Commentary

Dodgertown gets Arizona upgrade

Team's past and future collide at Camelback Ranch

Updated: March 2, 2009, 10:22 AM ET
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There were great ghosts in Dodgertown, the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training home between 1948 and 2008. You pictured Jackie Robinson running the same bases Rafael Furcal rounded on one of the back practice fields. You imagined Roy Campanella and Pee Wee Reese chewing the fat behind the batting cages where Russell Martin and James Loney later waited to take their cuts.

You could feel the presence of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and big Ralph Branca each time a young Dodgers pitcher took the mound at Holman Stadium in Vero Beach, Fla., for the first time. Every space felt familiar, loaded with meaning. Every gesture and exercise was a ritual echoing down through the years.

[+] EnlargeCamelback
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsDodgers owner Frank McCourt, left, and wife Jamie McCourt pose with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf at Camelback Ranch, the Arizona facility shared by both teams.

There are sun-kissed babies at Camelback Ranch, the Dodgers' new spring training home in Glendale, Ariz. You watch 5-year-old Juliette and her 22-month-old cousin Aaron, both wearing Dodgers T-shirts and big grins, swing small wooden bats on a patchwork of soggy turf behind the main practice field.

A few feet away, you spy a mother sitting on a blanket with her young son behind the dugout on the third base side of the field and pointing toward Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier as he puts on his glove and runs out to shag flies. "He's one of our guys," she says. Each space is new and waiting to be claimed. Each gesture is a beginning.

These are interesting days in the Dodgers' world. In addition to the team's efforts to sustain the promise of this past year's run to the National League Championship Series, and no matter what happens in the club's negotiations with slugger Manny Ramirez, these are the days when past and future coincide.

The Dodgers' complex at Camelback, where the team will host its first official spring training game Sunday, echoes the old Dodgertown facility in many ways. The practice pitching mounds near the back fields are known as the "strings" area, just as they were when Walter O'Malley instructed coaches to engineer string-square strike zones in Vero Beach more than half a century ago.

The new minor league clubhouse is in a separate building, which is a considerable distance from the major league clubhouse, so that today's players, like their Dodgertown predecessors, understand what it means to make the journey from one level of the game to another.

Maury's Pit, where instructor Maury Wills teaches young players the art of the bunt, is an almost exact replica of the space in which he coached in Florida. There are fish in the pond near the practice fields, just as there once were in Dodgertown, and yellow strings (rather than the chain link fences favored by the Chicago White Sox, who occupy the other side of the Camelback complex), as was the custom in Vero, mark the lines between the paths walked by players and fans.

"You hope you can carry over some of the things that made Vero feel special," Dodgers manager Joe Torre says. "You can't reproduce the history, of course, but you try to preserve some part of the feeling."

At the same time, Camelback feels very new. Part of the reason is because it's literally still being built.

"It's a work in progress," says Dodgers vice president of public relations Josh Rawitch. "You walk by a patch of dirt on your way into a meeting and you come out an hour later and it's a gravel bed with plants growing in it."

[+] EnlargeCamelback
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe Dodgers are experiencing spring training outside of Florida for the first time in more than 50 years.

And part of that is because (over and above improvements like updated locker rooms, a state-of-the-art video analysis room tied to cameras at every organizational level and location, and expanded meeting spaces for coaches and players) much of the place looks nothing at all like Dodgertown. In Vero Beach, hitting instructor Manny Mota rode his bike on paths lined with manicured beds of impatiens. In Glendale, he cruises beside low-slung walls made of desert rock housed in wire cages.

In Vero Beach, workout areas were spread out and "it was tough to get things synched up and started on time," Torre says. In Glendale, coaches monitor several workout areas at once from a high-rise platform and fields are right next to one another: "There are a lot fewer bridges to cross," says Loney. "And things feel more connected."

In Vero Beach, swaying palms along the outfield berm were the ballpark's defining feature. In Glendale, a steel-beam canopy echoing the color of Arizona's red soil and shading the concourse above and behind the seating area are the stadium's signature.

The differences are no accident. They signal a shift. Team owner Frank McCourt describes Camelback as the place that finally completes the Dodgers' move west, some 50-plus years after the team left Brooklyn for Los Angeles.

"Since the start of this process we sought to bring the Dodgers closer to the people of Southern California," he says.

If Dodgertown was the storied home of what the organization has been, Camelback (which eventually will have an 18-hole golf course and a resort hotel) seems designed not only as a place to play baseball, but as a sign of what the organization may yet become.

Longtime team traveling adviser Billy Delury, who has been with the Dodgers since 1950, used to keep the clothes he would wear at Vero Beach in a dresser in his Dodgertown apartment year-round.

[Former Dodgers owner Walter] O'Malley used to tell me: 'Nothing lasts forever.' The pendulum keeps swinging. There was history to [Vero Beach], but there will be history to this place, too.

-- Billy Delury, longtime Dodgers traveling adviser

"Other than a shaving kit, I never had to pack one time in all those years," he says. "Coming out here to Arizona, I suddenly realized I had to pack a suitcase. I didn't know what to bring. I called [former Dodgers coach] Joey Amalfitano, and he told me to bring a windbreaker, because it can get chilly at night."

Now Delury stays in an apartment about 12 minutes away from Camelback and comes in to work each morning. He's still getting used to the change of scenery and all that it means.

"You see this place -- it's state of the art, it's fabulous -- and you see the years have gone by faster than you thought," he says.

More than just about anyone in Glendale, Delury feels the loss of Dodgertown. He remembers it as the place where he became friends with Koufax and Vin Scully. He remembers it as the place where great players, real Dodgers legends, were born.

"There was so much history there," he says. "So many great memories."

But maybe more than just about anyone in Glendale, Delury can see the possibilities of Camelback, too. The difference between a place and a home, between a site and a destination fans flock to, is the passage of time, the accumulation of experiences and the gathering of memories that come to define a place. Delury knows this in his bones.

His whole Dodgertown life tells him this is true. He knows the fresh paths from one field to another will be worn in by thousands upon thousands of footsteps. He knows great players, real Dodgers legends, will be born at Camelback. He knows young Aaron and Juliette will come back with their fathers again and again, and will someday bring their own children. He's seen it all before.

"Mr. O'Malley used to tell me: 'Nothing lasts forever,'" he says. "The pendulum keeps swinging. There was history to that place, but there will be history to this place, too."

Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Eric Neel | email

Page 2 columnist
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

ALSO SEE