Getting inside Ned’s head: “Nobody’s tougher on me than me”

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(Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

Instead of losing a sleeve of balls on a golf course or taking a long mud bath during a spa day, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti admits that he’s recently allowed himself a guilty pleasure.

About once a month, he’s been going to dinner with “five or six guys who are well-versed in life,” he says. “We talk about whatever comes up. If we’re there three hours, I hope the baseball conversation is only 15 minutes.”

The other night, the group included Tom Sherak, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Bob Moore, the president and general manager of KABC-AM radio, the team’s flagship station; KABC host Peter Tilden; Beverly Hills physician Dr. David Kipper; and Michael Franzese, a motivational speaker and author.

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Oh, and Jason Alexander, aka George Costanza from “Seinfeld.” His sit-com character once worked as the assistant to the traveling secretary to the New York Yankees. That apparently allows him some carte blanc into some sharp-witted baseball conversation.

“Here’s how the dinner opens,” says Colletti. “Jason says, ‘You know I don’t follow it (baseball, or the Dodgers) real close.’ I say, ‘Yeah.’

“He says, ‘So how’d you blow a six-run lead (to Philadelphia on Wednesday)?’ I said, ‘Thanks, Jason. Thank you. I appreciate that.’ ”

A dinner for schmucks?

It’s one thing to disentangle yourself from watching a franchise Colletti once built into an National League pennant contender now fragment into one just trying to stay out of the NL West basement, all while team ownership is hashed out on TMZ and Commissioner Bud Selig has sent someone in to babysit.

It’s another to just try to find a simple way to temporarily escape the grind of the game, exhale, and relax. If only through a couple of appetizers before the main course.

“I think that’s a problem,” the 55-year-old Colletti said from his suite before Friday’s Dodgers-Houston game, asked how he’s able to decompress during the season. “I don’t. I try to use every minute of every day.”

We borrowed a few of them for a Q-and-A, hoping it might give him a reprieve from watching what would be a tight 1-0 Dodgers win in 10 innings over the Astros:

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(Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

QUESTION: Six weeks left in the season, what kind of gameplan do you have as an exit strategy for this year?

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COLLETTI: It’s like (manager) Donnie (Mattingly) says, you try to win every game. I think that’s the most important piece. And I think along the way, you try to learn. I learn every day. I learn about the game. I learn about the people playing it. There’s still a lot of opportunity to figure out who’s who, and how they’re going to perform, not only this year, but going forward. Especially with the number of young guys we’ve got on this team.

Q: So with the September call-ups, is there anything in particular you’re looking for? Mattingly has talked about not bringing too many guys up if they’re not going to play. What’s the strategy to that?

COLLETTI: Well, we’ve got some guys in mind already. I probably shouldn’t give them to you right now. Most of them I want to see play. Maybe one or two I just want them to get acclimated. But I don’t usually do it without a purpose.

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Q: You probably don’t find much of a diversion from listening to “Dodger Talk” on the radio as you’re driving home from games, do you?

COLLETTI: You know, not really. I listen once and a while. I understand their frustrations. But what they may not realize, my frustration is multiplied by about 10. What aggravates them, aggravates me. Obviously, we have more information sometimes, we have a different approach to what’s going on from the fan’s. But what causes them to call up in a less-than jovial mood – I don’t need to hear it in my head. I already have it in my head. I don’t need it said to me again. I get it. I understand it better than anyone. Nobody’s tougher on me than me.

Q: Can that eat away at you?

COLLETTI: Yeah, but I balance it off by knowing that I know why I do what I do. I know what the premise of it is. I know what the background of it is. I know what led to us making that decision. And I don’t do anything at a knee-jerk reaction. I do everything with a lot of thought and imput from people who I respect, whether they’re scouts or development people. We can’t be in every place every minute. So I know when we make a decision, I know why we’ve done it.

