Unknown Florida

Bums

While I was going to try to resist the temptation to write about sports in this, a column about ephemeral Florida, but I was going to pass a glance at baseball’s spring training tradition. The emergence and growth of the Grapefruit League parallels that of Florida tourism, even to the clustering around the superhighways and the tendency of slickness to replace the rustic and nostalgic. A great example is a rumored move that would equal the closing of Marineland as a minor tragedy.

Dodgertown might be closing.

Dodgertown is in Vero Beach, between Melbourne and Ft. Lauderdale off of I-95. It is unique among spring training camps in that it is owned and maintained by the parent team, the Los Angeles (nee Brooklyn) Dodgers. Its future is in doubt because of the sale of the Dodgers to media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose bottom-line interests apparently include a sale of the valuable real estate and a move of the spring site to California-convenient Arizona.

Spring Training Baseball faces a lot of the same pressures that changed the face of general tourism in Florida. Small, homey camps in places like Leesburg and Sanford got displaced as big bucks moved in. Soon most of the teams moved to slick training sites near to superhighways, less rustic but still “fan-friendly”. Even these newer sites, some less than 15 years old, are being abandoned for newer, slicker sites. The most obnoxious of these is the Braves complex at Disney, a beauty of a park with the highest ticket prices in the Grapefruit League (hell’s bells, they even charge you to watch batting practice!)

Now, being a baseball geek, I could go on at length on numerous ironies in this situation which would bore anyone not hard-core into the Church of Baseball. Instead, I will point out why you, the secular road tripper, might consider visiting Dodgertown while you can.

The ambience is pure postwar boom Flareeda. It is a sprawling site; the manicured golf course and the comfortable dorm buildings evoke a country club until one notices the baseball-shaped streetlights. The field has a unique, low layout, almost like an ampitheatre. Even the player dugouts are really dugouts: simple benches in trenches with no cover from sun or rain. You park in the shade of surrounding pines, and there’s a good chance you’ll meet players or coaches on their way in. It’s laid back in a way that’s rarer and rarer in spring camps these days. And the ballpark chow is unrivalled, from giant buckets of popcorn to the legendary Dodger Dogs.

It’s a place of history. Robinson, Campanella, Snider, Drysdale, Koufax, Lasorda, and dozens of other names beloved of the Dodger faithful have played there. I can only think of three other spring training parks in Florida as old as Dodgertown, and only Lakeland still hosts its original team, the Tigers.

Spring training camps open in late February, and the game schedule runs through the month of March. Turistas wishing to avoid the crowds and the sun (almost all spring games begin at 1:00 p.m.) might consider visiting during the Florida State League season. Running from April to early September, the minor league Vero Beach Dodgers play most of their games at 7:00 p.m., and the crowds and ticket prices are smaller. An afternoon trip to the beach or shopping district followed up with a night game would make a reasonably affordable day trip for any budget.


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