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Colletti is plainspoken, talks with a Chicago accent, fancies Hawaiian shirts and resembles a slightly downcast Edgar Allan Poe. Although his background is in PR, he seems genuine, even when he emphasizes character and grit.
That doesn't mean he is not a modern general manager. The Dodgers are usually in the top third of the league in player payroll. This off-season they signed Jason Schmidt, a veteran pitcher with questionable velocity, to a three-year, $47 million contract; pitcher Randy Wolf, who has just 15 wins in his last three seasons, for $8 million this season; and Juan Pierre, a center fielder with a weak arm, for five years and $45 million.
Colletti knows this is a balancing act, between expensive veteran talent and affordable youth and promise. "If the salary demand of the veteran is higher than their value, then it's nice to be able to turn to your youth to get the job done. Some don't want to give young players a chance. I do," he says.
I hear all the time that itís not about the money, but thatís what we are always negotiating over, so what else is it?óDodgers general manager Ned Colletti
He's referring to Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Russell Martin and Andy LaRoche, youngsters in the Dodgers' lineup this year. He could also be referring to Drew, Gagne and Maddux, veterans who sought more than what he thought they were worth. Either way, Colletti says he is drawn to ageless virtues: "It doesn't matter if you play baseball, work in a factory or own a company, it comes down to how hard you want to work, how great you want to be, and what you are willing to do to get there."
The Boras Factor hovers over the conversation. "No question" Boras influences his clients as they formulate their demands, Colletti says. "But everyone bears responsibility for the way things turn out. Players can follow the advice they get to the letter, or they can use their intuition. That's not just baseball, that's life."
Once upon a time, no one would've pictured Eric Gagne in anything but a Dodgers uniform—even after he missed two seasons to injuries. Colletti is fond of Gagne, and recalls getting a call one day that impressed him. He had just become general manager, and Gagne wanted to talk about team chemistry. "It's rare to have that kind of conversation, much less have the player contact me," Colletti says. "It's hard to believe he wouldn't want to be a Dodger anymore."
Yet Colletti never talked with Gagne about remaining a Dodger. "Some agents don't want you getting too close to their client," he says pointedly. Of the negotiation environment he often finds himself in, adds Colletti, "I hear all the time that it's not about the money, but that's what we are always negotiating over, so what else is it?"
Colletti has his own litmus test: "If money is a player's No. 1 goal, I stay as far away as possible. I've seen it sabotage clubs. And sooner or later, the player that emphasizes money above all else will let the team down."
At some point last season, Colletti talked to outfielder J.D. Drew about the player's level of satisfaction in Los Angeles. Drew told Colletti he liked L.A. and the Dodgers, but according to Boras, that comment had nothing to do with Drew's contract intentions. And like many Boras-negotiated contracts, Drew's had a player option clause. Feeling assured by Drew's satisfaction, Colletti didn't worry about his contract status until after the season. So last November, when Colletti declined to renegotiate the three years and $33 million remaining on Drew's contract, Drew took the Boston money and ran.
So, does money really equal respect? "I wouldn't be talking to a player if I didn't respect him," Colletti says. "I could turn the tables and say the player doesn't respect the Dodgers, or the game, or me. If I hear that kind of talk, I know there's probably a bridge we cannot cross together—if they mean it." Then, keeping matters in perspective, he adds, "What are we talking about? Are we talking about affording another new car or where your kids go to school? Or are we talking about things we can't even fathom?"
Perhaps Boras and the Dodgers clash because the team is caught between its legacy and a modern game driven by cold business decisions and players' statistics. Colletti concedes that the Dodgers make business decisions—advertising campaigns, parking and concessions prices—with an eye on players' salaries and profits. He invokes the memory of the late, former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti to illustrate why he thinks teams should be careful to preserve the baseball experience, which means coming to the park and identifying with the players.
Back in the mid-1980s, Colletti says, Giamatti, then the National League president, gave a group of young baseball executives some cautionary advice: A typical fan, say, a father of four in the suburbs, had a choice. He could leave work early, gather up the kids, fight traffic into the city, pay a fortune to park the car, and then pay top dollar for good seats. "You get to your seat, it's dirty, there's no usher, and you're sitting in front of some drunks who use vulgar language and spill beer, which goes in your wife's purse, as it always does," Colletti says, relating Giamatti's story. "Then after the game you leave the park and fans are still drunk and cursing and you have to drive all the way home and get up early the next day for work.