'Historic' Dodgertown still holds special place

Former Spring Training home recently named a Florida landmark

'Historic' Dodgertown still holds special place

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- This is the place where Tommy Lasorda first pitched in front of Branch Rickey -- whom he still affectionately calls Mr. Rickey. Where former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley got his first full-time job. Where Chan Ho Park arrived from Korea knowing just three English words: "Yes", "No" and "Tommy." The birthplace of six World Series championship teams.

A plethora of former Dodgers -- Steve Garvey, Jerry Reuss, Rick Monday, Steve Yeager, Tommy Davis, Ron Cey and Maury Wills -- all took their own trips down memory lane this week and shared why they love this place here in Vero Beach, Fla., now rechristened as Historic Dodgertown. It's where the club gathered for Spring Training every year from 1948 when it opened until the Dodgers moved Spring Training to Glendale, Ariz., in 2008.

"You won't find a better Spring Training facility in the country," Lasorda said.

Dodgertown closed after the team left in 2008, albeit briefly, because Minor League Baseball stepped in to reopen the camp a year later as "Vero Beach Sports Village."

That didn't last long. And the facility was set to close again in 2012.

O'Malley and his sister, Terry, feared that if the facility shuttered again it may never reopen. So the O'Malley family became owners again, with Park and Hideo Nomo, as founding partners, and re-branded the place as Historic Dodgertown. It was named a Florida landmark on Monday.

"In my opinion it's too special of a place," O'Malley said. "Not because I may be living in the past or nostalgia, but I truly believe that as the years go on it will become even more significant in the city, in the county here and for Major League Baseball and for the Dodgers.

"It can be, should be, almost a walking museum."

Historic Dodgertown has been transformed into a multipurpose facility. There are basketball and tennis courts, a golf course, four full baseball fields and Holman Stadium, which seats 6,500. It has hosted baseball teams from the Minors, college, professional teams from China and Korea, Little Leaguers, softball, football and a girls swimming team competed here in early November.

There are instances when Historic Dodgertown is again vibrant and filled with fans, especially during this week while adult fantasy campers were in attendance, but it is difficult to keep it that way year round.

O'Malley said the facility is likely to lose money again this year.

"We've got to get it to break even and a profit," O'Malley said. "I'm not in this to make money. I'm in this to try and save and enhance it, and not just for a couple of years while I'm in charge, but to get it on a firm footing so that it requires low maintenance and is at little risk of losing money.

"We're not there yet."

O'Malley recognizes the challenges ahead to make Historic Dodgertown serve as a true museum. For instance, Vero Beach is also at least a 40-minute drive from any major airport, so O'Malley thinks it's difficult to imagine people traveling out of their way just to see it. He does think someone, perhaps, on their way to a town nearby would make an effort to stop by.

"There's a lot of history here and there's a lot of significant history here," O'Malley said.

It could be difficult for fans around the area to stay connected to the Dodgers now. Walter Wolff was born in the Bronx, but he grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and when he moved to Port St. Lucie in 2007, he lined his computer room with signed balls and photos he has accrued while visiting through the years. He bought season tickets behind the Dodgers' dugout before they left after two seasons.

"Broke our hearts," Wolff said.

It functioned as a de-facto museum this week when the Dodgers hosted their adult fantasy baseball camp -- where fans sign up to play a week's worth of scrimmage games and are coached by former Dodgers players. They trained in the same weight rooms, ate in the same intimate dining hall where even the owner waited his turn in line, hit in the same batting cages and pitched on the same mounds as Dodgers stars once did.

In the lounge on Tuesday, O'Malley brought out his old Dodger World Series championship trophies from 1981 and '88, along with autographed bats from past pennant winning teams dating to the days in Brooklyn. The walls are lined with posters, each with a piece of Dodgers history: from magazine covers to newspaper articles and the roster from spring 1949, when 620 players reported and the players still tease Lasorda because his name appears on the sick list.

"It's special to me because I know the history," O'Malley said. "I know the background on Campy's bullpen. I know the pitching string area where Drysdale and Koufax, and many other pitchers would practice. I know the batting cages where Duke Snider and Roy [Campanella] hit.

"It's special to me because I know what was here."

Jamal Collier is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.