Dodgers current roster.
Of course, not every move worked out. There were questionable decisions as well. Free agent signings of players like Jason Schimdt and Andrew Jones are just a couple of examples of moves that Colletti made which didn’t pan out for the Dodgers. He also traded away Carlos Santana to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for journeyman Casey Blake, a move that some still question.
However, Colletti points out how crucial Blake was during his time with the Dodgers. “That’s probably one trade that people say was a bad one from my end, but I’d disagree,” he said. “We made the NLCS in 08’ and 09’ but we don’t get there without Casey Blake.”
Still, Colletti admits mistakes were made at times. “Every GM has a list of deals you wish you didn’t make,” he conceded. “Early in my career, if anything, I was impatient. I was trying to make the team as good as I could, as fast as I could.”
Improving the club was something Colletti tried to do with every move, but often that meant taking on additional financial obligations.
In 2012, after already acquiring Hanley Ramirez and his contract from the Marlins earlier in the season, Colletti made one of the biggest blockbuster trades in baseball history with the Boston Red Sox. The Dodgers received Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto in the deal, as well as over a quarter billion dollars of added salary.
“We went from a situation where financial limitations were pretty stringent, to one where they were almost non-existent,” said Colletti, referring to the change of Dodgers ownership, and their desire to spend more. “But you’re always accountable, no matter what the limitations are.”
The trade definitely made the Dodgers better on the field. Gonzalez was one of the team’s best players during his 5+ years with Los Angeles, and without him, the Dodgers probably don’t have the success they had. On the other hand, they’ve been trying to reduce their payroll ever since those moves were made.
Colletti accomplished many things during his years as Dodgers general manager. It was the highpoint of an already successful career in baseball. But time marches on, and change is inevitable.
At the conclusion of the 2014 season, after another early playoff defeat, Colletti had a feeling the time was coming for a change. Nothing was decided immediately, but he felt a growing sense that this may have been his last go-round with the Dodgers. He turned out to be right, as the new team ownership replaced Colletti as general manager in what would be another rebuild of the front office. They retained him as Senior Advisor to the President, but the decision-making reigns would be passed along.
Despite loving what he did in baseball, Colletti seems very content where he is now. “It’s given me the opportunity to look at life through different windows,” Colletti said of his new lifestyle. “It gave me a chance to take a breath.”
A breath that was held for almost 35 years.
Colletti remembers going to Justin Turner’s wedding last year and talking with Andrew Friedman, current President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers, and Colletti’s successor. He recounts how Friedman had to step away every few minutes to take a call. “There we are, sitting in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico,” recalls Colletti, “and Andrew is constantly having to be on the phone because he’s still working. But I get it… I did it,” he laughs.
Stepping away from baseball has given Colletti new opportunities. Teaching at Pepperdine has allowed him the ability to educate young students, and pass along invaluable knowledge. He’s also had a chance to explore things he never thought he would, like writing a book. Although, initially, it wasn’t intended to be a book at all.
“It was kind of by accident,” Colleti said about his new work, The Big Chair. “I suddenly had a lot of time, and I needed to fill that time, so I started to write.”
He recalls staying up late every night, writing from about 10pm to 3am. “I just wanted to empty out the thoughts in my head and get them on paper,” he said.
In the book, Colletti opens up about a lot of issues. He addresses the McCourt’s ownership debacle, which left the Dodgers in bankruptcy. He talks about some of the aforementioned moves he made as general manager, both good and bad. And he gets personal about some family situations, especially when describing his parents, who both played a significant role in his life.
After a long and successful career, beating L.A traffic might be the most hectic thing that Colletti has to deal with nowadays. When asked about what kind of legacy he hopes to leave behind, Colltti isn’t too concerned. “I rather have God decide my legacy,” he said. “I take every day as it comes, and I’ve been blessed to have the life I’ve had.”
But surely, everyone wants to be remembered someway, right? As he nears Pepperdine University, he ponders this for a second. “I just hope people understand that I was passionate about the same thing they were passionate about… and that was baseball.”
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