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Blue Skies Everywhere (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday February 20, 2007 9:23AM; Updated: Thursday February 22, 2007 12:37PM
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Wolf, who grew up as a Dodgers fan in the L.A. area, slipped into the storied blue batting-practice uniform for the first time last Saturday. This being the era of commercialism, however, the duds had been tweaked by baseball's marketing gurus to spark new sales, with swatches of silver on the flanks of the jersey and on the sides of the cap.

Spring training still 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 training facility.) Wolf, for instance, worked off the same mounds that Sandy Koufax did. On a back field, hard off the corner of Don Drysdale Drive and Vin Scully Way, 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 young catchers from his wheelchair in a cool spot in the shade, legendary Dodgers base stealer Maury Wills last weekend schooled young pitchers with high uniform numbers on the art of holding runners. Part of the beauty of Dodgertown is that any fan, welcome on the grounds for free, could stand closer to Wills than he was to the pitchers he was addressing. Will Glendale afford such intimacy?

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Once the Dodgers leave, even if Vero Beach and Indian River County, which jointly own the complex, lure a team such as the Orioles (one rumored possibility) to train there, Dodgertown, and a little part of the game's soul, will die. This is the land where Jackie Robinson found comfort -- O'Malley chose Vero Beach partly because he considered racism less prevalent there than in most Southern towns -- though not on the coldest of nights, when ballplayers, sleeping as many as eight to a room in the converted barracks without insulation, would grab towels, robes or even rugs off the floor to keep warm.

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

"At night you'd have 18 guys hanging around the pool table in the Koufax Room, waiting their turn, except for the three nights each week we had the motivational speeches," says catcher Ken Huckaby, who has returned as a nonroster invitee after spending springs at Dodgertown from 1991 through '97. "This place is special. I always thought this was one of the few places -- the Yankees are another -- where the uniform is bigger than any individual."

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

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

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