VERO BEACH, Fla. — To the serious Dodgers fan, a trip to Vero Beach is not a vacation, it's a pilgrimage.
"Dodgertown" is here, the spring training home of our current baseball heroes and the hallowed ground once pierced by the spikes of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Don Drysdale and Gino Cimoli.
This is also about the only place where you can still see Sandy Koufax pitch. (OK, so it is only batting practice, it's Koufax ).
The ostensible purposes of spring training are to give the players a chance to round into shape, to work on improving their past weaknesses and to give the brass a look at up-and-coming talent.
The real purpose of spring training is to remind everyone involved how much fun baseball can and should be. Baseball in March is not played with the intensity of September's pennant race. In spring, it's still just a game; you can see players smiling.
A Small Ballpark
The spring exhibition games in Dodgertown are played at Holman Stadium, a ballpark so small that it wouldn't be possible to get a "wave" going, as if anyone wanted to. Real baseball fans abhor the wave. Nobody brings beach balls to Holman Stadium, either.
The seats, only 18 rows deep, go for $5. Standing room, or sprawling room on the grassy bank beyond the outfield, is $3. Tickets go on sale March 1 each year.
Particularly attractive matches are sold out weeks in advance, but on the day of the game people who are willing to part with their tickets at, or near, face value almost always linger near the entrances.
For those who love baseball, spring training offers a close view of the subtleties of the game. For those who love baseball players, a visit to Dodgertown offers a chance to get close to them; to get an autograph or take a photograph.
Because the players are so accessible here, some fans are tempted to rush anyone in uniform, with pen or camera at the ready. Be warned--some of these guys aren't genuine Los Angeles Dodgers (yet).
"Non-roster" players, those who will not be on the major-league roster in the 1987 season, usually wear numbers higher than 60. These young players tend to be more eager to pose or sign than the stars. They even pretend not to notice when they hand back an autograph to people who stare at the name and ask each other "Who?"
There's no mistaking Tommy Lasorda, of course, who tools around the compound in a golf cart with his name emblazoned on the front. He can also frequently be heard on any one of the practice diamonds, bellowing good-naturedly at his players. Even in March, Lasorda's vocal chords are in mid-season form.
Workouts begin at 10 in the morning; game time is usually 1:30 p.m. A couple of days a week the Dodgers travel to some other Florida community for a game. The Braves and Expos train in West Palm Beach, for instance, the Reds are in Tampa, the Mets in St. Petersburg, and so on.
Players Left at Home
Even when the traveling squad is out of town, though, usually several players are left at Dodgertown to test a healing injury or get in some additional batting practice. On any given day, therefore, it's possible for the visiting fan to get his ration of baseball.
Contrary to popular belief, there are other things to do in Vero Beach besides watching baseball. Some of the payers derisively refer to the town as "Zero Beach," because of what they perceive to be a shortage of off-duty diversions.
For one thing, you can play golf. Dodgertown has a nine-hole course and a regulation 18-hole course, known as Dodger Pines. The latter features a par-six third hole, one of only three par-six's in the nation.
Fishing and boating are also attractive alternatives to baseball watching. The Indian River flows through Vero Beach; charter boats are available.
The beach is as good as a lot of our West Coast beaches, and that stretch of the Atlantic Ocean known to Floridians as the Treasure Coast has the advantage of being several degrees warmer than the Pacific in March.
Pool at Every Hotel
For those who prefer swimming in calm water, virtually every hotel in town has a pool. The better hotels include the Driftwood Inn, the Holiday Inn and the Sheraton-Regency. All three are right on the beach, and offer rooms during March (peak season) from $75-$100 a night. A Howard Johnson's in the downtown area provides more moderately priced accommodations.
Along U.S. 1 is the small-town version of restaurant row: McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, etc.
For those who prefer slow food, Vero Beach does have quite a few nice restaurants. Forty-One, at that address on Royal Palm Drive, offers French cuisine and a dress code. Dinners are in the range of $15-$20. More casual and less expensive is Mama Mia's about seven miles north of town. It serves generous portions of--surprise!--pizza and pasta.
The Ocean Grill is on Beachland Boulevard at the Atlantic Ocean. It won't even occur to you to ask the waiter, "Is the fish fresh?" Specialties go for $10-$15.