Memories remain with Dodgers leaving Florida

Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

For a century, baseball spring training has been a Florida joy, filling our senses with precious archives through star-kissed generations of Cobb, Ruth, DiMaggio, Robinson, Williams, Aaron, Koufax, Mantle, Rose, Kaline, Ripken, Griffey and Martinez.

March is a glorious, sun-swathed month, when major league teams practice, teach, hone, play preseason games and make roster choices - in Arizona as well as Florida - before heading home for opening day of a six-month season.

No venue has more epitomized Florida's pitch-catch-field-and-hit laboratories than quaint, cozy Dodgertown in Vero Beach. "Boys of Summer" prepared there in the late '40s. It was Ebbets Field South.

In 1958, Brooklyn lost its franchise after 68 years, a melodramatic shift to California, but athletes with "Los Angeles" scripted across uniformed chests would keep coming every year to Vero.

Until now.

Next spring, the Dodgers will train in Arizona. I understand the economics, the geography and other sensible motivations. But it hurts, knowing the history of Dodgertown, and how perfect it once seemed.

Before my words this morning are exhausted, I will strain to wax nostalgic about Vero vistas, including an overload of indelible personalities and simple but beautiful Dodgertown workings that so many have experienced.

But first, some background.

Spring training, like so much in contemporary professional sports, keeps changing and escalating. Competition is now fierce between Florida and Arizona, with big-dollar romancing of major league owners including promises of spectacular facilities with remarkable and expensive little stadiums.

Oh, how it has changed from the old days, when the Yankees and Reds and Cardinals and many more teams were prone to long, strong marriages with Florida towns. Using cute but unfancy ballparks where patrons found it easy to shake big-name hands, snag an autograph or maybe even have a conversation with a Stan Musial or a Harmon Killebrew.

It's now big business.

Arizona is gaining fast on Florida, with 12 ballclubs in spring and the Dodgers due to make it 13 next year. Cleveland's Indians are contemplating a 2009 move to cactus country. Baltimore's Orioles are shopping; negotiations having bogged down with current landlords in Fort Lauderdale.

Among 18 teams now at work in Florida, only the Dodgers are from a city west of St. Louis. Pulling out of Vero has been an emotional tussle, even for team executives, even as fans from California kept screaming for a spring base closer to their ZIP codes.

Arrangements are all but finalized for erstwhile Brooklyn darlings to become spring tenants of Glendale, Ariz., the ambitious Phoenix suburb that is home to pro football's Cardinals and pro hockey's Coyotes. Two months ago, Glendale was the locale of college football's national championship game, where the Florida Gators obliterated Ohio State 41-14.

Now, let's do a little preaching; attempting a bit of a eulogy on Dodgertown where streets are named for Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, former owner Walter O'Malley, Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully and other Dodger icons.

Holman Stadium is 17 rows of seats, a magnificently manicured 6,500-seat arena where the grass and clay is like artwork. There are no dugouts. O'Malley didn't want spectator views compromised so players sit on aluminum benches in the open, with no place to hide.

Dodgertown has 90 villas; hotel-style rooms that are Spartan but have been springtime sleeping quarters for some huge big-league names. Today's big leaguers are so rich, so pampered that they rent fancy condos rather than residing on the Dodgertown campus.

In 1960, when I was a rookie sports writer not yet 21, my newspaper sent me to Dodgertown for three days to do stories on the L.A. bunch that whipped the Chicago White Sox in a World Series the previous October.

Arthur "Red" Patterson, a remnant from the club's Brooklyn time, was Dodgers vice president for public relations. We immediately hit it off, me and the grizzled major league pro. Patterson asked if I played poker - perhaps sensing a sucker - and I wound up spending two unforgettable nights at a large round press-room table with an astonishing array of baseball figures.

I was betting, checking and raising with O'Malley, the cigar-chomping owner who became the most hated man in Brooklyn for relocating the borough's beloved Dodgers to California. Coaches and players kept coming and going, through a slamming Southern screen door.

Also among the card dudes were Dodgers manager Walter Alston, general manager Buzzie Bavasi, my pal Patterson, legendary baseball figure Leo "The Lip" Durocher and Dodgers radio analyst Jerry Doggett. Scully, the best baseball announcer I ever heard, was not a poker player. He sat on a nearby sofa reading a novel.

I lost a few bucks.

During the first night's poker session, Bavasi asked me if I would like to fly on the Dodgers' plane, a turbo-prop Electra, to a Grapefruit League game the next day in Sarasota. I almost leaped across the table to say I'd be honored.

Can you imagine that happening today? A nobody, 20-year-old newspaper kid being invited to travel with the world champions? Outsiders are about as welcome in 2007 hardball society as a case of rattlesnake flu.

I showed up a half hour early at the Vero Beach airport, long before a bus arrived with players. I danced up the stairs and took a first-row seat in the Electra. Not a wise choice. As players began to arrive, I got a load of puzzled looks. Finally, one of them whispered, "That's where Gil Hodges sits." I jumped up, hurrying to the back of the cabin.

For a kid from Jacksonville, it brought gasps to see Dodger royalty walking up that airplane aisle - Hodges, Duke Snider, Koufax, Maury Wills, Drysdale, Frank Howard, John Roseboro, Jim Gilliam, Carl Furillo and the hero of Brooklyn's only World Series victory in 1955, left-handed pitcher Johnny Podres.

It didn't matter that, while the Dodgers and I were on that trip, a surprise hailstorm hit Vero Beach. Ice balls the size of lemons pounded my 1959, stick-shift blue Ford, leaving dozens of dents. But my day had been well worth it.

Times, they keep changing.

Dodgertown out, Glendale in.

But memories are forever.

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