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Pilgrimage to Dodgertown

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An icon of baseball history is about to vanish.   By Charlie Huisking   Even though major-league baseball’s regular season is only a few days old, I’m sure I’ve already experienced my baseball highlight of the year. Last month, I made a pilgrimage to Dodgertown on Florida’s east coast. The Dodgers’ logo behind home plate […]

April 3, 2007


An icon of baseball history is about to vanish.
 
By Charlie Huisking
 
Even though major-league baseball’s regular season is only a few days old, I’m sure I’ve already experienced my baseball highlight of the year. Last month, I made a pilgrimage to Dodgertown on Florida’s east coast.


The Dodgers’ logo behind home plate at Holman Stadium.
 
OK, you won’t really find the name Dodgertown on any Florida map. I actually traveled to Vero Beach, where Dodgertown, the 450-acre spring- training headquarters of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is located.
 
I’ve been a Dodger fan since I was a kid. Not because of any fondness for L.A., but because my father once pitched briefly in the minor leagues for the Dodgers, when the team was still in Brooklyn.
As we played catch in the backyard, my father would tell me stories about Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and the other stars from the ‘40s and ‘50s, when the Dodgers seemed to meet the New York Yankees in the World Series every other year.

 
Though I’d never been to Dodgertown, I’d read countless articles describing the idyllic scene at the former naval base that Dodger owner Walter O’Malley purchased in 1948. Unlike most spring-training complexes, it has a college campus atmosphere, encompassing not only a stadium and practice fields but apartments, a restaurant, a pool and a golf course.
 
In March, I got a call from Gregory Enns, a former colleague from the Herald-Tribune who now publishes Indian River magazine. He had shocking news: The Dodgers are leaving Vero Beach next year to move to a new spring-training complex in Arizona. Greg wanted me to write a feature about their impending departure.
 
As soon as I arrived, I was surrounded by legendary names and faces. Black-and-white photos of Robinson, Hodges, Pee Wee Reese and other stars from Brooklyn days hang in the team’s spring-training offices. The streets that run along the practice facilities and the apartments are named for the likes of former stars like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
 
Some of the legends were standing right in front of me. Maury Wills, the electrifying shortstop who set a major-league stolen base record in 1962, was giving bunting tips on one lush green field. On another, retired Hall-of-Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, who once famously said that “I bleed Dodger blue,” was cracking jokes and offering unsolicited advice.


Luis Gonzalez signs autographs for fans by a practice field at Dodgertown
 
“Hey, Gonzo,” Lasorda shouted to Luis Gonzalez, a veteran signed by the team over the winter. “You ought to be down on your knees thanking God that you are finally a Dodger.”
 
A laughing Gonzalez nodded as he signed autographs for dozens of fans lined up near the batting cage. I was impressed to see that Gonzalez took time to have a brief conversation with every fan. “Oh, you’re from San Antonio? I love it there,” he told one visitor from Texas. “How old is your son?” he asked one father holding a toddler in a tiny Dodgers’ uniform. Another fan told Gonzalez he hoped he hit 35 home runs this year.


Batting cage: Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, far left, returns to Dodgertown for spring training.

 
“Only 35? I was hoping for 45 or 50,” joked the 39-year-old Gonzalez, who only managed to hit 15 for the Arizona Diamondbacks last year.
 
By noon, the practice fields had emptied, and the players and fans moved to cozy Holman Stadium, where the worst seat is only 17 rows from the field. Uniquely in all of baseball, the dugouts in the park have no roofs. That tradition dates back to owner O’Malley, who wanted the players to be in full view of the fans.


It’s easy to pose with players at the Dodgers’ open-air dugouts.
 
“We love this park because it’s so intimate,” said Bill McNutt, a Melbourne resident who was with his son, Judd. “It’s so easy for Judd to get autographs.”
 
There is talk that the city will try to lure another team to replace the Dodgers. McNutt said he’ll try to support them, “but it will be hard. Once you give your allegiance to somebody else for so long, it’s tough.”
 
The crowd was good-natured and enthusiastic, but only about 4,500 of the 6,500 seats were filled for this game against the Minnesota Twins. The Dodgers figure to draw larger crowds in Arizona, which is just a short flight from their vast Los Angeles fan base. The club is the only West Coast team that still trains in Florida, and Dodger officials say few fans make the trip to Vero Beach from L.A.
 
But I found one who was hard to miss. Los Angeles resident Jon Didier was wearing a blue-and-white wig and a “Think Blue” shirt his wife had made out of a  Dodgers’ beach towel. The Didiers have spent two weeks in Vero Beach watching the Dodgers every year since 1998. “The complex is so beautiful, and you’re so close to the players that they come to recognize you after a while,” Didier said. “And we’ve met so many nice people who live here.”
 
Maury Wills is going to miss the locals, too. “People are so nice, from the fans to the groundspeople to the maintenance guys,” said Wills, who at 64 still looks fit and agile enough to swipe second base.
Wills’ first spring training at Dodgertown was in 1951. “My salary was $135 a month, and meal money was $1.25 a day,” he said. “We slept eight players to a room in the old naval barracks, and there was no heat and air conditioning.
 
“And you know what? It was the greatest experience of my life, and I would do it again.”
 
The barracks have long since been replaced by garden apartments. Few of the team’s regulars stay there now. They rent expensive homes on the beach or in golf communities. But the minor-leaguers, and coaches like Wills, still eat, sleep and work at Dodgertown.
 
“I’m a traditionalist, and I don’t like change,” Wills said. “But you have to go along with change. One of those big changes will be going to Arizona. I’ll have to go along with it, and find a way to enjoy it.”
 
Jeff Torborg will never forget his first spring-training in Dodgertown, either. Now a Sarasota resident, Torborg started catching for the Dodgers in 1964. “I had gotten married the year before, and my wife was pregnant that first spring,” Torborg said. “So all those memories are part of the Dodgertown experience for me.
 
“And because of the Dodger tradition, you did feel as if you were part of a big family that went back generations. Roy Campanella [the Dodgers’ Hall-of-Fame catcher in the ‘50s] was in camp sharing his experience, and people like Wills and Drysdale and Koufax couldn’t have been more welcoming to a young kid like me.
 
“I can still smell the orange blossoms from the orange grove that used to be part of the complex. And I remember there was a guy passing out fresh-squeezed orange juice to all the players. Those memories are so strong. For me, it was like a kick in the stomach when I heard the Dodgers were leaving Dodgertown.”
 
My trip to Dodgertown also included a night game against the Florida Marlins. Just before it started, I sat with Charley Steiner, the Dodgers’ broadcaster, on the green berm that rises behind the outfield fence. He merely pointed when I asked him to sum up the magic of Dodgertown.
 
“Just look,” he said, gesturing toward players who were casting immense shadows on the field as the sun set. Above the palm trees, puffy pink clouds floated by.
 
“There is a Field-of-Dreams quality about this place,” said Steiner, who is just old enough to have seen the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. “I have mixed emotions about the move, because I love the tradition here. But it makes sense from the Dodgers’ point of view. They do get closer to their fan base, and they’ll draw huge crowds in Arizona when they play the [San Francisco] Giants and the [Chicago] Cubs.”
But when the last bus pulls out of Dodgertown, “it’s going to be like the last helicopter out of Vietnam,” said Steiner, who quickly added that he “didn’t mean that on a proportional level of course.
 
“Look, reality tops sentimentality every time. The 21st century has caught up with the 20th century at Dodgertown.”