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Beyond the Lunch Pail

As Dodgers GM, Ned Colletti is a long way from his working-class upbringing, but his blue-collar roots still run deep

September 26, 2006|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

FRANKLIN PARK, Ill. — Amid the mad swirl of a pennant race, all it takes for Ned Colletti to find his center is to tour his hardscrabble hometown in a rental car. The sights of his childhood homes and haunts bring back memories, to be sure, but it is the sounds that remind him how he pushed himself to move forward, onward, upward.

The roar of jets flying into O'Hare airport directly over his family's tiny brick house.

The screech of train brakes at the Bensenville Freight Yard a block away.

The low rumble of trucks pulling out of the machine shop across the street.

Growing up, the clatter built inside Colletti in times of stress. And here he was, decades later, nearing the end of his first season as Dodgers general manager, his reshaping of the roster lauded throughout baseball, reflecting on how he made it from there to here, and why he is pulled back again every chance he gets.

Colletti steered the car into the parking lot of East Leyden High and recalled a moment when the noise became so deafening he thought his head would burst.

It was 1972 and he stood in his counselor's office, asking about college. The counselor took a look at his transcripts and pointed through the window to the rusting Thompson Steel sign obscuring the horizon.

"He told me get over there and apply," Colletti said. "I'll never forget it. He said, 'You aren't college material.' "

Maybe it was the subliminal swirl of planes, trains and trucks. Maybe it was his mother's subtle prodding for him to achieve what she'd longed for and lost.

Colletti wasn't going to work in any steel mill.

The respect and loyalty he'd learned in this blue-collar Chicago suburb didn't mean he had to toil for low wages all day and sit on the front porch at night fretting like his dad and uncles and the fathers of his friends.

Those planes were coming from somewhere, and those trains and trucks were bound for somewhere too. There was something out there for him, he was sure of that, and it was time to get going.

*

Now that he's moving, he can't stop. He has made it, but won't allow himself to believe it.

Maybe that comes from a life spent behind the scenes, raised among people content to scrape by, then serving long apprenticeships with the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants.

Colletti is restless and anxious, even after tearing down and rebuilding the Dodgers from the manager's office to the clubhouse in a whirlwind that began last winter. He wants to please everyone on his side, from owner Frank McCourt to Dodgers fans, and he wants to show everyone who isn't, from those in baseball who doubted him to that counselor, wherever he might be.

"I just don't want to let anyone down," Colletti said.

So the wheels never stop turning. The Bensenville Freight Yard has nothing on stately Dodger Stadium when it comes to interstate commerce. Colletti brought in productive free agents such as Rafael Furcal, Kenny Lofton and Nomar Garciaparra. He shipped out perceived bad apples such as Milton Bradley and Odalis Perez.

He acquired young talent such as Andre Ethier and Wilson Betemit while holding onto homegrown prospects such as Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton and Matt Kemp. And he topped off the collection by adding a priceless antiquity, pitcher Greg Maddux, and a thrift-store find, outfielder Marlon Anderson.

The deals gained approval back home, where Colletti maintains regular contact with numerous relatives and friends.

"He thinks through things methodically, he weighs the plusses and the minuses," said Colletti's brother, Doug, a commercial portfolio manager in Chicago. "He relies on people more than other GMs might. He listens and seeks advice."

Colletti, 52, appreciated the value of a dollar at a young age. He said his father, Ned Sr., worked from dawn to dusk six days a week, but often sent his son to the neighborhood delicatessen to ask for groceries on credit because payday was Friday and by Wednesday his wallet was empty.

That experience alone would make missing the playoffs after spending $100 million on payroll difficult for Colletti to stomach. The Dodgers already have won 11 more games than last season, but are as exasperating as they are exhilarating.

Although the prospect of missing the playoffs terrifies Colletti, he has come to terms with baseball's capriciousness.

"You depend on so many people to live up to expectations," he said. "It's proven to you every day that while you try to predict performance and be as prepared as possible, the only thing you know for sure is that you'll never know for sure."

*

Colletti's management style is alternately expansive and taut, outgoing and obsessive, flexible and dogmatic. But the consistent thread is action. Decisions are reached. Trades are consummated. Nothing stays on the drawing board for long.

It's an approach that reflects where he came from -- and where he didn't.

He wasn't a professional player. He isn't the relative of a powerful baseball man. He isn't an Ivy League whiz kid.

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