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Blue Skies Everywhere

Feb. 26, 2007
Feb. 26, 2007

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Feb. 26, 2007

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Blue Skies Everywhere

The end of Dodgertown may be near, but there are no signs of gloom in a clubhouse where the players have new reasons to dream big. They weren't alone. With the opening of camp, all but a handful of teams had a justifiably bright outlook

In baseball heaven,not one cloud dares impede the glorious sunshine. A slight, sweet breezewhispers through the azaleas, palmettos, royal palms and scrub pines. Perfectlygroomed diamonds emit a Zen-like tranquility. And the voices and laughter ofthe Boys of Summer still rise from the hallowed grounds, their names invokingperpetual youthfulness: Jackie, Pee Wee, Gil, Duke and Campy. In BaseballHeaven--it says so right there on the official Dodgertown vans in Vero Beach,Fla.--the view is so spectacular that you can see all the way to October.

"If you can't be optimistic this time of year," Los Angeles managerGrady Little declared at a staff meeting last Friday evening, "then younever can be." As if to prove his point, Little showed up for his team'sfirst spring training workout the next day at 6 a.m., personally unlocking theclubhouse door.

Dodgertown, spring home to this franchise since 1948, when owner WalterO'Malley and general manager Branch Rickey worked their alchemy on an abandonedWorld War II naval air base, did not invent spring training. It only perfectedit. With parklike surroundings and a history that winks and nods at visitorsfrom every corner--including the filigreed street signs adorned in script withthe names of former greats--Dodgertown creates the optimum conditions forincubating baseball dreams.

This is an article from the Feb. 26, 2007 issue Original Layout

So why in hell arethe Dodgers leaving Baseball Heaven? Why has the club cut a deal with thePhoenix suburb of Glendale to move, in 2009, to a state-of-the-art springtraining facility that it will share with the White Sox? The answer may lie inthe $211,000 customized truck that Jon Lieber, a workmanlike pitcher forPhiladelphia, drove into Phillies camp last week, or the $190 tickets theYankees are selling for exhibition games.

It's not just thatthe Dodgers have outgrown Dodgertown; so also has modern baseball. Commerce hassubverted charm. The team's official position is that an Arizona spring home ismuch closer to its fan base and, given the cluster of teams that train aroundPhoenix (nine already, plus three more in Tucson), reduces travel. There isalso the projected capacity of about 15,000 for the Glendale stadium (includinglawn seating), nearly double that of Vero Beach's quaint Holman Stadium, whichalmost never sells out and where O'Malley ordered roofless dugouts so the fanswould feel closer to the players.

Fifteen thousandpeople to watch scrubs play meaningless games? The famed '55 Dodgers didn'teven draw that many people on average to Brooklyn's Ebbets Field during theirworld championship season in the height of the game's so-called Golden Age.

For better orworse, baseball never has been more bullish. So awash with cash is the gamethat only a hopeless romantic needs the bucolic setting of Dodgertown to elicitdreams of a winning season. Los Angeles, which went three-and-out against theMets in the first round in October and hasn't won a playoff series in 18 years,is a National League pennant contender. But so are the Cubs (box, page 42), whospent $300 million this winter after finishing with the NL's worst record, andthe Phillies and Brewers, neither of whom has reached the postseason in thewild-card era.

And why shouldn'tthe most drought-stricken clubs dream? The past six world champions (Cardinals,White Sox, Red Sox, Marlins, Angels and Diamondbacks) had one previous titleamong them since 1982.

"The last twoCBAs have leveled the field," Dodgers G.M. Ned Colletti says, referencingthe revenue-sharing enhancements of the 2002 and '06 collective bargainingagreements. "Teams that once struggled to keep their players are signing[young] players to long-term deals. Ten or 15 years ago, if they were trulyhonest, about 15 teams would say, 'I just hope we can win 81 games.' Now?There's hardly any who would say that. Maybe five at most. Everybody else has areal shot [at the playoffs]."

Increased sharingof each team's local revenue, as well as central-fund income streams thatdidn't exist a decade ago (such as Internet, international marketing andsatellite TV and radio), have narrowed the financial and talent gaps betweenteams. Last year the club that ranked 13th in the major leagues in victorieswon the World Series (St. Louis) over a team that had lost 91 games theprevious season (Detroit). Only one team with a top 10 payroll won a postseasonseries (the Mets, at No. 5).

