Funny how this game works. Ned Colletti, the general manger for the Los Angeles Dodgers, has spent 25 years in baseball. And even when instinct tells him to celebrate, like it does as the Dodgers continue their stunning ascent from the National League West basement to the top of the division, he remembers the sage words of former commissioner Bart Giamatti.
“It's designed to break your heart,” Giamatti liked to say.
Cynicism is a slice of reality, and usually a hearty one. And to follow Giamatti’s particular advice is to fight emotion, which is a battle most would prefer to avoid. Yet it’s also the reason why the Dodgers are looking down at their four NL West peers: Because Colletti, for all of his stoicism at the zenith, was just as even-keeled at the Dodgers’ nadir.
“It was tough to watch every day,” Colletti said.
He’s being kind. A little more than two weeks ago, the Dodgers were in one mother of a funk: nine straight losses, 13 of the first 14 after the All-Star break, written off like a night in Vegas for a group of businessmen.
Only Colletti never blanched, not when Nomar Garciaparra or Jeff Kent got hurt, nor when the back end of his bullpen switched from the injured Eric Gagne and Yhency Brazoban to rookies Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton. Losses steeled him and forced him to make even more phone calls in search of an answer. First he got Wilson Betemit from the Atlanta Braves. In the final hours before the trading deadline, Colletti finagled Julio Lugo for prospects and Greg Maddux for Cesar Izturis. The Dodgers, already on a three-game winning streak, were reborn.
That, too, was funny to Colletti. He already had remodeled the Dodgers twice since he took the reins this offseason, bringing in a veteran-laden team in the winter before switching on the fly to a rookie-loaded squad in May. Another transformation and the Dodgers might start to feel like Michael Jackson.
This surgery actually worked. The Dodgers are on top of the baseball world, victorious in 16 of 17 games, including an 11-game streak to start the binge. They’re healthy, with Kent and Garciaparra giving them a surplus of infielders, and they’re balanced, with the veterans’ know-how complemented by the precociousness of rookies Andre Ethier and Russell Martin.
It was Martin who finished the Sunday-night classic between the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. In the bottom of the 10th inning of a scoreless game, Martin, the catcher who spent the first month of the season in the minors, homered off Vinnie Chulk, and the Dodger Stadium denizens wondered if this team would ever lose again.
At the time, it seemed like a fair question.
“It was one of the best games I’ve ever seen,” Colletti said, “like a heavyweight fight. You had two styles of pitcher, Jason Schmidt throwing 94 to 96, Greg Maddux at 84. You had the first 300-game-winner-versus-700-home run-hitter matchup, and Barry Bonds lined one at Maddux the first time up. And to cap it off, Russell getting the big hit.”
For a minute, Colletti allowed himself to cheer.
Maddux channeled his old Cy Young form and needed 68 pitches to work eight shutout innings. Lugo played right field, a position he had never manned. Betemit, just 26, was at third base, and Saito, another Colletti acquisition from Japan this offseason, pitched a scoreless inning to pick up the win, and, man, if this weren’t a completely different team than the Paul DePodesta-constructed mess of a year ago.
Colletti was brought in to clean it up, and while at first he seemed to make a good enough accounting for himself, the middle act was indeed a complication that needed a quick resolution.
“We had to do something,” Colletti said. “We also needed to show faith in the club. If we didn’t do anything, it would have said even more than if we did something.
“When you make trades in the second half of July, if you’re adding, you’re telling everybody you’ve got faith.”
Were the Dodgers to have kept losing, Colletti would be nothing more than the paramedic who kept doing mouth to mouth futilely.
Instead, they won, then won some more, then, against all reasonable expectations, kept winning. Colletti was the Dodgers’ defibrillator.
After 12 years with the Cubs and another dozen with the Giants, hundreds of contracts negotiated and thousands of hours spent in the clubhouse, Colletti came into this season thinking he knew the goods of a successful general manager. Funny what you think you know.
“It’s been the most intriguing and challenging year,” Colletti said. “I’ve learned a lot.
“Mainly,” he said, “count on nothing and prepare for everything.”
Colletti never was a Boy Scout, so this is new territory. He likes the Dodgers’ chances in the West, though he knows Arizona or San Diego or Colorado or even last-place San Francisco could vault right where the Dodgers currently sit.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Colletti said, “and that’s a good thing.”
He’s talking about the winning ways, of course, but Colletti just as easily could be referring to Giamatti’s edict. For every good bit of advice has a corollary, and to Giamatti’s it may be that for all of the hearts baseball breaks, it’s bound to enliven just as many.