Paradise to some people is sitting under a palm tree on a tropical island. But for many in Vero Beach, Fla., paradise is sitting under a palm tree at Dodgertown, the entertainment complex that draws them into the major leagues each spring.
Every March, thats where residents, snowbirds, and vacationers gather, attracted by a common love: the Dodgers. Nothing makes their hearts beat faster than watching their favorite team play a baseball game during spring training.
The Dodgers are one of the 20 major league teams that make up the Grapefruit League, the name given to teams wintering in Florida. Vero Beach, which resident Chuck Cannon describes as large enough to keep you going but not big enough to get lost in, has been the Dodgers home away from home for more than five decadesback to when their uniforms still read Brooklyn. But a mere 50 years doesnt make them old hat; the town goes daffy even before its favorite sons start rounding the bases.
It does take on a special spring training air, says Lori Burns of the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce. People are happy to see the boys in blue return. Burns enjoys the upbeat tempo, too. Its neat when the calls and e-mails start coming in, with people wanting accommodations during Dodger timetheir reason for coming here.
Cannon, whos in the restaurant and real estate business, concurs: Many people plan their entire vacation around March in Vero Beach. They attend every game, go to the beach, then the first of April theyre flying out. Theyre very loyal fans.
Burns says the city deals with the influx of visitors well. After 50 years, we should be used to it. Longtime snowbird Grace Nelson, of Long Island, N.Y., says nonchalantly, You just wait a little longer for a table in a restaurant.
And you might wait a little longer to get into Holman Stadium, the 6,500-seat facility where they play in Dodgertown. (Dodger Stadium in LA seats 56,000.) It has a cozy, neighborly type feel, says Cannon, like the town. Fans get up close and personal at Holman since it has no dugouts. Rather, teams sit on a long wooden bench, right in front of the fans. The price of a ticket is agreeable, too, at about $12. Fans bask in the sun, wolf down popcorn, beer, and Dodger Dogsquarter-pound hot dogsand cheer on their favorite players.
The enthusiasm enfolds even the stadium employees, says concession manager Kathy Bond. The hustle and bustle of the crowd is such a high, you really get caught up in it. Its great fun when they pack the house.
The stadium even opens a concessions trailer for those who bring blankets and chairs and sit in the outfield under those palm treeswhere a fly ball might, at any time, land in your lap or on your head.
The best part of getting beaned is having the swatter autograph the ball, and getting a players John Hancock during spring training is fairly easy. For one thing, players are more relaxed. And its a fan-friendly stadium, Bond says. They leave the practice fields and cross a bridge where people gather and wait for autographs. You might even strike up a conversation with a future star or living legend, or, if so inclined, impart a few words of advice to a coach.
Players also are accessible off the field, with Dodger sightings common at local spots such as Bobbys Restaurant, owned by Bobby McCarthy and his partner Joe Kazen, whos had season tickets since 1974. Its like a nice little family we have here, Kazen says of Bobbys, which is decorated with Dodger memorabilia. Every spring we accumulate more and try to fit it up on the walls.
Undeniably and unconditionally, the fans love their Dodgers. After one particularly bad season, the town welcomed them back with a We Love Our Dodgers parade, and blue ribbons were displayed throughout town. They even had a fan appreciation day, Burns says. Tommy Lasorda loved it. And when the Dodgers leave theres always a big crowd at the airport to send them off to L.A. in style.
After the last pitch is thrown, Vero Beach goes back to being a quaint, quiet town, stretching lazily along miles of picturesque beaches, brushed by balmy breezes.