Don't like yourteam's chances? As they used to say in Brooklyn, Just wait till next year. Thebaseball world turns faster than ever these days. Fourteen clubs--almost halfthe total in the majors--have played in the 12 World Series since the wild-cardformat was instituted in 1995. No team has repeated as a league champ for fiveyears, the longest such streak since '79 through '88. And already morefranchises have won a pennant this decade (11) than did in the 1990s (10).

The widespreadfinancial enrichment that has led to the dilution of power was evident in thiswinter's wild off-season spending: After a four-year period that saw only onenew $100 million contract, four teams broke the nine-digit mark in signingbig-name players. And among 2006 payrolls those four clubs ranked seventh(Cubs, who signed outfielder Alfonso Soriano), eighth (Astros, outfielderCarlos Lee), 10th (Giants, lefthander Barry Zito) and 16th (Blue Jays,outfielder Vernon Wells).

It was only eightyears ago that Royals fans, protesting "payroll disparity," picketedthe arrival of the Yankees for a series. But it was Kansas City that awardedthis winter's most stunning contract: $55 million over five years for GilMeche, a 28-year-old righthander with a 4.65 career ERA who has never thrown200 innings in a season.

"You're talkingabout [$5.2 billion] in revenue in the game now," says lefty Randy Wolf,who left the Phillies to sign with L.A. as a free agent for one year at $8million, plus an option. "So now there's a lot of pressure on teams to showtheir fans the money. What the growth has done is opened up the booksmore."

While playerdevelopment remains the backbone of sustained success, veteran acquisitionshave become increasingly important. The Dodgers are playing hardball in bothareas. Last season their farm system graduated such impressive players ascatcher Russell Martin, now 24; outfielders Andre Ethier, 24, and Matt Kemp,22; and pitchers Chad Billingsley, 22, and Jonathan Broxton, 22.

Still, onceoutfielder J.D. Drew opted out of his contract with Los Angeles (he eventuallysigned with the Red Sox), Colletti moved quickly to corral a slew of expensivefree agents. After missing on his first target, Soriano, Colletti talked Cubscenterfielder and spray hitter Juan Pierre out of a four-year, $36 million dealwith the Giants by adding a fifth year and $8 million. Colletti dropped another$18.5 million to bring back first baseman Nomar Garciaparra for two years, $47million over three years for righthander Jason Schmidt (formerly of the Giants)and $7.5 million for one year on leftfielder Luis Gonzalez (late of theDiamondbacks). Now L.A. has four starting pitchers (Schmidt, Wolf andrighthanders Derek Lowe and Brad Penny) who have each won 16 or more games in aseason--plus at least six pitchers competing for the No. 5 spot--and enoughoverall depth to take the pressure off its young players. "We signedveteran, championship-caliber players with integrity who can show the kids theway," Colletti says.

The Dodgers did win88 games and the NL wild card last year, but as Colletti says, "Ourpitching--the starters and relievers--wore down at the end." Thehard-throwing Penny, for instance, was 10--2 at the All-Star break but threwonly one relief inning in the playoffs because of a balky back. In the NL onlythe Nationals' starters struck out fewer batters than did L.A.'s rotation.Schmidt, 34, and Wolf, 30, provide the power arms that Colletti coveted.

"Most teams winbecause the starting pitchers set the tone, and that's what we hope to do,"says Wolf, who won't be backed by an especially potent offense. The Dodgers'aging 3-4-5 hitters--Garciaparra, 33; second baseman Jeff Kent, 38; andGonzalez, 39--combined for 49 homers in 2006. Last year was the first fullseason since 1972 that L.A. had a winning record without a player belting morethan 20 dingers; the club hit a league-best .286 with runners in scoringposition to offset that lack of power.

Wolf, who grew upas a Dodgers fan in the L.A. area, slipped into the storied bluebatting-practice uniform for the first time last Saturday. This being the eraof commercialism, however, the duds had been tweaked by baseball's marketinggurus to spark new sales, with swatches of silver on the flanks of the jerseyand on the sides of the cap.

