Thanks for the Memories

Much like the Dodger fans who wrote to protest the possible move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, with most of the letters postmarked New Jersey, crowds have flooded the ancient and honorable grounds of Dodgertown to experience, for the final time, an ambiance known at no other training camp. And, much like the letter-writing New Jerseyians, they are too little and too late.

There is a hint of the crowds that gathered to watch them lynch a cattle rustler in the old West. You don't really want to watch, but you can't help yourself.

Once a haven for Dodger fans along the East Coast, Vero Beach was flooded with the distinctive New York accent as the faithful streamed down the coast and mingled with their team in the balmy weather while their neighbors back home scooped their walks every day.

But tempus fugits, or something like that, and after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, immediately infuriating part of their fan base, those who remained grew older and combined with new training sites at Viera and St. Lucie. it slowly drained the life blood out of the camp.

The logistical nightmare of moving an entire organization from L.A. to Florida, with no comfortable flights that connected with Vero Beach, became a financial burden. The average Vero Beach resident, both retirees and working folks, are now not Dodger fans and many weren't even baseball fans.

Spring training games began to average 2,500 in 6,000 seat Holman Stadium while the Dodger front office watched attendance at Cactus League games draw three times that many. Crowds at the Vero Beach Dodgers games in the Florida State League slid below 1,000, among the lowest in the league.

Although Dodgertown stayed the showcase of spring training camps, that, too started to change when players complained about walking from the clubhouse to the stadium among all the adoring but bothersome fans.

A new clubhouse was constructed behind the right field fence at Holman Stadium, with the ubiquitous chain-link fences keeping the fans at bay, but bringing a feeling of all the other training camps.

The upkeep of the facilities was ignored by successive club owners; the immaculate lawns were crisscrossed with trails cut by hundreds of minor leaguers moving from one side of the base to another -- something unheard of during the O'Malley watch.

Then there were the special "nights" by the pool. At one time the club hosted one a week, with everyone who stayed at the facility invited, particularly the minor league players.

There was Western Night, with straw cowboy hats and neckerchiefs for all and you could watch Mickey Hatcher trying to learn line dancing with a group of pretty ladies who enjoyed him as much as the crowd. Watching Pedro Martinez and Sandy Koufax trading secrets while youngsters were treated to a petting zoo and a real hayrack to ride on was very special.

On 50's Night, Minor League guru Charlie Blarney would appear in jeans and boots with a t-shirt and a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve, a la like James Dean while Elvis Presley records singing on the P.A.

Christmas in March provided a Santa Clause and gifts for the youngsters of all the players and coaches. As at all of them, you could eat at the same picnic table with Clem Labine or Ross Porter or Mike Piazza.

And, of course, St. Patrick's Day was always a big thing. Dodger caps were bright green as were the bases, a custom that was quickly taken up by many of the other clubs.

Then, in the evening, with Irish musicians playing in the lounge, there was a lavish dinner in the dining room. And if you were lucky, you could have enjoyed Vince Scully singing "Danny Boy" and MC Derrick Hall, now president of the Arizona Diamondbacks, uncannily impersonating nearly everyone in the room.

The lounge next to the old clubhouse was, at one time, a gathering place for coaches and club officials after games. You could mingle with the Los Angeles beat writers, Tommy Lasorda and his entourage, and many times the O'Malley family.

That all changed when the franchise was sold. The bar went from open to pay as you go and while the cost of buying for your own drinks was no problem, there was a tact feeling "you shouldn't be in here" that cooled everyone so completely that often you could sit at the bar and sip delicious Florida orange juice and have no one to talk to but the bartender.

So the McCourt's had a decision. They could stay in Florida and pretend that things would get better, or they could take a sweetheart deal -- or what seemed to be a sweetheart deal, there seems to be some question now -- in Glendale with the anticipated influx of West Coast Dodger fans streaming in much they did in the 1950s from Brooklyn.

Even the most avid anti-Vero Beach advocates admit that there will never be another training facility like Dodgertown. But, as Tony Jackson of the Los Angeles Daily News noted, "The DC3 was a great airplane, but times change and better options come along."

There are real parallels between the move from Brooklyn and the move from Dodgertown. The profitability of each played a big part in the scheme of things and, no matter how we try to avoid thinking about it, money is what drives the success of a major league baseball team.

But for many of us who enjoyed the special dining hall where minor league players and club officials commingled, the hall of fame with huge photos of Ralph Branca throwing a fastball to Eddie Stanky in Ebbets Field and Jackie Robinson eluding a rundown that consisted of seven Phillies, the screened porch where you could watch Don Sutton and Fernando Valenzuela pitch bullpens just a few yards away and the gorgeous sun-lit games themselves it was special.

And on a personal note, so too were the many, many very Dodger fans who traveled to Vero Beach from all over the country to watch their favorites, sometimes stopping by the front row of the press box to talk to Bill Shelley, Phil Spencer, Ray LeRoux or myself, it was without a doubt the best of all times.

We'll travel to Phoenix to watch our favorites, in the bright Arizona sun, but you can be be certain we will smell the ocean breezes, remember the soft Southern Nights and be sad.

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