By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page
A while back, a general manager of a National Hockey League team was asked an unusual question: Is your job much fun?
He smiled, and then talked about one time he saw a group of general managers from other teams gathered together, looking glum.
“I said to them, ‘You guys don’t look like you’re having a lot of fun right now,'” the GM said. “One of them answered, ‘If you take this job to have fun, you’re in the wrong business.'”
If there’s a message behind “The Big Chair” by Nick Colletti, that last quote might be it.
The Big Chair refers to the one for the general manager, the principal architect of a sports team’s present and future. That person is the one who comes out and announces the latest trade or free-agent signing, causing thousands these days to take to their computer to praise or rip the GM on social media.
The job wouldn’t be so tough if such moves were the only responsibility of its occupant. Every sports fans, naturally, thinks he or she could go a better job in those areas. That’s why fantasy leagues are so popular. But there’s more to the general manager’s job, a lot more. This is the best book I’ve read so far about what goes into the position. No wonder it takes more than 400 pages to explain it.,
Colletti had a nice nine-year run with the Los Angeles Dodgers, going from the end of 2005 to the end of the 2014 season. Los Angeles won a lot of games and made some playoff appearances, but fell short of the ultimate goal of reaching (and winning a World Series). Even so, Colletti had no reason to apologize for his time in the Big Chair.
His story actually begins in Chicago, where he grew up. Colletti was one of those kids who used to hang out in the Wrigley Field bleachers. Imagine his delight then, when he landed a job with the Cubs as a young adult – first in the public relations department (he had been a sportswriter in Philadelphia before that) and then in the baseball department. And imagine his dismay when he was fired by GM Larry Hines, one of the mediocrities as a GM that the Cubs had running the baseball department during their long, long drought between championships.
Luckily, Colletti landed on his feet as the assistant general manager of the San Francisco Giants. He was part of the organization that reached the World Series in 2002, and one that eventually won three titles in five years in the next decade. But Colletti had to watch those from a distance, as he had jumped to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
While there are some good stories about a couple of famous Cubs – one that was coming (Andre Dawson) and one that was going (Greg Maddux) – the book kicks in nicely once Colletti gets to Los Angeles. That’s because a general manager is on the go constantly, literally and figuratively. Colletti estimated that he spent about half of each year in a hotel somewhere, whether it be watching the Dodgers play or it is a case of looking at minor leaguers, meeting with agents, etc. The burnout rate must be high; Brian Cashman must be a special individual to have the GM job for so long with the New York Yankees (1998).
Even the easy days are complicated. Colletti writes about how an injury to someone on the major league roster caused him to work well into the night, and then early the next morning, on finding a replacement and getting him to Cincinnati for that night’s game. You wouldn’t believe how many moving parts there are.
And that’s just part of it. “A Day in the Life” chapter also discusses a player who essentially had given up on his career in midseason, and an intern who put confidential scouting reports on his blog on the Internet. Plus, there are the usual day-to-day activities that rarely left him time to eat, let alone think. Plus, there are no off-days in the job. The offseason has become just as busy than the season these days.
A general manager has to juggle personalities too, and the Dodgers had some big ones. Manny Ramirez. Yasiel Puig. Tommy Lasorda. David Wells. That’s just for starters, of course. There are stories about all of them as well as negotiations for trades, signing free agents and dealing lesser-known players who end up in, um, difficult circumstances.
But the biggest personality in the story might be Frank McCourt, the Dodgers’ owner for part of Colletti’s tenure on the job. McCourt is best remembered as the man who more or less robbed the Dodgers’ piggy-bank during his tenure, leaving the team in financial difficulty by the time he left. Colletti admits that point, but says McCourt was a brilliant individual who made him a better thinker on the job with his constant questioning of all things Dodgers.
Still, Colletti was enough of a baseball fan to realize that he should take a little of his time along the way to enjoy the company. Meals and travel time with Vin Scully, the legendary Los Angeles broadcaster certainly qualifies, and Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax qualifies. He even has some good words to say about Barry Bonds, whom he got to know in San Francisco.
Colletti was fired when the Dodgers had the chance to hire Andrew Friedman from Tampa Bay. Colletti’s two biggest regrets are that he didn’t have the chance to establish stability in the Dodgers’ organization during his time there, and that he didn’t smell the roses enough along the way. It’s difficult to do either.
This book came out a while ago, so some of the names might be not be familiar to non-Dodgers fans. Still, the story breezes along so nicely that you’ll finish it in a jiffy. You might not want to sit in “The Big Chair” when you are done with it, but you’ll understand baseball better.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)