Q&A: In new memoir, former Dodgers GM Ned Colletti writes on his role in forming current roster — and surviving the McCourts

It can be tough at the top. Ned Colletti refects on his nine years as the Dodgers' general manager in his new memoir.
It can be tough at the top. Ned Colletti refects on his nine years as the Dodgers’ general manager in his new memoir.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The new memoir by former Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti is part baseball handbook and part Cinderella story. From humble early years living in a converted garage, the working-class Chicago kid rose through the ranks to become one of the top executives in the game.

During his nine-year tenure as the Dodgers’ GM, the team added Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig, Cody Bellinger, Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and turned Kenley Jansen from a light-hitting catcher to a dominant closer. If Andrew Friedman and Dave Roberts are the whiz kid maestros of this year’s World Series team, Colletti is the savvy sage who hired most of the orchestra.

Yet, he also had his busts — Jason Schmidt and Andruw Jones — which he writes candidly about in the memoir, “The Big Chair” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $28), with an assist by Joseph A. Reaves.

Here, the Dodgers senior adviser and SportsNet LA broadcaster talks about working for the McCourts, scouting talent and the hard work it takes to reach a World Series:

When a GM puts a team together, do you think about chemistry?

You always think about it. I won’t say you can always fulfill that with 25 out of 25 players. When you get to times like this, it’s the kind of people you have who will pull you through September, through October. There are only so many people who can play major league baseball. I found myself at times where I had to acquire or sign somebody that I was a little bit hesitant about, but it was either that or not have a big-league player.

What impresses a lot of people, inside and outside the game, is the Dodgers’ team effort.

You know, it’s a lovable team too. You’ve watched a lot of players grow up here, and take on a leadership role. I think Dave Roberts has been phenomenal. His first spring, we took a walk … and he said, “Give me an idea of the challenges and some of the things I really need to approach quick.” And I said culture. I couldn’t get it done. I couldn’t get it where I really wanted it to be. I knew what [a winning culture] looked like, I knew what it needed. …. I told him, that’s the key, whether he heard or didn’t is irrelevant, but he’s really changed it. There’s no selfishness … nobody needs to be the hero. It’s evident in how they play; it’s evident in their record. It’s the calmest team I’ve ever seen play. There is no anxiety. They take a methodical … approach and they have fun doing it.

You pulled players out of nowhere: Jansen, Justin Turner, Puig, Ethier. Is there a diamond in the rough that you spotted that you feel proudest of?

I don’t know if it’s a diamond in the rough as much as it’s seeing them mature to this point in time. Justin Turner may be as big a diamond in the rough as anybody. He was a utility player, he could’ve stayed in New York, the Mets could’ve kept him, we waited him out a little but, we signed him to a major league contract, then the physical showed the knee problem. I told him, “Hey, you gotta believe what I tell you, you’re going to make the team as long as you’re healthy”… My scouting on him, he was an average fielder at second base and third base who could play some shortstop, that’s how I saw him, and he has worked so hard to become a great third baseman and a really feared hitter in the middle of a deep lineup, and he’s become a leader.

G.P. Putnam's Sons
Jon SooHoo

Which brings up the question. How do you scout heart? Can you scout grit?

I would love to get to the ballpark early, whether it was an amateur game, a minor league game … because I want to see who comes out first. I want to see interaction. I want to see who works. I want to see who … pays attention to detail. Players always think that they’re being scouted when the game is on. I was scouting them all the time. I was even scouting them on social media because you can find out who someone is on social media sometimes. That’s kind of how I grew up. I was never the smartest person in the room. I am competitive and I am relentless. I’ve always had to pay attention to detail, I could never take a day off …. If you have talented players who play that way, then you have something special.

Do you sometimes say: “I hate analytics.” Do you say, “I’ve spent my life learning to evaluate talent. And they’re turning this into a giant math quiz.”

I think for anyone in a leadership role, information is king. And I don’t know anybody who runs a team … who doesn’t want as much information as possible — it may be a trend, it may be a number or watching a kid play, or a conversation. My career started to take off in my early Cubs days because I was doing analytics, I was doing them by hand.…Without analytics I’m not sure where I’d be today, because I was able to learn more about the game and it gave me credibility with management…. I probably stand at 51-49%, or 52-48, because at the end of the day I want to know who’s in that uniform. I want to know how they think, how they prioritize, how hard they work … but I think everybody in the game has a solid percentage of both [analytics and baseball wisdom].

Be honest: How many times did you just want to walk out on the McCourts?

I never got to that point. I learned growing up that not every lesson was going to be an easy lesson. [The McCourts] gave me my opportunity. And I’ll tell you what, Frank taught me a lot, he taught me a lot about negotiation, he taught me a lot of things. Some of it I would replicate, some of it I would never touch again. But I learned a lot.

Did your humble origins help you relate to players who also came from difficult backgrounds?

Absolutely. I have a great appreciation for the underdog; I have great appreciation for hard work. If I’ve got a guy who’s a 6 or a 7 talent, but he’s a 9 in work ethic and class and humility and drive and spirit, I’ll take that player every day.

As we’re reaching the end of the season, I’m reminded what a grind it is. Running a marathon is a walk on the beach compared to a baseball season.

It’s hard…You know what, I end up tearing up at the end of every World Series because I know what it’s taken to get there, no matter who’s in it, because I know what’s transpired, I know the sacrifices people all around the team have made, and it doesn’t go back to the first day of that year’s camp. It could be years in the making, many years of sacrifices, and to be able to get the last out in the last game of October, I can’t help it, I tear up no matter who wins because I know what sort of quest they’ve been on … this incredible grinding, brutal, sacrificing quest.

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