Curtain Descends on Dodgertown

After 60 years and endless stories that made their spring home memorable, the Dodgers will leave Vero Beach to train in Arizona next spring.
After 60 years and endless stories that made their spring home memorable, the Dodgers will leave Vero Beach to train in Arizona next spring. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

VERO BEACH, Fla., March 12 -- For the time being, Tommy Lasorda still shuffles across the manicured turf at Holman Stadium, still expecting the adulation that arises with his every appearance here. Maury Wills can still sit in a golf cart just beyond the outfield fence, knowing that some of the same people who came to watch him when he arrived in 1951 -- newly 18, fresh from the projects of Northeast Washington -- would be back again all these years later.

"Back then, it was like I went to another planet," Wills, the 1962 National League MVP, said Wednesday. "So many times today you hear the expression, 'The world is small.' But in those days, the world was big."

In those days, the road that leads to Dodgertown didn't boast a Wal-Mart, a Blockbuster, an Applebee's, making it the relative equivalent to every other street in Florida. In those days, the Brooklyn Dodgers' move to Los Angeles was still seven years off. And in those days, the Dodgers were still in the process of reshaping an abandoned Naval Air Station into the only spring training facility with a history, a panache.

Wednesday, though, the Dodgers lost a 10-4 decision to the Washington Nationals, and 45 minutes after the game finished, groups of fans hung out to snap keepsake photos. Monday, the Dodgers will host the Houston Astros. And two days later, 61 spring trainings after they arrived, the Dodgers will depart Dodgertown for good.

"It was time," said Lasorda, the longtime manager and de facto mayor of this place, be he signing autographs or nodding off in the dugout. The thinking: The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles 50 years ago. Their new training base in Glendale, Ariz., will be four hours by car, 40 minutes by plane, from Los Angeles.

"If we're going to make somebody unhappy here, we're going to make more happy over there," Lasorda said. "We might lose four, but we'll gain 44."

If the Nationals moved their spring home from Viera -- a collection of strip malls off the side of Interstate 95 north of here -- hardly anyone would flinch. If, say, the Houston Astros picked up their bags and decided to head west to train in Arizona -- as more teams are doing now -- the residents of Kissimmee might squawk, but the story would likely warrant a few sentences in most newspapers, something for readers to skim.

The Dodgers' departure from Dodgertown, however, elicits odes of appreciation, wistful stories of the way baseball was. "The togetherness we had," said Bill DeLury, a New Yorker who showed up to his first spring training in 1951 to work the mail room and do laundry, "there'll never be anything like it."

When groundbreaking executive Branch Rickey and local Cadillac dealer Bud Holman joined together to develop the ideas that turned into Dodgertown in the late 1930s, they envisioned a veritable baseball school. The old barracks used by the Navy became dorms. The first spring training, in 1948, involved 600 players. Sixty years later, the Dodgers' minor leaguers still stay in those dorms. When Joel Hanrahan, a right-hander now with the Nationals, arrived for his first spring training with the Dodgers as an 18-year-old just out of high school, he was granted a suite.

"A suite, in Dodgertown, is not what you want," Hanrahan said.

Six players, one closet, one shower. "It especially gets interesting around cut time, and the phone rings at 6 in the morning," Hanrahan said, "and there's six people in the room you're worried about."

Yet players -- from 60 years ago and now -- rave about some aspects. DeLury remembers the lobby outside the dining room, where 200 young men would gather nightly to shoot pool, listen to the juke box and talk baseball. "I would walk in through the dining room and see Pee Wee Reese sitting there," said Lasorda, who came up as a left-handed pitcher. "I'd go through the line and I'd get my food and go sit next to him, and then I'd write home that night and tell my mother and father I had dinner with Pee Wee Reese. He didn't say anything to me, but I had dinner with him."

Those stories still exist now. Wills, now 75, is around for a reason. "I'm here to help any kid who wants help," he said. Nationals catcher Paul Lo Duca, a New Yorker who is the son of a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, came up through the Los Angeles system. It wasn't unusual for him to catch a bullpen session for an anonymous 19-year-old left-hander, with Sandy Koufax watching them both.

When the O'Malley family owned the team, the spreads for the players were legendary. Crab legs and sirloin strips -- on the same night. Lasorda still holds court in the same dining room every day.

"It's probably the only place in the minor leagues," Lo Duca said, "where you could put on weight in spring training."

But perhaps the one thing that, over the years, truly distinguished Dodgertown was the ability of the fans to interact with the players, who walk around the complex separated only by a nylon rope. Lo Duca remembers striding to the field through the stands with his spikes on, because that's how the Dodgers were supposed to do it. Earlier this week, when the Boston Red Sox were in town, Gary Bennett -- a veteran catcher in his first year with Los Angeles -- described the scene by holding his hands two feet apart.

"That's how much space we had to walk through the fans," Bennett said. "It's part of it. It's like Fenway, Wrigley, Yankee Stadium. There's just a feel to it."

After next week, that feel will be gone. It's possible another team -- the Baltimore Orioles, perhaps -- will move here as soon as next season. But after Monday, Dodgertown will be Dodgertown no more.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company