It was a dream job, but not under dream circumstances.
The Chicago Cubs wanted to hire him. The Cubs! He had grown up in Chicago. He loved the Cubs. Ned Colletti loved baseball, ever since his father had treated him to a day at Wrigley Field for his seventh birthday.
But he was in Philadelphia, an out-of-work hockey writer, wondering how he could possibly support a wife and newborn child on $14,000 a year, the Cubs’ pay rate for an entry-level job in media relations. He was 27, old enough to make a better living. He swallowed hard and told the Cubs no.
Not long after, his phone rang. His parents still lived in Chicago. His father was on the line, suggesting Colletti take that job. Lung cancer will take me soon, his father said, and you need to come home and take care of your mother.
Twenty-four years ago he went home, and Wednesday he went to the top of his profession when the Dodgers introduced him as their new general manager.
“Today is one of the proudest days of my life,” Colletti said, “if not the proudest day.”
Dodger owner Frank McCourt was proud, and relieved too. After a turbulent two weeks that included rejections from an assortment of high-profile executives, McCourt finally landed his man. Colletti, who replaces the fired Paul DePodesta, can now hire a manager. Six weeks ago, the Dodgers dumped manager Jim Tracy -- and later DePodesta -- after losing 91 games, their second-worst season since moving to Los Angeles in 1958.
Colletti, 50, joins the Dodgers after 11 seasons with the San Francisco Giants, the last nine as assistant general manager. The Giants won 90 games six times in that span, with four appearances in the playoffs and one in the World Series.
Yet the Giants watched in frustration and amazement as teams in search of general managers dismissed Colletti’s success and experience while hiring statistical whiz kids young enough to be his son.
“In some ways, I’d say we both became pessimists about what the hell was going on in the game,” said Giant General Manager Brian Sabean, Colletti’s boss in San Francisco. “If people owned Fortune 500 companies, would the keys to the organization be turned over to a fellow who didn’t have real-life experience?
“It’s probably more of a phase than a norm. I don’t think all of baseball necessarily subscribes to that school of thought.”
Colletti replaces DePodesta, 32, the son of a Harvard graduate and a Harvard graduate himself. Colletti’s father was a maintenance man, and the family lived in a remodeled garage.
“It wasn’t very big. It wasn’t very warm,” he said. “I never knew it wasn’t a great place.”
When he was 5, the family moved into a four-room house, under a flight path and next to a train track.
“My father would send me up to the corner Italian deli on Sunday to buy five pieces of ham,” he said, “so I could have one piece a day for lunch.”
In the brutal Chicago winter, his father got up at 3 a.m. every day, so he could start the car for 15 minutes. If he forgot, the car might not start come morning.
“If you didn’t go to work, you didn’t get paid,” Colletti said. “If you didn’t get paid, you didn’t eat. If you didn’t eat, you wouldn’t be around very long.”
He graduated from Triton (Ill.) College -- he and baseball star Kirby Puckett were inducted together into the school’s hall of fame -- and Northern Illinois University. Colletti put his journalism degree to work, covering the Philadelphia Flyers until his newspaper folded in 1981.
That, and his father’s illness, brought him back to Chicago and into a career in baseball. He handled media relations, contract negotiations and salary arbitration, but the Cubs shuffled their front office and let him go after 13 years. So he opened his own public relations firm, promoting sports and entertainment clients, including Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey.
“People used to ask me what I knew about the circus,” Colletti once told the San Jose Mercury News. “I’d say, ‘I worked for the Cubs for 13 years. Nobody saw more clowns than I did.’ ”
The Giants lured him to California in 1994. Two years later, the Giants promoted Sabean to general manager and Colletti to assistant.
Sabean and Colletti ran the Giants together for a decade, growing from colleagues into the best of friends. Sabean is getting married this weekend in Florida, and Colletti plans to attend.
“If he does,” Sabean said, “I hope he’s ready for the biggest prank in the history of our relationship.”
Behind the laughter, there were tears. Letting go of something good is not easy, no matter how he longed for the job he just accepted.
“There were some very emotional moments the last couple days,” said Larry Baer, the Giants’ chief operating officer. “There were some very tearful moments for him, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and looking at the skyline.”
If Colletti hasn’t met everyone in baseball, he’ll get to it shortly. In his introductory speech Wednesday, he apologized for thanking so many people that he sounded like an Academy Award winner.
“He’s the kind of guy people gravitate to,” Baer said. “People would go into his office, not because the door was open, but because you felt his mind was open. I’ve had long, philosophical conversations with him that start with baseball and end with life.”
After the Giants lost Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, as the Angels pranced around the field in Anaheim, Angel Vice President Tim Mead felt a tap on his shoulder. In the most painful of moments, Colletti had sought out a friend to offer congratulations.
“At the time, I remember thinking, ‘Would I have had enough character to do that for a dear friend?’ ” said Mead, who extended similar congratulations to the Chicago White Sox staff when the Angels lost the American League championship series this year.
“We did what we did with the White Sox this year because of what Ned Colletti did in ’02.”
Colletti still wears his ring from that season, so he spent his first day as the Dodgers’ general manager with a glistening Giant logo on his finger. He offered no apologies.
“It took me 22 years to get it,” he said.
It is not the preferred ring. It is, after all, a National League championship ring, not a World Series championship ring.
“This,” he said, “is the loser ring.”