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THE LAST YEAR AT VERO BEACH

Dodgers headed way off-base

Nostalgia is in air at spring facility leading up to probably their last gathering at the compound called Dodgertown.

February 10, 2008|Ross Newhan | Special to The Times

The 61st spring encampment at the former Navy base that became Dodgertown in 1948 will be the last for the Dodgers in Vero Beach, Fla., another in the chain of broken links to Brooklyn.

The Dodgers -- whose pitchers and catchers report to camp Thursday -- are slated to move to Glendale, Ariz., for spring training in 2009. Packing will be a sentimental journey for many. Nostalgia is certain to overflow.

"You think of all the great players who trained there, the era when 600 and 700 players lived in the old barracks, the intimacy with the fans, to me it's been the greatest sports complex of any in the country," eulogized Tom Lasorda, who arrived in Vero Beach as a player in that initial year and returned in virtually every baseball capacity over the ensuing six decades.

"To me, what we experienced and accomplished in Vero will never be duplicated."

A spring prototype, Dodgertown has housed a baseball panorama, from the ownership of Branch Rickey to Walter O'Malley to Frank McCourt, from Leo Durocher to new Manager Joe Torre, from the pioneering Jackie Robinson to James Loney.

The memory bank is full.

Yet there are some who still can't forgive the racism they encountered as African American players in the early years of Dodgertown ("I have no good memories," said Don Newcombe) and others who came along years later and said the six or seven weeks there had the feel of house arrest.

"You were definitely ready to break out," Eric Karros said.

Perhaps it will always be more Zero Beach than Vero Beach for some, but it has been a second home to the Dodgers, unique among all training facilities. Even if the Baltimore Orioles leave Fort Lauderdale to take up residence there next year, would Orioletown or Birdland have the same magical ring?

Would a new team be able to create its own memories amid the ghosts? What would happen to the walkways and driveways named in honor of Sandy Koufax, Vin Scully, Roy Campanella and other Dodgers bluebloods?

Dodgertown, after all, is where Campy had his corner and tutored catchers from his wheelchair and where Maury Wills still has Maury's Pit from which he gives bunting and basestealing lessons.

It is where O'Malley played poker with reporters in the press room at night, where the food was green and Wills or Tommy Hutton might play the banjo at the annual St. Patrick's Day party, and where Scully, as a young broadcaster, had a barracks room near the Western Union office from which reporters sent their stories and he could never be sure which wayward writer would stumble through at a late hour or end up in the cot next to his, unable to negotiate the darkness.

It is where Rickey, the legendary Mahatma, first set up a strike zone of strings through which pitchers aimed to sharpen their control in workouts after the camp was awakened by a 6 a.m. whistle, where he or his staff gave nightly lectures, and where to be summoned by Rickey for individual tutoring was akin to being "summoned by the Pope," Lasorda said. (Rickey "saw the creation of a complex not so much as a training base but as an instructional school," recalled Buzzie Bavasi, who was a 31-year-old minor league general manager when sent by the Dodgers to seal the deal with city officials in Vero.)

It is where, in the late 1940s and early '50s, 600 or more players wore numbers differentiated by colors because the Dodgers had 25 or more farm clubs; where the players often slept six or more to a barracks room; where Bobby Bragan took one look at the primitive conditions and said, "Where are the barbed wires and dogs?" Or as Jim Murray, the renowned columnist of The Times, would later write during a trip there, "I lived in Cellblock 7."

It is where players often carried bats from clubhouse to diamond as protection against snakes; where armadillos roamed the grounds and spiders infiltrated rooms devoid of air and heat (throw rugs were often used as extra blankets and players occasionally slept in uniforms); where running water might come from the ceiling in addition to the tap and the thin walls were no sound barrier -- as an example of which, the post-curfew return of Koufax and Larry Sherry one night so angered Walter Alston, their awakened manager, that he pounded on their door with such ferocity that he lost a diamond from his 1959 World Series ring.

It is also where the long encampments were often enlivened by running pranks, some more devilish than others. Who can forget how the never-to-be-fooled-with Kirk Gibson walked out shortly after he first joined the club in Vero because Jesse Orosco had lined the inside of his cap with eye black, leaving a ring around Gibson's forehead?

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