Hey, big spender

Times Staff Writer

If only for a few minutes, Ned Colletti looked relaxed. The Dodgers’ general manager had learned that his team would face the Chicago Cubs in the National League division series.

The visiting clubhouse at AT&T; Park in San Francisco was clearing out on Sunday, as players rushed out of the showers, dressed quickly and dashed through the back door to the team bus. Colletti wasn’t in a hurry.

He stood in the middle of the clubhouse, saying something to the effect that his baseball life had come full circle, because his team would be facing the storied franchise that he cheered on as a youth and started working for in 1982 in the public relations department.

He told stories of the days he spent in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. He recounted how his father and two uncles camped outside the ballpark for tickets to the 1945 World Series, leaving home their 10-year-old brother, Frank Jr., with the promise: “The next time the Cubs are in the World Series, we’ll take you.”


The Cubs, of course, never made it back. Colletti exploded laughing. Colletti hadn’t laughed much like that lately, at least not with a semicircle of reporters in front of him.

The quick-tempered general manager appeared tense in the weeks leading up to the Dodgers’ coronation as NL West champions, his superstitious nature manifested in growls when told his team looked as if it was positioned to reach the postseason. Sunday, Colletti acknowledged that he couldn’t relax when his team was playing and that people who sat with him in the general manager’s suite during games often looked at him as if he were deranged.

“I take it real serious,” he said. “I grind out every pitch with the guys.”

What he won’t acknowledge is that he has anxiety about his future with the Dodgers. Colletti was widely presumed to be on shaky ground midway through the season, as newly signed $36.2-million center fielder Andruw Jones lumped himself in with Jason Schmidt and Juan Pierre on the growing list of the GM’s questionable high-priced free-agent acquisitions, and his team -- with a $120-million payroll -- trailed Arizona in the standings.

However, by the time the Dodgers clinched the division title, owner Frank McCourt was crediting him with making the trades that salvaged the season. Manager Joe Torre agreed, saying it was the acquisitions of Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake in July that put the Dodgers on the path to the playoffs.

The Dodgers persuaded Ramirez’s and Blake’s former teams to pay the remainder of the money owed to them. Greg Maddux, acquired in an August waiver deal, is being paid only $500,000 of his $10-million salary by the Dodgers.

But McCourt hasn’t said whether Colletti will be back next season, the final year of his four-year contract.

McCourt declined to comment in June on Colletti’s future, saying it was unfair to speak on the subject with so much time remaining in the season. He declined to comment again last week, saying that to do so at this time of the year would be “totally disrespectful.”


“The people who need to know how I feel know how I feel,” McCourt said.

McCourt wouldn’t say whether Colletti was one of them. Colletti wouldn’t either. So the speculation persists, much to Colletti’s annoyance.

On the day Colletti became the first general manager in the Dodgers’ 51 years in Los Angeles to lead his club to two playoff appearances in his first three seasons, he became testy when the subject of his future came up in a roundabout way.

After the hailstorm of criticism he received for his high-priced free-agent signings that didn’t work out, Colletti was asked whether he felt vindicated when the midseason trades he made pushed the Dodgers to the top of the NL West.


“I have great confidence in what I do,” he said. “I know what my relationship with the McCourts is. I don’t need to be vindicated.”

Colletti could point to how he plugged several holes this season that were created by injuries to the likes of Rafael Furcal, Brad Penny, Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent and Takashi Saito.

Though Ramirez and Blake might have thrust the Dodgers into the postseason, moves involving lesser-known players such as Angel Berroa, Pablo Ozuna and Blake DeWitt helped keep them in the race.

On the advice of bench coach Bob Schaefer, Colletti acquired Berroa, a former AL rookie of the year who spent the previous year and a half with the Kansas City Royals’ triple-A affiliate. A player who cost the Dodgers almost nothing -- the Royals paid what remained of the $5.25 million owed Berroa and received only Class-A infielder Juan Rivera in return -- was their starting shortstop over the last two months of the season.


Ozuna, who was released by the Chicago White Sox, became a late-inning replacement at second base for 40-year-old Jeff Kent.

When Kent had knee surgery with less than a month remaining in the season, he was replaced at second base by DeWitt, the rookie who was the Dodgers’ opening-day third baseman. When the Dodgers optioned DeWitt to triple-A Las Vegas in July, they had him work out at second base in case something like this happened.

Colletti not only managed to make his moves without costing the Dodgers money, but he also did it without mortgaging their future. The only notable prospect he parted with was third baseman Andy LaRoche, who went to Pittsburgh in the three-way trade that brought Ramirez from Boston.

For Blake, Colletti gave up triple-A reliever Jonathan Meloan and Class-A catcher Carlos Santana. For Maddux, he traded two prospects who weren’t on the 40-man roster.


Third base coach Larry Bowa said there were times this season when Torre asked Colletti if he could receive any reinforcements from the minors, only to be told that they couldn’t burn the option years of certain players.

“As a manager or a coach, you might want something, but you have to think about the future,” Bowa said. “Ned did a good job of that.”