Friday, February 23, 2007

A Eulogy for Vero Beach, Even Before It Dies

Ah, spring training. The blue skies. The unbridled hope. The excitement of pending baseball.

And for the Dodgers, the lingering black cloud surrounding their all-but-certain move to Glendale, Arizona, for 2009. Given all the history surrounding what is described as a baseball heaven (I have never seen it myself, and I suppose I'd better hurry), it's not altogether surprising that many people are weighing in on how horrible it is for the Dodgers to move from their Vero Beach facilities.

But consider all the dangers of the current Dodgertown. First, in today's USA Today piece, Mel Antonen describes the treacherous conditions in Vero Beach:

Holman Stadium's capacity is 6,500. There are 17 rows of seats that wrap around a neatly trimmed field. Most of the seats are blue, but there are five rows of red seats that came from Dodger Stadium. There are a couple of sections of yellow seats and two oak trees growing from the grandstand. Palm trees are in the distance behind left field.

For years, there was no home run fence, but the chain-link fence was added in 1971 after Richie Allen injured himself running into a palm tree. There are no dugouts, and players sit on aluminum benches as if they are playing on a youth field. There's a green railing, but it doesn't offer much protection.

"(Former owner) Walter O'Malley didn't want to block the view of fans, so he didn't build dugouts," says Billy DeLury, 74, the team's travel adviser who started as a mailroom employee with the Brooklyn club in 1950.

"Those dugouts are dangerous because there is no protection," Baltimore Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo says. "You have to watch out."

Dangerous dugouts! Man-eating palm trees! And bears, oh my! All that's left is Nessie, and it's not like Walter didn't try:

In the parking lot behind third base, O'Malley built a heart-shaped lake for his wife, Kay. He stocked the lake with trout so that his players could fish.

No, as Tom Verducci of pointed out earlier this week, this move isn't about the poor facilities in Vero Beach. It's about the lack of money.

So why in hell are the Dodgers leaving Baseball Heaven? Why has the club cut a deal with the Phoenix suburb of Glendale to move, in 2009, to a state-of-the-art spring training facility that it will share with the White Sox? The answer may lie in the $211,000 customized truck that Jon Lieber, a workmanlike pitcher for Philadelphia, drove into Phillies camp last week, or the $190 tickets the Yankees are selling for exhibition games.

It's not just that the Dodgers have outgrown Dodgertown; so also has modern baseball. Commerce has subverted charm. The team's official position is that an Arizona spring home is much closer to its fan base and, given the cluster of teams that train around Phoenix (nine already, plus three more in Tucson), reduces travel. There is also the projected capacity of about 15,000 for the Glendale stadium (including lawn seating), nearly double that of Vero Beach's quaint Holman Stadium, which almost never sells out and where O'Malley ordered roofless dugouts so the fans would feel closer to the players.

Fifteen thousand people to watch scrubs play meaningless games? The famed '55 Dodgers didn't even draw that many people on average to Brooklyn's Ebbets Field during their world championship season in the height of the game's so-called Golden Age.

Okay, so it's all about the money. Arizona builds a facility twice the size for free, and decades of team history gets flushed down the toilet. Should we be surprised? It fits perfectly with the McCourt management philosophies (see: Olmedo Saenz Pavilion).

But wait, says Joe Lemire of, who quotes Frankie McCourt in saying this decision is all about the fans:

For the Dodgers, who established their spring site in Florida when they still played in Brooklyn, packing a moving truck is simply a case of serving their supporters. As owner Frank McCourt told the Los Angeles Times last week, "This is not an economic decision. This is a fan convenience decision."

Yeah, right. What true Dodger fan wants to close the book on memories like these, starring the Sons of Yours Truly (follow the link for other great Dodgertown photos)?

photos by AP and Walter Iooss Jr/SI


Steve Sax said...

By the way, who is standing to Tommy's left, and why is his shirt tucked in down to his knees?