I’ve made, and every GM has made, a decision we wish we didn’t have to make. Those are the ones that ride with you the longest, because you know why you did it, and you did it probably for a secondary reason, or a third priority or reason, rather than what you would have liked to have done it for. I don’t know if that makes sense or not, but there’s a lot of things I wish I wasn’t put into a spot that I had to do it.

Q: You understand that people don’t always understand all the moving parts that go into making any one deal. They really see Player A, who is a certain age, with these set of statistics, getting traded for Player B, who is this age, with these stats. Does part of your job involve having to explain to fans why a trade goes down, or is it really a “trust me, I know what I’m doing” issue?

COLLETTI: You know what, the way you just explained it – when I first got into baseball 30 years ago, that’s really how it was. It was very basic. It was talent for talent. Scouting versus scouting. And that’s how you made deals. When I started, in 1982 (in the Chicago Cubs’ front office), the highest paid player was Bill Buckner, who made $400,000. Then we acquired Larry Bowa — with Ryne Sandberg — and Larry was making $500,000. Those were the two highest-paid Cubs. Obviously now, those numbers are far different. Along with the increase in salaries, and freedom of players, and so many different dynamics, the check-off list before a trade back then may have been just two or three things. Now it’s a dozen or 15.

Q: So there has to be frustration from you when you hear anyone say, “This trade makes no sense,” when there’s a reason why can’t really explain all that goes into it, whether it’s impossible to do or you don’t want to give away any secrets?

COLLETTI: Well, I never want to disparage anybody. And, sometimes it’s not just a disparaging situation.

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You know, we just made this deal with Boston and Seattle – people wonder how we could trade a local player, Trayvon Robinson. And I like Trayvon. But I have to look at the team on July 31, 2011. And on April 1, 2012. And on . . . I’ve got to take a short look, and a long look.

But one of the key guys to acquire in that deal was a catcher (Tim Federowicz). We’ve got, maybe, a couple of prospect catchers in our system. One I think is a pretty good catch-and-throw guy. Another is a younger player that by all accounts is three years away, but that’s just showing up here, not an every-day contributor. So the kid we acquired, we feel, is within months of being up here. He’s got a great mind, he knows how to catch – and catching to me is one of the most important positions on the field. He can catch and throw, he’s got some ability to hit, and he’s got the right perspective and the right demeanor.

I couldn’t go into this offseason without more at that position. If you’re short a left fielder, you can take one of a couple of right fielders and move him over. If you’re short a third base or second base, you move an infielder around. But if you don’t have a catcher, you don’t have a catcher. That’s the one position you can’t invent out of thin air.
I could get more into the scouting reports of the three guys we got, or Trayvon, but that’ll sound more like me trying to plead my case.

Q: Reader reaction to the trade of Robinson has been the bulk of most questions they’ve been putting out there. And you can look at what Trayvon has done in his first six games in the big leagues – he’s 3 for 19 with eight strike outs and one walk. But he’s also hit a home run in his second game and robbed Torii Hunter of a home run by leaping over the wall. So which player will the real Trayvon become eventually, and was that worth trading him away?

COLLETTI: I think it’s somewhere in between. He’s a better hitter than 3-for-19. Is he going to hit a home run every game? Probably not. Go into the seats every game and rob a home run? Probably not. But he’s a very good player.

But we had Jerry Sands coming, and our main focus was adding a catcher to this scenario. I’ve also got to look at the free-agent market. If you don’t have someone already on the verge of being here, or having someone already here to catch 120-130 games, you look at the free agent market – who may file? And when I look at that list, I don’t believe the answer’s there, either.

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Q: Another thing you’ve said about Federowicz (right) being available – you have two catchers (Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro) who are finishing one-year contracts. You don’t know if you’ll have them back. Does it work to your advantage to have as many one-year contracts at some positions rather than having too many tied up to longer-year deals?

COLLETTI: In some ways, it is.

