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Will It Become A Ghost Town

Dodgers Talk to Arizona and Las Vegas About Spring Training, but Little Florida City Won't Give Up Without a Fight

October 31, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wherever Danny Ozark goes around Vero Beach, Fla., people ask him the same question.

They figure Ozark knows something because he spent so many years with the Dodgers. His decades with the team, as a minor league player and coach, date back to 1948, when the Brooklyn Dodgers established a spring training camp in this seaside town.

"People come up and ask if the Dodgers are going to move," said Ozark, who retired in Vero Beach. "This is the question all around. Everybody's waiting for the storm."

Clouds have gathered in the form of a bidding war that could spell the end of Dodgertown, an aging complex of ball fields and citrus groves that ranks as the most storied spring camp in baseball.

At least two Arizona cities are trying to lure the Dodgers west to the Cactus League, where millions of taxpayer dollars have been poured into new practice fields and ballparks. One proposal would have the team train at a custom-built camp and share an existing stadium with the San Francisco Giants.

"Forget about treason," an Arizona official said. "Financially, you have to look at the big picture."

That picture also includes Las Vegas as a potential site for spring training and the Dodgers' Class-A team that currently plays in the Florida State League.

But Vero Beach is fighting back. Local officials, faced with losing the Dodgers after next spring, will meet next week to decide if they can offer a sweeter deal.

"Fifty years is no drop in the bucket," said Jim Chandler, a county administrator. "You hear the buzz around town. This is important to the people."

The rumblings began last March when the Fox Group purchased the Dodgers from the O'Malley family. Peter Chernin, co-chief operating officer of Fox Group's parent company, News Corp., said, "We have no interest in running the team as a loss leader or a charity."

At first, the new owners denied plans to change spring training sites. But as they began wholesale changes on the field and in the front office, as they discussed razing Dodger Stadium, they also contacted officials in Florida, Arizona and Nevada.

"They said they were exploring all options," said Milt Thomas, economic development director for the Vero Beach Chamber of Commerce. "That was the term they used."

Bottom-line economics were the issue. No other major league team owns its spring camp, paying all maintenance costs and property taxes. No other West Coast club trains in Florida.

"It didn't really come as a shock to hear from them," said Chris Baier, an Arizona Department of Commerce official. "We've thought for years that they belonged in Arizona."

Baseball camps dot the outskirts of metropolitan Phoenix. The Cactus League's 10 teams play in small, neatly designed stadiums and practice on clusters of fields that shine green against the brown desert.

Representatives of several Arizona cities have met with Fox and are drafting proposals that could be ready, in rough form, by year's end. Scottsdale and Phoenix appear to be leading candidates. Mesa went as far as asking the Chicago Cubs if they would share their stadium until a long-term solution is found.

The problem is money. The Cactus League, which nearly folded when the Cleveland Indians defected to Florida six years ago, resurrected itself with $71.5 million in county funds from a surcharge on rental cars. The money was used for new training facilities and refurbished stadiums that drew more teams west.

But the league has spent all the tax dollars it expects to receive through 2005, Baier said. Residents were recently assessed $238 million more to build a stadium for the Arizona Diamondbacks and aren't likely to approve another penny.

"It's not a real popular topic around here," Cactus League President Jerry Geiger said. Accommodating the Dodgers, he said, "is going to take some creativity."

Scottsdale has suggested a joint effort. The Dodgers could share its stadium with the Giants--several Cactus League teams share ballparks--and train in a camp built by a neighboring city. Eliminating the need for a stadium could lower the total cost from an estimated $35 million to about $12 million.

"As strange as it may sound, we will entertain that option," Derrick Hall, a Dodger spokesman, said.

Interested cities may also consider investing up front and trying to recoup their money through public funding once the political climate improves, Baier said.

Either way, the Cactus League is eager for the Dodgers, a favorite in Phoenix before the Diamondbacks arrived. With Los Angeles only an hour's flight away, Arizona officials envision planeloads of fans coming to exhibition games that already attract about $105 million in tourist dollars each year.

"The Dodgers are attractive . . . , there are no ifs, ands or buts about that," said Robert Brinton, executive director of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau, who helped bring other teams to the league.

"Gut-level tells me this will work out," Brinton said. "From all angles, it makes so much sense."

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