Dodgertown blues: Time to say farewell

Dodgertown blues: Time to say farewell

DODGERTOWN, Fla. -- They have made the pilgrimage all month, paying their last respects on both sides of the foul line, players and fans alike filing by for the final public viewing.

Soon, the place will be laid to its final rest.

But you can already feel the ghosts. Here, Roy Campanella enthralls young players gathered at the tracks of his wheelchair. There, Walt Alston growls at messed-up rundown drills and Al Campanis talks about coconut snatching. Everywhere, hundreds of uniformed fuzzy-cheeked kids amble about, dreaming of The Call.

Soon, the ghosts will have their own town.

Vero Beach -- zip code 32960 -- isn't going anywhere. It may even be reincarnated as someone else's Spring Training base. Next year, it likely will at least host some country's pre-World Baseball Classic workouts.

But it's farewell to Dodgertown, the seed of the whole community. Rome had Romulus and Remus, and Vero Beach had Robinson and Reese. The difference is that Rome became the Eternal City.

Barring an unforeseen construction glitch in their Glendale, Ariz., destination, "Dem Bums" will draw the Dodgertown shades with Monday afternoon's exhibition tilt against the Houston Astros.

Players under green caps will dig their spikes into green bases, on St. Patrick's Day. How perfect, given the profound Irishness of the owner who brought them here 60 years ago, Walter O'Malley.

This has to be what Shakespeare foresightedly had in mind when he penned, "Parting is such sweet sorrow."

Dodgertown is its own oxymoron. Charming, obsolete. Scenic, blighted. Comfortable, inconvenient. Hate to leave, love to go.

It has been the crib for generations of Dodgers players, and generations of Brooklyn and Los Angeles fans who have flocked to see them at this redeveloped vacant World War II naval air base. But it's time for them all to come out from behind the Oz curtain and join the real world. It's time to run after the parade that has passed them by, in that new $80 million Cactus League complex they will share with the Chicago White Sox.

Time to pull the covers. But, oh, what a storybook place it was.

Drawing shut the gates to Blue Heaven behind him as honorary manager is Tommy Lasorda, who has bled blue since first stepping into Dodgertown as a 21-year-old left-handed pitcher in 1949, the camp's second of 61 springs.

"When I walk around Dodgertown, I think about all the guys that played for me and all the guys that were here before me," said Lasorda, who has been genuinely touched by the opportunity to send off the place back in uniform, while "real" manager Joe Torre toured China with the other half of the squad. "It just goes to show you how people can remember you and remember what you did. They've made an 80-year-old guy feel real good."

Legendary broadcaster Vin Scully, eyewitness to almost as much of Dodgertown, calls his spring home for 59 years "my memory factory."

"This," Scully said before bidding an early farewell to Dodgertown on his way to China, "is where I stood in place and it seems like half the world came by -- players, coaches, managers, writers, broadcasters."

This is where time still stands still. Strolling down the dusty path from a back field, you come to an intersection where a traffic sign directs pedestrians, "Players, Left," "Public, Right." They rub elbows with each other, as they have for over a half-century, passing across Duke Snider Street, Don Drysdale Drive, Sandy Koufax Lane and so on.

"There were times you'd be rushing to get to the park," said Steve Garvey, the former Dodgers first baseman/icon, "and you'd be signing [autographs] and putting your bat between your legs and walking along through the people."

The homogeny also extended to the players, hundreds of them on dozens of Minor League clubs in the early years, when Holman Stadium was essentially the quad of Dodgers University.

Holman? Vero Beach Caddy dealer Bud Holman scored one of the first "naming-rights" deals for convincing legendary Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to relocate the team's training base here. How long ago was it? To sell Rickey, Holman had to look him up in Cuba -- where the Dodgers were training in 1947.

"When you came here, you felt that competitive worry of having to make the club," said Jeff Torborg, Dodgers catcher 1964-70. "That's what Dodgertown meant. That family feeling you get being here, you don't feel anywhere else."

"We played baseball all day long," Lasorda recalled, "and that was the best part of it. Learning how to play so you could advance yourself to the Major Leagues. Greatest, most unique sports complex in America."

"Just walking in there ... smelling the orange blossoms, hearing the crack of the bat. The whole atmosphere was just something special," said Mike Scioscia, the Angels manager who first came here in 1977 before becoming the Dodgers' catcher, and last departed from here in 1999 as their Triple-A manager at Albuquerque. "And it's the people who made it special.

"Sandy Koufax, Carl Erskine and Roy Campanella would be in the Chow Hall, eating breakfast with you. They were all reminders that you were there to win, to achieve. Every time you stepped into the clubhouse, you were prepared to spend that day becoming a better ballplayer."

Even the poetic waxing about the place is itself part of the anachronism. The game is as great and as absorbing as ever, but the romance seems to have long ago left it. Sentiment is quickly put into its place.

So pragmatic baseball folk will wave Dodgertown good-bye with dry Kleenex. Like Boston manager Terry Francona, who upon his last visit apologetically listed things that make Holman Stadium a nuisance -- which also happens to be a list of some of its charms.

"The dugout doesn't have a roof, it doesn't have a urinal - it's a pain in the butt," Francona said. "Every fifth inning, you see me running down [to the visitors clubhouse area in the right-field corner] because I've got to tinkle.

"And you've got to be careful on the way," Francona added, "because line drives go by you and the people in the stands are screaming at you."

Yes. Isn't it wonderful?

"The tradition; that's what I'll miss," said another ageless legend, Manny Mota, wrapping up his 38th spring here. "It's so open ... the communications with the fans, and with the Minor League players."

Mota paused, shrugged. "But everything changes."

Baseball's culture has changed, and with it the appeal of a nest such as Dodgertown.

Garvey, a native Floridian who began hanging out here as an eight-year-old when his dad actually was the driver of the bus that carted the Dodgers all over the state, can remember being surrounded by the same soul brothers throughout the Minors, in Dodgertown, eventually in Dodger Stadium.

"I'm sad," Garvey said, "because young players today won't be able to experience what we did."

It has been a long time since anyone came of age and then grew old in Dodgertown. The Dodgertown dean on the current roster is reliever Yhency Brazoban, all of five springs in.

"This is such a unique place. But such is life. Business changes. Time marches on," added Garvey, sounding a theme heard as often as the paeans.

"What a great concept, when this thing started," said Brad Mills, who belonged here as Albuquerque manager before becoming Boston's bench coach. "You'd get out of bed, walk over to the cafeteria, have breakfast, go get dressed and go play ball."

In Arizona, the Dodgers will be within an easy drive of fans who rarely came cross-country to visit.

"I love this place. It's so serene," said Jamie Jarrin, the Dodgers' other Hall of Fame announcer. "But moving to Arizona is the right thing to do, because fans are the No. 1 priority."

Vero Beach resident Koufax will be able to be even more of a recluse. No more drop-ins that drop jaws in Dodgertown.

"I'm not happy; I'm sad to see them go," Koufax said earlier this month. "It just sort of made sense to them."

"Time has passed it by as a functional facility," Scioscia said. "It's been obsolete for a long time. You got your work done, but it was much tougher. The newer complexes are designed with a little more forethought."

At the end of a hot afternoon on and off the mound, right-hander Derek Lowe concurred.

"It's days like this," Lowe said late Sunday afternoon, "that make you look forward to having a dugout with a roof."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.