Humility drives Colletti's support of guide dogs
Dodgers GM not quite a canine lover, but believes in helping others
LOS ANGELES -- You won't find Ned Colletti in the right-field pavilion Saturday when the Dodgers hold their second Bark in the Park day. His general dislike of dogs dates back to losing a playground fight with one in fifth grade.
So the general manager calls his support of Guide Dogs of America "ironic."
Lorri Bernson calls it a blessing. Colletti sponsored Lorri and her successor guide dog, "Carter," as well as a second guide dog team now living in Utah. A third is in the works.
Bernson is no expert in pitchers and hitters. But she said it's hard to imagine any of Colletti's acquisitions that are more heartfelt than Carter.
"I lost 98 percent of my sight 15 years ago because of diabetes," said Bernson, who works for GDA. "My dogs have changed my life beyond anything I could have imagined they could do. The only thing I can't do is drive. I travel, fly, work, go to places myself. They give you an independence that is so needed when you lose your sight.
"When I met Ned, he said he wanted to help somebody one-on-one, he wanted to see an end result. He wanted to see how someone's life would change. We're not always able to get through to sponsors of this stature; not unless blindness affects someone or someone they know. So for someone like Ned, reaching out with the ability to help without blindness directly affecting them or their family, that's unusual."
That's what Colletti was looking for when he was hired as general manager in 2006. He had finally achieved his professional dream, as well as the financial rewards that come with it. For someone who lived in a converted garage the first five years of his life in Chicago, Colletti sought a charitable cause that allowed him to make a difference in someone's life.
"Where I'm from and how I grew up," said Colletti, "it's powerful for me to help somebody. You can never do enough of it."
It all started for Colletti on a speaking engagement at the Braille Institute with former Dodger Wes Parker. After answering baseball questions from the audience, Colletti asked a question to the handful of attendees that were accompanied by guide dogs.
"I asked what those dogs meant to them," Colletti said. "They spoke with a heartfelt emotion about the bond that develops between a person and a dog and the confidence the dog provides, and it struck me that this might be what I was looking for."
Colletti was referred to Guide Dogs of America, which provides the dogs free of charge to the blind and visually impaired, through the support of donors like Colletti. He was taken on a tour of GDA headquarters in Sylmar by Bernson, whose first partner, "Nigel," was about to be retired. She needed a successor.
"I sent him an email after the tour that I would be honored if he chose to sponsor my next dog, and I assured him he would absolutely see the end result of where the money was going, and he wrote me back and said, 'Consider it done,'" she said. "Getting Carter created a great emotional lift for me. The transition from one dog to another is incredibly difficult."
The timing was good for Colletti, who was negotiating his 2009 contract extension. He put into the deal that each year he would donate $25,000 to a charity and the Dodgers Dream Foundation would match it. Additional funds are raised through silent auctions held at the ballpark. It costs roughly $42,000 to train each dog.
"The Dodgers have been great with their support, been with me every step of the way," said Colletti.
Through the association, Colletti learned that preparing a dog for the rigors of this job is a daunting process. At seven weeks old, puppies go to a puppy raiser and stay for 18 months, during which they are evaluated for suitability for the role. Then they are returned to GDA for a 4-6 month formal training period. Concurrently, partners are screened to create a proper match and ensure a successful team.
"Dogs have the opportunity to show if it's something they don't want to do," said Bernson. "About 50 percent make it through the program; they're the ones that really want to do it."
Colletti joined Bernson for the team's "graduation" from the training program. Colletti plans to sponsor one dog a year.
"Ironically, I'm not a dog lover," Colletti admits. "I had a bad experience in the fifth grade. I lived on the wrong side of town. I changed schools a lot, six in eight years. I was on the playground of this new school one day in the middle of winter, snow on the ground, and here comes this dog and he goes right after me and my lunch. From that point, dogs, you can keep them.
"But now, I'm getting fonder of dogs. My daughter, Jenna, always wanted a golden retriever or a Lab and she never got one because of that attack. She was a little bit hot about this in the beginning, but she understands this is for a good cause."
Ned Colletti Sr. would definitely understand.
"When my dad was dying, one of the last times I saw him I asked him if there was something I should know," said Colletti. "And he said, 'Always give more than you receive. You'll get far more out of helping people than you will out of expecting somebody to do you a favor.' That was Ned Sr. He was that kind of guy. And I keep that in mind. This isn't borne out of affluence, it's out of humility."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.