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Spring Cleaning Comes Early

Hurricanes caused an estimated $2 million in damage at Dodgertown, but a rapid rebuilding effort has the Vero Beach, Fla., facility up and running already.

November 19, 2004|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

VERO BEACH, Fla. — The Dodgers were defeated by the St. Louis Cardinals on that late summer day, but a far more disturbing loss took place at the team's historic spring training site, a 65-acre sprawl dotted with such nostalgic nods to team lore as Campy's Bullpen, Maury's Pit and Koufax Lane.

Hurricane Frances, a mass of torrential rain and 115-mph winds, swirled onto Florida's Atlantic coast on Sept. 5 and pushed across Dodgertown at an agonizingly unhurried pace, lifting off roofs, snapping trees in half and sending light poles crashing to the ground.

Another hurricane, Jeanne, hit Vero Beach three weeks later, and the total damage to Dodgertown was estimated at $2 million. But thanks to resilient employees and some unlikely assistance from the Secret Service, the facility is up and running. By the time the Dodgers report to spring training Feb. 15, the only reminder of hurricane havoc could be the numerous bent or broken oak, palm and Australian pine trees.

Overseeing the rebuilding effort is team vice president Craig Callan, which is fitting because he watched the destruction firsthand.

More than 150 other employees had evacuated, and the Vero Beach Dodgers Class-A team had been bused across the state to Clearwater, but Callan and another team official, Rich Nalbandian, hunkered down in the clubhouse with their families. It wasn't a reckless decision, because, in Callan's view, the 20-month-old, $5-million clubhouse and administrative building is "the safest structure in Vero Beach."

Still, the hurricane shook the building. Water spurted through a pinhole in a doorway with the force of a pump-action Super Soaker. Stadium lights ripped from their poles hurtled across the field like missiles. Tom Lasorda never blew this much hot air.

Callan ventured outside for a moment. "The rain stung like needles," he said. "Standing still felt like riding a motorcycle in a driving rainstorm."

The storm was as plodding as it was ferocious, traveling at only 5 mph, and by the afternoon Holman Stadium and the other six Dodgertown fields were flooded. Only the pitcher's mounds peeked above the water, like tiny islands in a lake.

Finally the hurricane abated. Callan and Nalbandian toured the grounds. It was as if a giant had tromped across the property, crushing roofs, casting aside light poles, flattening trees.

A golf cart was submerged in a small lake behind the stadium, wedged under a fallen tree that had been pulled down by a tumbling light pole. Four new outdoor batting cages were demolished. The rear wall of a recreation room and small theater was destroyed.

So was the wall behind the restaurant-sized kitchen, which posed a more immediate issue. Vero Beach Police Chief Jim Gabbard stopped in to say the city had been devastated. He asked whether his officers and other emergency personnel could be fed at Dodgertown in coming days.

One problem: There would be no electricity for two to three weeks.

Then came a stroke of fortune. The facility had been a naval air base until Dodgertown was born in 1948. A small airport still operates adjacent to the property, and Secret Service agents flew in hours after the hurricane passed to offer a deal.

President Bush might be arriving to survey the damage, the agents told Callan. In exchange for the use of Dodgertown as an operations base for a few days, electricity would be restored within 24 hours.

Lights went on and word spread. The only ice machine operating in Vero Beach was in the Dodgertown kitchen. "Ice was like gold," Callan said.

Although Bush eventually visited West Palm Beach instead, about 40 agents stayed five days. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials were the next to arrive. Then came the National Guard. The Dodgertown staff fed about 150 people three meals a day from what had become an open-air kitchen.

The first to call Callan, however, was Dodger owner Frank McCourt, who asked, "How are your employees, and what do they need?"

Some had it worse than others. Eileen Ganser, the Dodgertown controller, lost the roof of her house. Everything inside was ruined. She moved into Dodgertown, which had become a command center to help Indian River County cope.

Just as people's lives were getting back to a semblance of normal, Hurricane Jeanne hit on Sept. 25. Buildings with roof damage from Hurricane Frances were flooded by Jeanne. A three-week instructional league for Dodger minor leaguers had started five days earlier. It was canceled. The staff started rebuilding all over again.

Dodgertown has hurricane insurance through Major League Baseball, and Callan is cataloging the damages. This marks the first time since the facility opened in 1948 that a claim has been filed, he said. (Florida economists recently estimated the damage from the four hurricanes that hammered the state in August and September at $42 billion.)

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