The greatest criticism I can make on my own about what I’ve done is free-agent signings. And they’re the toughest to master. They are players who haven’t grown up in your organization, you’re bringing them in from the outside, in my mind it’s always going to be more years than I’m comfortable with, and far more money that I’m comfortable with. But at the same time you have to have a major-league player at that position.
So if you’re talking about one-year deals, it’s all on the line for them, too. A lot of players who have struggled, but taken a one-year deal, they’ve been productive, and productive, and productive. And then someone gives them a longer-term deal – whether it’s us or somebody else – and suddenly you wonder, “What happened to the guy?”

Q: Here’s another question from a reader – and here it is in its entirety:

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“Explain to me — to all Dodger fans — why Juan Uribe was signed for any price, let alone the amount you overpaid him. I have been a Dodger fan since 1971, and never has any player been less qualified to be on this team than Uribe. This year proves that he played way over his head last season and you took the bait like a typical former Giants employee. Or do you still work for Frisco? Maybe you thought his World Series ring would make you a champion by proxy? Why in God’s Name did you sign him, besides your unnatural attraction to former Giants? I know you probably won’t ask this, but I just saved myself three sessions with my therapist writing that question out and pretending that Colletti might actually read it.”

And it’s signed “respectfully” from Kieran C. Scott, a fan from Placentia.

COLLETTI: God bless Kieran.
I understand his frustration, and mine is equal to his. Going into the offseason, we needed someone to play in the middle of the diamond and could be a run producer. We didn’t expect him to duplicate what he did last year, but certainly didn’t expect this type of season. We thought 15, 16 homers and 65, 70 RBIs, which, when you look at his track record, isn’t that far off line with what he’s been able to accomplish. But I get it. Signing free agents is the most volatile, toughest thing to really gauge. All I can say is thank you for your fandom.

Q: Has there been any other career experience you’ve had in your lifetime – maybe some time as a paperboy, or bussing tables – that you could apply advice you’ve received to how you’ve been able to get through this season as a GM?

COLLETTI: For this season (laughing)? No, I’m not sure anyone could really give me any advice on this one. It’s been . . . it’s been . . . immensely challenging.

Q: We’ve seen the different ways that you’ve described this year already – tough, rugged . . . Are you running out of adjectives?

COLLETTI: Naw. It’s a challenging job even in the best of times. On a team that’s basically injury free, and performing up to expectations, it’s a tough job. Add all the other elements to it, and it’s a lot more.

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Q: How do you see ownership playing out next season? Do you think Frank McCourt will be the person you’re still answering to?

COLLETTI: I don’t have any idea. I don’t even have an idea what tomorrow will bring.

Q: Are you able to block out all the off-field stuff when you’re doing your job?

COLLETTI: I try to. It’s easier to block out at different times during the year. As you start to think about the decisions we have to make in another six, seven weeks, it becomes more of a pivotal point. When you’re playing baseball games in April, May, June, you’re not really spending too much time thinking about it. But there’s a lot of dynamics that are going to have an impact on us one way or another.

Q: Will getting players this offseason to come to L.A. to play force you to be a better salesman considering all the off-field things that have been going on? Or does L.A. still sell itself?

COLLETTI: I’m sure agents will use it as a way to increase the free-agent spending. “You know, we’re a little apprehensive about coming out there.” Nobody should be apprehensive about becoming a Dodger. Or coming to this city. That will last forever.

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Q: One man you once talked into coming to L.A. — Manny Ramirez. Have you talked to him lately?

COLLETTI: I haven’t talked to Manny since August 31, 2010.

Q: Do you miss having him around?

COLLETTI: Um, I miss having the 2008 Manny. And the 2009 . . . well, most of 2009 was all right. He’s a very interesting guy in a lot of ways. At the end of the day, like him or not, I like him. I like how he played and I like the personality that he brought. He always knew what he was doing. He always had a lot of thought, I believe, in everything he did. He was great for us. For that period of time, he brought electricity to this city and to this ballpark. That changed us. We weren’t able to sustain it, but the guys who are still here remember it. Now, finding the piece that can bring that back, that’s one of the keys to the off season.

