John Donovan
Thursday February 28th, 2008

This spring senior writer John Donovan is touring the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues to cover baseball's biggest newsmakers. Today he reports from Dodgers camp in Vero Beach, Fla. Next stop: Indians camp in Winter Haven, Fla., on Tuesday.

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- To mark the Dodgers' final spring training season in Florida, I am standing in the heart of Dodgertown. It consists of a poured concrete floor, painted -- as you might expect -- Dodger Blue. Its four walls are concrete block, just a shade over a foot or so high, probably not tall enough to reach to the top of a batboy's sanitary socks. There's one step down to get in, and if you ever happen to be standing here while a game is going on, you'd better keep a sharp eye out for flying objects.

And, oh, yes. It can get awfully hot in Dodgertown. Sizzling, in fact. It's the kind of heat that makes you edgy and humorless, makes you feel like a piece of gum on a summer sidewalk. The sun is relentless, and there's no escaping it.

This is Dodgertown; standing shin-deep in one of Holman Stadium's infamous roofless dugouts -- maybe 50 feet long and a few feet wide -- and baking your brains out. There's no place like it in baseball.

The first time Joe Torre came to Dodgertown as a player, sometime around 1960, he remembers being awestruck. Dodgertown is the kind of place, now all but gone, where baseball royalty meets hometown fan, where any Joe from Brooklyn or any kid from the Valley can almost literally rub elbows with a real big-time athlete. Dodgertown is that way today -- often nothing separates player from fan but a rope -- and it certainly was that way when Torre first came through.

"You look up and there's [Sandy] Koufax and [Don] Drysdale and guys walking around," says Torre, the new manager of the Dodgers. "There were a lot of similarities with the Yankees. You used to go over to Lauderdale and see Catfish [Hunter] and [Mickey] Mantle and Yogi [Berra] walking around. That really gets my attention, more than the place. But the place I found very charming. To me, I've really gotten a taste of it since I've been here, 'cause it's so fan-friendly. You've got to go through the people to do what you need to do."

Nothing, though, in the 220 acres of the former Navy base gets your attention quite like the dugouts in aging Holman Stadium. Literally carved out of the dirt and gravel along the first-base and third-base lines, they are perilously close to the field and scarily close to the fans. In Torre's playing days they didn't even have a screen in front to protect players from foul balls or broken bats. Even now there's only a railing draped with rope netting, still not tall enough to block everything.

And today, as when Walter O'Malley first envisioned his baseball heaven -- minor leaguers living with major leaguers, fans mingling with players, everyone in a spring utopia -- there is nothing over the dugouts to protect players from the elements. The dugouts are, in many ways, what makes this Dodgertown, and what makes Dodgertown unique among baseball parks anywhere.

"I remember my first couple of years in the instructional league, in 1959 and '60, in Bradenton in that old relic of a ballpark, before they updated," Torre said. "They had those old metal roofs on the dugouts. But I'd never been in one without a lid on it."

The Dodgers, after 61 seasons in their Vero Beach home, are pulling up the final stake in just a couple of weeks. Next year they'll be in their new $80 million spring training home in Glendale, Ariz., a day's drive for the millions of Big Blue fans in the greater Los Angeles area.

It's about time, a lot of people figure. It's good for the fans. It's good for the players. It's good for just about everyone, most agree, with the possible exception of the people in Vero Beach who have relied on the Dodgers all these years, and anyone with any sense of nostalgia.

A stroll through Dodgertown is a walk through what spring training used to be. It is a slow meander through a mature neighborhood with trees and foliage and memories and character. It's not a sprint through one of those faceless, heartless subdivisions popping up in forgettable Phoenix suburbs like Glendale or Goodyear or Surprise. There's not a McDonald's or an In-N-Out Burger in sight.

At Dodgertown you can still hear birds chirping in between cracks of the bat. The sounds of baseball aren't drowned out by an expressway beyond the outfield wall. On most days the biggest disturbance around Dodgertown is the regular staccato hum of small propeller planes taking off from nearby Vero Beach Airport.

