Dodgertown at last!
After driving more than 1000 miles criss-crossing back and forth across Florida for 5 days, we finally arrived in peaceful Vero Beach – a sleepy little town that time is already starting to forget. Once a popular vacation town, Vero beach is increasingly becoming a retirement community as the tourists stop coming, lured away by much ritzier resorts further down the coast.
When we arrived yesterday evening we drove down to the beach and along the town’s main street, which looks much the same as it must have in the 1950s. Only now, half the storefronts are vacant, and half the beachfront hotels are boarded up.
After next year, the Dodgers will be gone too.
But for now they are still here. This morning we drove down the highway to Dodgertown, which has been the spring training home of the Dodgers for 60 years, and took in the last game of spring training. Like Vero Beach, Dodgertown has long become an anachronism. It is the relic of a bygone era, a time when other teams were training in the Caribbean, and Walter O’Malley bought an old abandoned naval base for a song and turned it into a slice of baseball heaven.
Unlike every other team’s spring training facilities, which are little more than a few fields and offices, Dogertown is literally an entire town, complete with streets named after famous Dodgers of yore, a complex of bungalows where the players live, its own post office, its own golf and tennis courts and olympic-size pool, and even its own elementary school – Dodgertown Elementary, which is supported by donations from the Dodgers and is often visited by Dodgers players who read to the children or help them with their studies.
In an age of extreme commercialization of the game and reclusive superstar players with superstar egos to match, Dodgertown harkens back to an earlier time when players were more accessible and the game was more intimate. At Dodgertown, fans are allowed to wander the complex at will, walking among the practice fields and batting cages and watching the players stretch, warm up, and run laps before the game. There are almost no advertisements anywhere. The press box is an open seating area in the middle of the stands, and there are no dugouts – just two sets of two benches on either side of the field, so fans in the first row are literally sitting one row behind the players and can hear all their conversations and even chat with them during the game.
The fans at Dodgertown seem to understand that in exchange for this greater intimacy with the players they should be more respectful. At every other park we visited this trip, as soon as fans saw a player they would mob him and shove pens and balls and programs in his face to get autographs. But at Dodgertown, there were hardly any autograph seekers, and most people just wanted to chat with players rather than demand their signatures or pictures with them. When Tommy Lasorda appeared at the Mets homefield a few days ago, he was mobbed the entire game by a constant stream of fans, mostly wearing Mets gear, all trying to get an autograph or a picture. But when Tommy appeared in Holman Stadium today, people just said “hi” to him or left him alone to watch the game in peace. Fans expect to find themselves mingling with players and living legends in Dodgertown, and treat it as a matter of course.
Everything about Dodgertown is clean and classy, and rich with legacy and legend. These are the exact same fields that Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, and Sandy Koufax trained on. And they look just the same now as they did then. The buildings are old, but perfectly maintained, and the grounds are unchanged but spotlessly groomed. Everything is shining green and white and blue, and one is reminded of exactly why the Dodgers were the classiest organization in all of sports for decades, at least until Fox bought the team in 1997.
But two years from now, all of this will be gone. In spring 2009, the Dodgers will move into their new home in Surprise, Arizona, a complex that they will share with the Chicago White Sox, and which will undoubtedly be fully part of 21st century baseball, with its luxury boxes, its blaring rock music, its off-limits, state of the art training facilities, its advertisements on every free square inch, its sullen superstars, its lack of peace, and solace, and soul.
And if you look closely, you can already see signs of Dodgertown starting to slip away back into the past, and into the land of memory. This year, the Dodgers moved their single-A minor league franchise out of Dodgertown, switching affiliation to the Great Lakes Loons of the Midwest League, and the Vero Beach Dodgers became the Vero Beach Devil Rays, so starting April 6, there will be future Devil Rays playing on the fields of Dodgertown.
Dodgertown is also a lot emptier nowadays. Back in the 1950s, there used to be as many as 700 ballplayers living and training at Dodgertown each spring, but these days there are only about 100, most of whom live offsite in fancy condos, so many of the bungalows are unoccupied.
And with the Dodgers moving away, the McCourts have clearly decided not to put anymore money into Dodgertown than they have to. Although Holman Stadium is still a gorgeous place to watch a ballgame, the seats are rusty and look like the same ones that have been there since the place was built in 1953. This year, the McCourts decided to stop maintaining the golf course, which is now almost unrecognizable, and heart-shaped lake that Walter O’Malley had made and named after his wife Lynn is increasingly less heart-shaped as it is no longer dredged annually.
The phrase I heard most from the friendly staffers at Dodgertown – many of whom have worked here for their entire adult lives – was “Well, we still have one more year left.” It was a curious shared denial, as if it is not worth thinking about the fact that the Dodgers will be gone until at least next spring. But gone they will be, and although I heard several people say that another team will surely want to come to a place as beautiful as Dodgertown, Vero Beach is pretty out of the way, and all the other teams already have spring training homes.
The fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers made “Wait ’til next year” their famous slogan in the 1950s, as team after Dodgers team would steamroll through the National League, only to lose to the Yankees in the World Series, before the losing streak was finally broken in 1995.
But here at Dodgertown, on the same fields where those legendary Brooklyn teams once trained, everyone except for Frank McCourt is wishing from the bottom of their broken blue hearts that next year will never come.