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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers' new spring home in Phoenix is a site to behold

Camelback Ranch is almost perfect, offering fun, sun and relaxation at friendly prices, plus ambience and amenities even Dodger Stadium can't match. Just one problem: Where are the Dodger Dogs?

March 08, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM PHOENIX — At first bite, the Dodgers' new spring training stadium appears to be a colossal failure that can be summed up in three words.

No Dodger Dogs.

They don't sell them here.

Instead, they sell something called a Chicago Dog.

I'm not making this up.

"I walk through the gates, I go right up to get a Dodger Dog, and I'm like, what?" says Miguel Martinez, a Compton counselor who drove over for Saturday's game. "Did the Dodger Dog get lost in the construction? How can you have a Dodger stadium with no Dodger dog?"

Martinez scowls for a second, then stares around at moms watching Dodgers from their blankets, fathers and sons watching Dodgers while playing catch, thousands of Angelenos watching Dodgers amid wide concourses and clean rest rooms and quick concession lines.

Now he's smiling.

"But other than the Dodger Dogs, wow," he says. "This is the place we've been waiting for forever."

Yeah, I agree, wow.

On the first day of the first full Dodgers weekend at Camelback Ranch on Saturday, the only thing I could dog were the ones that were missing.

Everything else worked. Everything else delivered exactly what I had expected from a Dodgers Arizona home, everything I missed during many long springs spent in muggy, rainy, faraway Florida.

From a distance, the cluttered, rust-colored complex looks like one of those ugly little settlements in the middle of the desert.

But once inside, it feels like Dodger Stadium on vacation.

"This is like Dodger Stadium without all the fan drama," says Jimmy Hill, who drove over from Pasadena.

There is a beautiful green field, but you don't have to squeeze between your neighbors to see it, with seats that felt wider complemented by grassy areas behind the outfield that are already the best $10 seats in Los Angeles sports.

There are thousands of Dodgers fans -- 11,900 fans total in the 13,100-seat stadium on Saturday -- but nobody is fighting in bathroom or booze lines, everyone seemingly content to chill in the sun.

There are real Dodgers, but they aren't protected by armed guards, with fans able to lean over the railing and chat with them during games, or face the club's outfield clubhouse and wait for a close-up of Manny Ramirez afterward.

"This place is amazing," says Raul Ramirez, a laborer from Boyle Heights. "It's like a real Dodger game, only everything is just nicer."

Ramirez doesn't know it, but he is one of the reasons the Dodgers moved here after 60 seasons in Vero Beach.

They wanted to train in a place accessible to younger fans whose loyalty, while tested over recent tough seasons, could be strengthened with an occasional spring fling.

Raul Ramirez is one of those fans. He drove here with three buddies, 5 1/2 hours on Friday night, one stop for gas in Blythe, cheap rent at a friend's house, a chat with Manny and the guys.

"It's all easy," says Sam Garcia, one of the friends. "It's all good."

Each of the dozen or so fans I interviewed Saturday had driven over like Ramirez, all of them taking advantage of the cheap outfield tickets, many of them leaving their blankets and spending the game moving around the bright new ballpark, enjoying the feel.

"In 10 years, I can see this becoming another Dodgertown," said Calvin Lepire, a student who drove over with his family from Corona, showed up at 8 a.m. and spent the morning getting autographs. "It's a great place just to hang out."

Eric Maschhaupt, an Arizona transplant from Glendora, was having so much fun hanging out, he decided play catch with a buddy on a large expanse of grass behind a high center-field barrier.

Playing catch in a ballpark during a game? What about security?

"Oh, there was security," he said. "When we missed the ball, he ran and picked it up for us."

The white-shirted officers blend into the crowd, so it really feels like a giant family picnic with a baseball game in the background.

There are far more strollers here than drunks, there's far more suntan-lotion scent than sour-popcorn smell, and more relaxed smiles on the faces of Dodgers fans than I've seen in years.

And, oh yeah, driving out of the stadium an hour after the game, I drove straight into slow-moving traffic.

Yeah, not so many people leave early here, and who would?

"That's always been my dream, to come to a Dodger spring training game," Martinez said. "This is better than even I thought it would be."

There are, of course, glitches.

The field faces in a direction different than every other field in the Cactus League, the developers opting for a mountain view instead of shade.

This constant thumping of the sun, plus the thumped economy, is the reason empty seats remain in the the highest-priced sections, including the home of the infamous $90 ticket.

Some fans stood in shady concourses between innings, and Saturday was relatively cool. As the spring grows deeper, those seats could grow more empty.

The best place to sit is the outfield grass, yet that is the site of another glitch -- fans sitting there cannot see a scoreboard.

"Stadiums are born, they live and breathe, and they grow up," said Dennis Mannion, Dodgers chief operating officer. "We are talking about changes constantly."

Finally, then, there is that dogs-gone problem.

There are no Dodger Dogs because the Dodgers and their fellow tenants the Chicago White Sox agreed to charge a sponsorship fee.

Farmer John, which makes Dodger Dogs, was unwilling to pay the fee. Hoffy Hot Dog paid it.

Meet the Chicago Dog, which compares to the legendary Dodger Dog in the same surprising manner that Camelback Ranch compares to Vero Beach's storied Dodgertown.

Frankly, it tastes better.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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