It’s a hot, sunny March day at Holman Stadium in Vero Beach, Fla. (pop. 20,362), better known this time every year as the spring-training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The blue sky is dotted with white puffy clouds and a light breeze blows through the palm trees just beyond the outfield fence.
In other words, it’s a perfect day for a baseball game—and at one of the most perfect places to see a baseball game. Holman Stadium is the centerpiece of “Dodgertown,” a sprawling, 450-acre training camp complex that blossoms every spring as fans arrive from across America. Here, they can cheer the Dodgers in a setting far more intimate and inexpensive than the giant stadiums that major league teams call home during regular season.
Out in center field, near the tiny, decidedly low-tech scoreboard, a cluster of Dodgers in crisp white uniforms and bright blue caps warm up. Several players lazily toss the ball while a few others sit on the grass and stretch. In the stands, fans gingerly make their way to their seats as they balance jumbo cups of freshly squeezed lemonade, miniature Dodger-blue batting helmets filled with soft-serve ice cream and paper plates holding foot-long “Dodger dogs.”
“Kenny! We love you!” shout two teenage girls in matching pink tops as centerfielder Kenny Lofton jogs past.
An 11-year-old boy elbows his way to the front and thrusts a ball and marker toward players just a few feet away.
“Mr. Drew! Mr. Garciaparra! Will you sign, please? Mr. Alomar!”
Catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. (who finished out last year with the Chicago White Sox) stops to sign about a dozen balls and programs, then smiles and waves to the crowd. “Sorry guys, I’ve got to go!” Although he is a veteran player, last year was Alomar’s first spring training at Dodgertown. “When I first got here, I asked, ‘Where are the dugouts?” he says with a laugh. “I figured the place was under construction.”
Indeed, the lack of dugouts—player benches are just over an arm’s length from the fans in the stands—is one of the attributes that makes Dodgertown such a great place for fans.
“It’s definitely the best place to watch a game,” says longtime Sports Illustrated photographer Johnny Iacono, who has ventured to Dodgertown dozens of times during the last 30 years. “You get closer to the players than you can at any other stadium. And it still has that old-time feel.”
By establishing Dodgertown in 1948, the then-Brooklyn Dodgers effectively created modern spring training. Although major league baseball teams long had traveled to warm climates to prepare for the regular season (the Washington Capitals came to Jacksonville, Fla., way back in 1888), they didn’t have their own stadiums or play each other in organized games in the early years. Today, all major league baseball teams operate their own spring training camps in either Florida or Arizona every February and play preseason games throughout the month of March.
In the late 1940s, Dodgers executives, led by owner Branch Rickey, decided their team needed a permanent facility to train for the season and to school their minor league players year-round. Rickey, who signed Jackie Robinson, the league’s first black player, also had grown tired of local hotels and restaurants discriminating against black players.
So the Dodgers converted an abandoned World War II naval base in Vero Beach into a self-contained, year-round complex with a hotel, pool, championship golf course, conference center, 70 acres of citrus groves, a residential development and several practice fields.
During the Dodgers’ glory years of the 1950s and ’60s, the entire team, from shortstop Pee Wee Reese to catcher Roy Campanella, stayed at the hotel for the duration of spring training and played, ate and socialized together. Today, the major leaguers are scattered around town in hotels, condos or rented private homes. But many traditions associated with Dodgertown remain unchanged, making it one of the best places anywhere to see major league baseball up close and personal.
Alongside players coming from practice fields, fans still stroll down Sandy Koufax Lane and Don Drysdale Drive into the 6,500-seat stadium. Longtime Dodgers announcer Vin Scully calls the game from the press box, as he has done for the last 55 years. It’s still an affordable outing, with seats costing $15, and admission to the outfield berm only $8.
“This is a great place to take the family,” says Paul Winshman, 39, from Boston, who brought his wife, four kids and their grandparents to see his beloved Boston Red Sox play at Dodgertown.
The spring training experience in Dodgertown is far superior to the regular season at Boston’s Fenway Park, Winshman says. “In Boston, the tickets are so expensive if you can even get them,” he says. “Plus, the crowd gets rude and out of hand. I wouldn’t take the kids there. It’s so friendly here. It’s even better than the beach!”
Bill Paskewicz, 33, of Hamilton, N.J., brought his family, including his 2-year-old son Jonathan, to Dodgertown. “I’ll bring him every year,” vows Paskewicz, whose wife, a Brooklyn native, has chalked up 25 preseason visits to Dodgertown herself.
Paskewicz is typical of many spring visitors to Vero Beach—New York-area residents with longtime roots to the team that was Brooklyn-based before moving to Los Angeles in 1958. “It broke our hearts when the team moved,” says Jane Waller, 73, of Seaford, Del. (pop. 6,689). “But they’re still our team.”
Waller and husband Bill, 75, attended a Brooklyn Dodgers game on their honeymoon in 1951 and now spend six months every year in Vero Beach to escape the cold and cheer their beloved Dodgers. “We’ve had season tickets for 21 years,” Bill says. “We’re not just fans. This is a way of life.”
A town’s identity
Every year, about 1.5 million people make spring training part of their lives by attending a game in Florida, according to Alan Byrd, author of the book Florida Spring Training. A 2000 study commissioned by the Florida Sports Foundation estimates the annual economic impact for the state at $490 million. But for smaller towns like Vero Beach, it does more than just boost business. It energizes the entire town.
During spring training, hotels are sold out. Reservations are tough to come by at Bobby’s, a popular beach sports bar and restaurant frequented by retired Dodgers coach Tommy Lasorda. Players are easy to spot out and about: Sandy Alomar and family dining at the Ocean Grill; pitcher Eric Gagne playing golf at The Club at Point Weste; first baseman Nomar Garciaparra and his soccer superstar wife, Mia Hamm, shopping at the local Indian River Mall. At the Beach News Center, people come in to talk baseball over the morning paper.
“Spring training changes everything,” says News Center Manager Gary Tanno, 57. “It gives this town an identity.”
Tanno, who moved to Vero Beach four years ago mainly for “baseball and the beach,” visited Dodgertown often with his father in the late 1950s and ’60s. “It’s been the same since I was 10,” Tanno says. “You can talk to players right on the field.”
A self-described “baseball freak,” Tanno has only one complaint with today’s players. And it has nothing to do with steroids, over-inflated paychecks, sky-high egos or off-field scandals. “I just wish these guys would smile more,” he says. “If I’d ever made the major leagues, I would have been so happy you’d have to chisel the smile off my face.”
So does that minor criticism mean Tanno might be skipping today’s game?
“Not a chance,” he grins.