Vignettes From Vero Beach Spring Training

One of the interesting characters we met almost 25 years ago was the early head chef at the Dodgers new Vero Beach spring training facility - Bob Barvey. Barvey was really an employee of the catering firm Harry M. Stevens & Company, which had a lock on all the east coast race tracks and major facilities like Madison Square Garden. Barvey was the MSG chef, but he had become a buddy Dodgers owner O'Malley who made a deal with Harry Stevens for Barvey to take off the seven weeks of spring training.

Walter O'Malley liked a bunch of things -- his church, his family, money, poker, taking a nip, fishing (mostly in that order). Barvey doubled as the bartender at O'Malley's fishing camp at Blue Cypress Lake near Vero. In the early 1950s, when Robert Moses (the New York building czar) blocked the Dodgers quest for a new stadium to replace outmoded Ebbets Field, O'Malley began to cast his eyes west.

Barvey told us of the visit of LA Mayor Norris Poulsen to Vero. O'Malley invited Poulsen to his fishing camp and instructed chef/bartender Barvey to make sure Poulsen's glass was never empty. It was on that fishing and poker playing jaunt at Blue Cypress Lake that O'Malley cut the deal to move to LA. One of the chips on the table was the Chavez Ravine property, now home of the fabulous Dodgers Stadium. It was only one of the times O'Malley displayed his remarkable skills as a poker player -- and the rest is history.

Barvey was chef three or four decades before the new-fangled era of managed diets, before baseball players kept in shape all year round. He recalled catcher Roy Campanella regularly coming into camp many pounds overweight and using the month and a half under the palms to sweat off the excess poundage and get back into playing shape.

That didn't prevent Hall of Famer Campy, Barvey recalled, from being the first player to come to see him, slip him a hundred dollar bill (big money then) and to ensure he, Campy, would always get the coveted end cut of roast beef before any other player, and to ensure that Campy's pal Don Newcombe would get the "first cut" off the roast.

Bob Barvey recalled California youngster Don Drysdale would drive across country from LA to the east coast of Florida in his new wood-sided station wagon. Roads were different then, and the tar from the roads would wreck havoc on the wood panels on Drysdale's car.

Barvey, being consummate New Yorker, did lots of things besides cook and for a twenty dollar bill from Drysdale would arrange for one of the kitchen helpers to scrape Drysdale's car back into pristine condition.

Barvey also recalled that in the first days of Vero, the first black players were housed with black families just north of Vero Beach. He was present at the beginnings of the modern age of baseball and he, courtesy of his personal friendship with Walter O'Malley, was an integral part of the fabled Boys of Summer, the great teams that won a place in baseball history during the Dodgers last decade in Brooklyn.

Barvey probably wouldn't have a place in Vero today. First, he was an old fashioned chef. Beef. Lots of it. Go into the Dodgers dining room today and you would think you were at a fat ladies sweat salon. Lots of fish. Lots of fowl. Plenty of salads. Plenty of fruits. There are personal trainers, dieticians. Everything is healthy.

The bar at Dodgertown (the private one) used to be open until the last customer left. Now of course, drinking is allowed but frowned upon. We remember one night over 15 years ago when we were one of the last out.

Along with this writer were three gentlemen -- Mssrs. Sandy Koufax, the aforementioned Drysdale, and the inimitable one, Johnny Podres. We had a helluva chat, although for the life of me I can't remember what was said in those cherished two or three hours.

The baseball writers would run a NCAA basketball pool. It was well supported by one and all. Former Dodgers official scorer Gordie Verrell was one of the sponsor ringleaders. Trouble was, Gordie would entrust the cash to his buddy, a Chicago and Vegas sportswriter and, more often than not, the cash would come up a little short when it came time for the dispersal of funds.

Spring training is of course serious business, even if there are few decisions to be made about the opening day roster. But even with the serious business, the players are men playing a boys game and there are moments of levity.

One spring, Jesse Orosco sought to initiate newcomer Kirk Gibson to the fraternity by lining Gibson's hat with shoe black. Gibson, a tad short on a sense of humor, chased Orosco all around the Dodgers complex with evil intent. That probably was the fastest the languid Orosco ever ran in his life.

After the 1988 World Championship, the Dodgers, as is baseball habit, gave one and all championship rings. Each had a hefty diamond encased in what seemed a pound of gold and each was inscribed with the recipients name. Johnny Podres was a minor league pitching coordinator at the time, but the hero of the Dodgers only Brooklyn championship got his 1988 ring.

Podres, an erstwhile gambler (he would bet the sun wouldn't come up in the morning if the odds were right) asked us in the pressbox what his ring was worth. We told him we could probably get $10,000 for the Podres ring within the hour (as a couple of the well heeled fantasy campers had stayed on for spring training before going home).

Johnny was all for it, but knowing of his still unquenchable love of games of chance, we figured he wouldn't hang onto the money very long, and didn't follow through.

Just for the helluva it, we went the same day to a New York fantasy camp buddy and asked him what he would give for the Podres ring. "At least ten grand," he immediately said.