In baseball heaven,
not one cloud dares impede the glorious sunshine. A slight, sweet breeze
whispers through the azaleas, palmettos, royal palms and scrub pines. Perfectly
groomed diamonds emit a Zen-like tranquility. And the voices and laughter of
the Boys of Summer still rise from the hallowed grounds, their names invoking
perpetual youthfulness: Jackie, Pee Wee, Gil, Duke and Campy. In Baseball
Heaven--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 manager
Grady Little declared at a staff meeting last Friday evening, "then you
never can be." As if to prove his point, Little showed up for his team's
first spring training workout the next day at 6 a.m., personally unlocking the
Dodgertown, spring home to this franchise since 1948, when owner Walter
O'Malley and general manager Branch Rickey worked their alchemy on an abandoned
World War II naval air base, did not invent spring training. It only perfected
it. With parklike surroundings and a history that winks and nods at visitors
from every corner--including the filigreed street signs adorned in script with
the names of former greats-- Dodgertown creates the optimum conditions for
incubating baseball dreams.
So why in hell are
the Dodgers leaving Baseball Heaven? Why has the club cut a deal with the
Phoenix suburb of Glendale to move, in 2009, to a state-of-the-art spring
training facility that it will share with the White Sox? The answer may lie in
the $211,000 customized truck that Jon Lieber, a workmanlike pitcher for
Philadelphia, drove into Phillies camp last week, or the $190 tickets the
Yankees are selling for exhibition games.
It's not just that
the Dodgers have outgrown Dodgertown; so also has modern baseball. Commerce has
subverted charm. The team's official position is that an Arizona spring home is
much closer to its fan base and, given the cluster of teams that train around
Phoenix (nine already, plus three more in Tucson), reduces travel. There is
also the projected capacity of about 15,000 for the Glendale stadium (including
lawn seating), nearly double that of Vero Beach's quaint Holman Stadium, which
almost never sells out and where O'Malley ordered roofless dugouts so the fans
would feel closer to the players.
people to watch scrubs play meaningless games? The famed '55 Dodgers didn't
even draw that many people on average to Brooklyn's Ebbets Field during their
world championship season in the height of the game's so-called Golden Age.
For better or
worse, baseball never has been more bullish. So awash with cash is the game
that only a hopeless romantic needs the bucolic setting of Dodgertown to elicit
dreams of a winning season. Los Angeles, which went three-and-out against the
Mets 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), who
spent $300 million this winter after finishing with the NL's worst record, and
the Phillies and Brewers, neither of whom has reached the postseason in the
And why shouldn't
the most drought-stricken clubs dream? The past six world champions ( Cardinals,
White Sox, Red Sox, Marlins, Angels and Diamondbacks) had one previous title
among them since 1982.
"The last two
CBAs have leveled the field," Dodgers G.M. Ned Colletti says, referencing
the revenue-sharing enhancements of the 2002 and '06 collective bargaining
agreements. "Teams that once struggled to keep their players are signing
[young] players to long-term deals. Ten or 15 years ago, if they were truly
honest, 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 a
real shot [at the playoffs]."
of each team's local revenue, as well as central-fund income streams that
didn't exist a decade ago (such as Internet, international marketing and
satellite TV and radio), have narrowed the financial and talent gaps between
teams. Last year the club that ranked 13th in the major leagues in victories
won the World Series ( St. Louis) over a team that had lost 91 games the
previous season ( Detroit). Only one team with a top 10 payroll won a postseason
series (the Mets, at No. 5).
Don't like your
team's chances? As they used to say in Brooklyn, Just wait till next year. The
baseball world turns faster than ever these days. Fourteen clubs--almost half
the total in the majors--have played in the 12 World Series since the wild-card
format was instituted in 1995. No team has repeated as a league champ for five
years, the longest such streak since '79 through '88. And already more
franchises have won a pennant this decade (11) than did in the 1990s (10).
financial enrichment that has led to the dilution of power was evident in this
winter's wild off-season spending: After a four-year period that saw only one
new $100 million contract, four teams broke the nine-digit mark in signing
big-name players. And among 2006 payrolls those four clubs ranked seventh
(Cubs, who signed outfielder Alfonso Soriano), eighth ( Astros, outfielder
Carlos Lee), 10th ( Giants, lefthander Barry Zito) and 16th (Blue Jays,
outfielder Vernon Wells).