VERO BEACH, Fla. — I’m sitting in an Irish pub with the ghosts of Dodgers past. Shoved between the neon beer signs and flat-screen TVs at Bobby’s are signed pictures and balls from Dodger greats: Steve Yeager, pitcher Ron Perranoski and Tommy Lasorda. Perranoski — a Vero Beach, Flor. resident — is holding court in his usual place at the bar, surrounded by fans and friends, reputedly never buying his own beer. I’m sitting in a place of living history.
Back in my hotel, I’m hooked into the complimentary wireless Internet, checking out a photo gallery of the Dodgers’ trip to China. Half the squad made the 18-hour trek across the globe to take on the Padres in the soon-to-be Olympic ballpark of Wukesong Stadium in Beijing.
The history on the walls of Bobby’s Pub may in time hold prizes from baseball’s awakening in modern China, but for now the feel is distinctly Vero Beach. The quiet east Florida city has been home to Dodgertown — the converted naval air base that hosts Dodgers spring training — for 60 years. The Blue Crew’s baseball paradise is tucked between the Vero Beach airport and the lush greenery of Florida’s backdrop. It wears its six decades proudly, with streets named after Dodger greats, both living and dead, and Florida’s retirees hocking programs at the gates of Holman Stadium not far from the corner of Jackie Robinson Avenue and Tommy Lasorda Lane.
Dodgertown has always been a place where the minors and the pros meet. A young Tommy Lasorda once boasted to his mother about eating dinner with legendary shortstop Pee Wee Reese during a trip to Dodgertown. The hundreds of minor-league hopefuls swarm the pristine green fields in Vero Beach while the big club dukes it out at the stadium against teams like the Red Sox or the Mets.
Although it’s the penultimate week the Blue Crew will spend in Vero Beach, things are in full swing in celebration of the club’s 60th year in the Florida town. Fans swarm toward the practice fields, where their heroes stand just inches away. Former outfielder and current Dodger coach Manny Mota rides past on a bicycle — a foolproof way to get through eager crowds. Lasorda sets up shop at the “Tommy Table” nestled between the two main practice fields under a high Florida sky, while a wave of fans ranging from awed tots to longtime Brooklyn loyalists, who knew him as a pitcher half a century ago, jostle for position in the line. Hours later, fans will witness the retired manager berating his players to liven up, as is his custom, during a tough 7-6 loss to the Nationals.
I’m standing in the shade of a palm tree and shoving my ball, already covered in signatures, at the young Dodger pitcher Eric Stults. He seems surprised that I yell out his name while everyone else is calling for Jason Schmidt to hand out autographs. Schmidt eventually concedes to the fans heckling him from the opposite side of a thin rope and signs balls for half an hour. Stults unsurely scrawls out his name for a few people before leaving Schmidt to his fan club.
Then the Dodgers’ newest manager, Joe Torre, sweeps by in a golf cart on his way to the stadium, where his last game in Vero Beach is set to begin in half an hour. The former Yankee skipper will travel to China on March 11, leaving the final stretch in Florida to be managed by Lasorda — a sort of homage to the past before catapulting into the Torre era.
The trip to the far east is part of Major League Baseball’s attempt to open up the baseball market in China, and the Dodgers and Padres are spearheading the effort with their exhibition series at Wukesong. Along with the future of baseball, the future of Dodgers spring training will be drastically changed following the 2008 season on Florida’s Treasure Coast. The club will be moving its spring base to Phoenix, Arizona — swapping palm trees for desert plains and the Grapefruit League for the Cactus League.
The Dodgers have a long history of leaving; they broke Brooklyn’s heart in 1958 when they swapped coasts and landed in Los Angeles. This time, they may break the heart of Vero Beach — a town that has even named a school Dodgertown Elementary. The casual atmosphere at Dodgertown and the player-fan interaction may be lost forever in the move.
The transition to Phoenix is planned to bring the spring home of the Dodgers closer to Los Angeles, and the trip to Beijing will bring baseball closer to the hordes of fans half a world away at Wukesong Stadium, but nothing will ever equal the original Dodgertown, the place where history lives side by side with the present and players walk side by side with the fans.