Spring trainingstill exudes a reassuring timelessness, but never more so than at Dodgertown,now poignantly in its penultimate year. (Only Detroit, encamped at Tigertown,in Lakeland, Fla., since 1945, has a longer current tenure in one trainingfacility.) Wolf, for instance, worked off the same mounds that Sandy Koufaxdid. On a back field, hard off the corner of Don Drysdale Drive and Vin ScullyWay, and not far from the blue-and-white sign that still marks CAMPY'S BULLPEN,where late Hall of Famer Roy Campanella would mentor and entertain youngcatchers from his wheelchair in a cool spot in the shade, legendary Dodgersbase stealer Maury Wills last weekend schooled young pitchers with high uniformnumbers on the art of holding runners. Part of the beauty of Dodgertown is thatany fan, welcome on the grounds for free, could stand closer to Wills than hewas to the pitchers he was addressing. Will Glendale afford such intimacy?

Once the Dodgersleave, even if Vero Beach and Indian River County, which jointly own thecomplex, lure a team such as the Orioles (one rumored possibility) to trainthere, Dodgertown, and a little part of the game's soul, will die. This is theland where Jackie Robinson found comfort--O'Malley chose Vero Beach partlybecause he considered racism less prevalent there than in most Southerntowns--though not on the coldest of nights, when ballplayers, sleeping as manyas eight to a room in the converted barracks without insulation, would grabtowels, robes or even rugs off the floor to keep warm.

This is the landwhere Koufax solved his control problems. It's the land where O'Malley builttwo golf courses, in part so his minority players and coaches had a place toplay. It's the land where Kirk Gibson stormed off the field after a playfulteammate sabotaged the inside of his hat with eye black, setting the fiery tonefor the 1988 world champs. It's the land where Koufax, Drysdale, Tommy Lasordaand other Dodgers greats delivered motivational speeches to prospects. Glendalemay have a 42,000-square-foot clubhouse, but it won't have the voices.

"At night you'dhave 18 guys hanging around the pool table in the Koufax Room, waiting theirturn, except for the three nights each week we had the motivationalspeeches," says catcher Ken Huckaby, who has returned as a nonrosterinvitee after spending springs at Dodgertown from 1991 through '97. "Thisplace is special. I always thought this was one of the few places--the Yankeesare another--where the uniform is bigger than any individual."

"I'lldefinitely miss it; I'd be lying if I said no," says Bill DeLury, a teamexecutive who began as an office boy and is spending his 44th spring inDodgertown. "It'll be sad. But it's like Mr. O'Malley said, 'Nothing isforever.' Everything comes to an end. You've got to change."

DeLury stood nearthe rightfield bullpen in Holman Stadium, where millionaire relievers watchgames from a grass berm, shaded only by a tall palm. On the field, playersmoved through their conditioning drills, not all too differently from 1948,except now they don't keep fungo bats handy to kill the occasional snake. Itwas the same humble start to another long, grueling season. But this time, evenon a morning as fresh, crisp and clear as Saturday's, it was the beginning ofthe end of something much bigger.

EXTRA
Photos
See a complete gallery of Dodgers greats and Dodgertown moments through theyears.
ONLY AT SI.COM

Dodgertown, spring home to the franchise since 1948,did not invent spring training. It only perfected it.
Part of Dodgertown's beauty is that any fan could standcloser to Wills than he was to the pitchers he was addressing.
PHOTOPhotograph by Chuck SolomonBACKSTOPSIN TIME
Nonroster invitee A.J. Ellis (far left) is among the latest in a long line ofcatchers who have honed their skills on the same grounds where Campanella(inset, front left) held court.
PHOTOBETTMANN/CORBIS1956 |DODGERTOWN
[See Caption Above.]
PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONGREATRUN
Wolf (no cap) is one of five high-priced free agents signed by the Dodgers intheir penultimate year in Vero Beach, where workouts look much as they did in1965.
PHOTOJAMES DRAKE[See Caption Above.]PHOTOPhotograph by Chuck SolomonBACK TO THEBASICS
Dodgers pitchers ran through the usual first-week drills, sharpening theirreaction to batted balls, just as they did in this game of pepper that was ledby Drysdale (53, inset) 47 years ago.
PHOTOHERB SCHARFMAN[See Caption Above.]PHOTOPhotograph by Walter Iooss Jr. ALL VISITORS ALLOWED
There are no walls between autograph seekers and players, making Koufax (in1983, while a spring training instructor) and Lowe (inset, last Saturday) fairgame.
PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON[See CaptionAbove.]