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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Florida is No Longer Dodger Blue

The crack of bats and smell of leather may be the same, but there is something noticeably different at spring training for one of baseball’s most storied franchises in 2009. For the first time in 60 years, Los Angeles Dodgers greats from the past and present are not holding court at “Dodgertown” in Vero Beach, Florida.

In another illustration that generating revenue is a much more influential element for sports teams than sentiment, history or tradition, the Dodgers have abandoned their long-time home in Florida for a new state-of-the-art facility in Arizona.

In fairness to the Dodgers, they are not the first team (nor will they be the last) to leave long-time winter digs for the allure of more money and nicer facilities. However, because of the history and tradition that spring training with the Dodgers represented, their move from Vero Beach truly represents the end of an era.

When the Dodgers located their entire major and minor league spring training to Vero Beach in 1949, they became the first team to have a true spring training complex complete with facilities for the entire organization. Beginning in 1952, the players stayed in the former Naval barracks, which by the mid-1970s had been replaced by villas. For a month each year, Vero Beach truly became “Dodgertown” as the local community became the home-away-from-home for the Dodger players.

Holman Stadium, which the Dodgers spent $100,000 to build, was the perfect stadium for old-time spring training as it was a compact stadium (only 17 rows) that provided the fans close access to the players. It also did not have dugouts, which meant the players were visible to the fans at all times.

For many years, the Dodgers prided themselves on the fact that they concentrated on molding their team through the camaraderie of spring training. There were no advertisements on the outfield fence and relatively few concession stands for a stadium that seated nearly 7,000 people. However, as times changed and spring training became another opportunity for teams to generate revenue, the quaintness of Dodgertown and Holman Field no longer seemed to fit.

So, when Glendale, Arizona offered the Dodgers the opportunity to play in an $80-million stadium that is much closer to their regular season home in California, there was truly little Vero Beach could do to keep the Dodgers. In addition to the Dodgers, the Cleveland Indians have also left their long-time home in Winter Haven, Florida for Arizona and next year the Cincinnati Reds will leave Sarasota.

Spring training is still a special time of the year, but with ticket and concession prices that rival regular season games, it just isn't quite the time of innocence and rebirth that it once was.

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