The famed street signs are still there (such as Vin Scully Way), along with many of the old hangouts for players, front office types and the media. There isn't a bad seat at Holman Stadium (about 6,500 can squeeze in), unless, of course, you mind the Florida sun. Then, the good seats are hard to come by.

Oh, sure, Dodgertown is showing its age. The golf courses that surround the baseball complex have long since gone back to nature. The public facilities, especially Holman Stadium, are sagging around the edges. But, all in all, Dodgertown has aged gracefully. It's going out in style.

The first row of seats at Holman Stadium is at field level. Maybe six feet in front of those seats -- maximum -- is the dugout. There, names like Reese and Robinson and Koufax and Garvey played away the spring. And, of course, paid attention to the game or paid the price.

The other day, in an intrasquad game, a young Dodgers player lost the grip on his bat. By the time it came to its rattling landing, it was halfway up the grandstand. That sounds like quite a heave until you realize that only 17 rows of seats horseshoe the field. The bat was darn near out of the stadium in the time it took a tourist to wipe some sweat off his brow.

Imagine how quickly a foul ball, or an errant bat, gets into one of those dugouts.

"You feel like it's a shooting gallery," Torre says. "Now, at least they have the nets in front. They didn't use to have that at all. You told guys to keep their eyes on the ball. But the fact that it gets so bright here, a lot of times you have trouble picking the ball up. It's scary."

Juan Pierre heard about the infamous dugouts when he was in spring training in Arizona. When he was traded to the Marlins, and first played a game in Dodgertown, he found out exactly how scary the dugouts can be.

"I tell guys before I get up to bat to watch out," says the spray-hitting Pierre. "You got guys sitting there with their bats and their helmets on and their gloves ready. Everybody's on deck."

And then, of course, there's the sun. Young Dodgers first baseman James Loney has played tons of games at Holman Stadium, which is also the home of the team's Rookie League franchise.

"We had day games during the summer, on Sundays and stuff. That's when you're kind of like, 'Man, it is hot out here,'" Loney says. "Not thinking about it, that's the main thing."

This spring, at least for a few more games, you can catch Loney in the dugout leaning forward on the aluminum benches (to make sure he's behind the netting), a towel often draped around his neck. Experience counts: His first time sitting in these dugouts was in 2002.

"I was like, 'Uhhh, I know this is a high-class organization,'" Loney says. "You'd think they could afford some dugout tops."

For fans, though, the roofless dugouts are a Dodgertown classic. You can walk the concourses and see the players sitting there, read the names on their uniforms, imagine what it would be like to be watching the game with them. It is, in a way only Dodgertown is, utterly charming.

"Charming?" Loney repeats. "Yeah, probably to people who are watching it from up top."

This is a funny final spring in Dodgertown. The team has a trip to China planned for the middle of the month, and the players and staff that won't be making the China journey will be relocating to Phoenix to take over the spring training home of the A's for a little more than a week (the A's are traveling to Japan). The whole team has another exhibition game at their original home in LA, the Los Angeles Coliseum -- a game against the Red Sox that could draw more than 100,000 fans -- planned for March 29.

The last Dodgers' spring game in Holman Stadium -- ever -- will be against the Astros on the afternoon of March 17. Longtime skipper Tommy Lasorda, now 81, will manage the final game. Lasorda probably won't be in the dugout for Dodgertown's swan song, though. During the overcrowded days of spring training, most coaches sit in folding chairs just next to the dugout because of the lack of room. That's probably where you'll find Lasorda.

Still, the dugouts themselves, almost as much as who's in them, will be a major part of that final game, just as they always have been. The stands will be packed. It'll be standing room only. And from just about anywhere in the creaky old stadium, you'll be able to peer down toward the field and see players, shoulder-to-shoulder, watching the game carefully from the Dodger Blue dugouts.

It wouldn't be Dodgertown without them.

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