Q: You know L.A. may get an NFL team soon. Any thoughts of being an NFL GM?

COLLETTI: No thank you.

Q: You’re big on hockey. Any desire to be an NHL GM?

COLLETTI: I’m a huge hockey fan. A lot of guys in the game, executives, a few players I still know, I’ll hang out with them sometimes. Um, I wouldn’t mind working in hockey sometime. I’m not sure I’d want to be a hockey GM. I don’t think I’m necessarily qualified to be one. But if some point in time that opportunity presented itself . . .

Q: That’s a whole new set of rules with salary caps and rules.

COLLETTI: A whole other ceiling there.

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Members of the Brooklyn Dodgers watch a young lady try to put on a pair of a cowboy boots in an undated photo offered for sale at www.allposters.com.

Q: What about your affinity for wearing cowboy boots? Where did that come from?

COLLETTI: From Billy Connors, who is the Yankees pitching coordinator and years ago was the Cubs’ pitching coach. It’s the early ’80s in spring training with the Cubs, and we’re walking around downtown Scottsdale (Arizona) and he says, “You should get a pair of boots.” And I said, “I’m not getting a pair of boots.” He bought me a pair of boots anyway. They sat in my closet for like 10 years. One day I decided to put them on, and I liked the feel. And I think now in the last 14, 15 years, I’ve never worn a pair of dress shoes one time. I’ve got seven pairs. Python, lizard and ostrich. The ostrich are the best. They’re like slippers.

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Q: There’s a picture on the Internet of you, back in November, 2008, getting a tattoo. Was that really you?

COLLETTI: That was me.

Q: What does the tattoo say?

COLLETTI: That tattoo is my father’s initials. My dad died in 1982 at the age of 51. I got the job with the Cubs (in the media relations department) in December of ’81. And my dad was sick with lung cancer and he died that April, so he never really got to come to a game when I was actually working there.

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I was reading a book by Tim Russert. And he wrote about his son coming home from college. And there was a story about his mom noticing that he had a tattoo. She came downstairs and told her husband, “Your son is like every other college kid, defacing his body . . .” The kid came down and said, “Please, hear me out. . . . Dad, I got your initials on my side, because I always want you by my side.”

So, on the night I was going to do it, I called my son (Lou, a scout for the Giants), and he was in the Midwest, and I asked him: “I got a question for you – what would you say if I asked you, ‘Would you get a tattoo if I got a tattoo?’” And there was silence on the other end. He said, “Dad, in a million years I never thought you’d be asking me about getting a tattoo.” I told him I was going to get my dad’s initials tattooed on my side, so my dad will always be by my side. “And I would be honored if you did the same thing.” And he said, “You got it.”

So I started looking for my dad’s signature. At that time, he’d been deceased about 27 years. The night before I went in to get the tattoo, I found an old film cartridge. Years ago, you couldn’t take your film to the drug store, you had to take it to a camera shop. And my dad would take film in – family movies – and he had to fill out a little card, a self-addressed, stamped envelope on the box.

So I’m looking for his signature, I can’t find any, and hours before I’m going to get this thing done, I come across a box a film and he had written his name in the return address. So I took that with me, they scanned it, took the ‘N’ ‘L’ and ‘C’ off of it, and those are the initials on my side, the way my dad wrote it.

And my mom, she’s almost 82 still living in Chicago, I got her to write on the back of one my business cards her initials, so as soon as I have time to get another tattoo – and maybe the thing you were talking about, having a guilty pleasure – I’ll get her initials on my other side.

Q: And you got that done at the True Blue L.A. Tattoos in Hollywood?

COLLETTI: Yes, that’s where it was.

Q: And you managed to get it done without getting a Dodgers tattoo?

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COLLETTI: (He) told me when we win the World Series, he’s going to put the trophy on my back. He really could take the weight of the world off my back and put the trophy there instead.

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