It is a myth that time stands still at Dodgertown. Many years have passed, for instance, since a Dodgers player last ate mess hall grub off a Navy-issued, trisected metal serving tray or climbed trees to avoid the night watchman enforcing curfew.
At the team's spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., however, time does mosey. It flutters like a soft breeze through the azaleas, palmettos, royal palms and scrub pines in a baseball training facility disguised as an arboretum. With Dodgertown, as with the Acropolis or Sophia Loren, time slows its usual advance when under the spell of archetypal beauty.
"If you don't like Dodgertown," says the team's traveling secretary, Bill DeLury, who is in his 38th spring there, "you don't like peanut butter. It's...it's...un-American."
When the ball club isn't there, Dodgertown is also a sports and conference center, so you, too, can bunk where players have for more than half a century. ("Ron Washington Slept Here") To hook you, the Dodgertown website brags about "world-class recreation facilities, including...horseshoes." Horseshoes? Did we mention canasta?
Forget Punxsutawney Phil. Pitchers and catchers reporting is the most reliable sign that winter is yielding its icy grip. This week marks the start of our annual renewal of light and soul. A dozen teams begin training in Arizona, most of them in fabulously modern facilities in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. Florida, with its 18 teams spread throughout a home-plate-shaped area with a 677-mile perimeter, is the Greek-diner menu of spring training. It has a little of everything.
Almost 1.4 million fans watched spring training games last year at Florida's 17 camps. (The Florida Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals share a site.) That does not include the thousands who showed up for workouts to watch the always exciting pitchers-covering-first-base drill.
Spring training in Florida is believed to have started in 1888, when the Washington Senators repaired to Jacksonville for three weeks of camp. Connie Mack, foreshadowing the blurred line between spring training and spring break, once recalled of his days as a catcher, "We played exhibitions during the day and drank most of the night."
The most popular destination is Tampa, where the New York Yankees draw almost as many fans for games that don't count as the Montreal Expos do for regular-season games. The Yankees' Legends Field is a fine facility, as long as your idea of spring training repose is fighting New York-mannered crowds and security while sucking down the exhaust of six-lane traffic on Dale Mabry Highway.
Truth is, if you want real spring training, you go to Dodgertown, otherwise known simply as Vero or colloquially as "the base." Indeed, the tract served as a U.S. Naval air base before the Dodgers moved their spring headquarters there from Havana, Cuba, in 1948. Moving to the Florida site allowed Branch Rickey, the father of the modern farm system, to train all of the organization's players in the same complex. ( Rickey also wanted a facility in the segregated South in which his black players would be housed and fed with their white teammates.)
More than 600 players moved into what were built as temporary barracks for servicemen and included wood-plank flooring and three bunk beds to a room. Dodgers of the '50s and '60s were awakened at six each morning by a shrill whistle, hustled to the mess hall to eat breakfast off their metal trays, then drilled on fundamentals all day. In Vero, for instance, Rickey installed his famous "strings"—the strike zone outlined in string in front of home plate—which allowed pitchers to work on their control.