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.
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.