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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.
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.
Fifteen thousand 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 wild-card era.
"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]."
Increased sharing 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).
The widespread 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).