The Dodgers prepare for the final season at their Florida spring-training home

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VERO BEACH, Fla. -- It's bottom of the ninth, two out, bases empty for Dodgertown.

After 61 Februarys of coming to Florida, the Dodgers are going to pull a Brooklyn on Vero Beach. Do to their spring training home what they did to their summer home back in 1957. Play a last string of games, say goodbye, pack up the moving vans and head west.

With its quirky old ballpark and 220 acres of practice fields dripping with decades of baseball lore, Dodgertown is a fan's dream. But in a sport of multimillionaire utility infielders and stadiums piled high with luxury boxes, it's an antique from another era.

Dodgertown's worst sin is that it is a long way from Dodgers fans. The Dixie Highway is across the continent from Interstate 5.

"There aren't enough of the old fans from the New York days, and it's too far for the fans in Los Angeles," said Jaime Jarrin, 73, the Hall of Fame Dodgers broadcaster.

So when the familiar words "pitchers and catchers report" go out in 2009, the Dodgers plan to trade Grapefruit for Cactus (leagues, that is) and move into an $80 million complex in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale. Like baseball players of old, they'll even have a roommate, sharing the site with the Chicago White Sox.

I had to visit "Vero" before it all went away. The ghosts -- or if you prefer, just the memories -- of more than a half-century hang over Dodgertown.

"This is a place of greatness," said Dodgers coach Manny Mota, 69. "Great history, great memories, great players, great managers and great owners.

You are where Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Roy Campanella, Steve Garvey and Ron Cey got their start. The kids here now are part of a grand tradition."

Getting there, you realize the dilemma facing Dodgers fans. It took me eight hours of flying and two hours of driving to get from Southern California to Vero Beach. I arrived bone-tired with a body clock already three hours behind everybody else in a place where the baseball workday starts very early.

A marathon chug-a-lug of coffee the next morning got me out to Dodgertown soon after dawn. Small lawn signs -- the kind you would see for a city council candidate -- announced "Dodgers Game Today."

The players and coaches are often up before the sun turns the morning sky that signature Florida flamingo orangish pink. The same color you'll find on the slacks and blazers of local men of a certain age.

I pulled into the near-empty dirt parking lot. Early in the morning, there were no crowds, no souvenir hawkers, no announcers. The only sound was the constant slap of horsehide on leather as the players in rows made long throws across a practice field, broken by the occasional dull "thunk" of a fly ball hit by a coach off a flat-surfaced fungo bat.

On one field, two dozen players huffed through wind sprints. Next door, players lolled in line for a drill where a coach dribbled a slow ground ball that the player had to charge, bare hand, and throw to first base.

The lawn sprinklers hissed; the bleachers were empty except for a few scouts. Some coaches took notes from golf carts. The long shadows of the palmetto trees offered a trickle of fans a spot of shade. It's all free.

Baseball bliss.

A few strands of yellow rope were all that marked the off-limits area, and veteran fans recalled when even those weren't around. I wasn't there five minutes before the sightings of familiar faces started.

Eddie Murray, 52, roared by in a golf cart. There was a woosh-clack-woosh-clack at "Maury's Pit," as Maury Wills, 75, fed balls into a pitching machine to help outfielder Juan Pierre, 30, polish his bunting. Mota, the great 1970s Dodgers pinch-hitter, rolled by on the old beach bicycle he uses to get around the sprawling complex.

I literally bumped into Cey, the retired Dodgers third baseman, who still works for the club.

"I got to experience Dodgertown before the renovations, when there really were barracks and you had to stand in line every evening just to use the pay phone," said Cey, 59.

The hardest part of the move will be transferring the feel of Vero Beach history to Glendale, Cey said.

"Just walking onto the field here, you get a subliminal message that you are part of something," he said. "There won't be those subliminal messages, messages we received loud and clear."

The atmosphere of pride had results in his day, Cey said.

"I played in four World Series as a Dodger," he said. "It would be great to get back to that level again."

I hung around all morning, went back to my kitchenette room at the Driftwood Inn for a nap, then headed back in the evening fmed to be scouting -- for their fantasy baseball leagues. Two retired guys patted each other on the stomach.

"I see you haven't changed since last year," said the silver-haired guy to the bald guy.

"Hey, it's spring training," said the bald guy. "Let's wait to see how I look on opening day."

On the field, Alberto Concepcion, wearing No. 95, grounded into a double play. There are lots of players with numbers in the 80s and 90s -- signs that they were unlikely to make the big league team. But for at least one day, their white and blue uniforms said "Dodgers" and their blue caps carried the staggered logo "LA."

Dodgertown was once cutting-edge. Spring training up until World War II was mostly an itinerant thing. Teams would move around year to year trying to find warm weather, and play intrasquad games or take on local college teams. The Cubs would prepare for the season on Catalina Island. The Dodgers' last stop before decamping to Vero Beach was Havana, Cuba, in its pre-Castro days. The Tigers moved their spring training to Lakeland, Fla., in 1945 and have been there ever since.

The Dodgers took it to the next level. Owner Walter O'Malley wanted a place where everyone from the greenest long shot minor-leaguer to the big club's biggest star would live, train, sleep and eat together. He struck a deal with Vero Beach in 1948 to move into a former naval base.

Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey created "the strings," a crosshatching of thin strands meant to replicate a strike zone. Most famously, the strings were where Sandy Koufax toiled for several seasons to control his blazing but wild fastball.

There's a small bridge over a creek in the middle of Dodgertown that is loaded with meaning for generations of ballplayers. The creek separated the major-league and minor-league camps. To "cross the bridge" was to be invited into the big time. To go back across meant your dreams were over, or at least deferred.

"My first spring training was 1949, and I remember coming down here when there were 780 players trying to win 26 big-league jobs," recalled Tommy Lasorda, who wasn't much as a major-league pitcher but made the Hall of Fame as a manager. "There have been thousands of players who came through here, and in the end, I outlasted them all."

The creaky-floored barracks made it hard for players in the old days to stay out past curfew. In a famous 1961 incident, Koufax and pitcher Larry Sherry were caught coming back late by manager Walter Alston. Sherry ran into his room and locked the door. Alston banged on the door so hard he broke his jewel-encrusted, 1955 World Championship ring.

"Hey, Larry, had your door appraised for diamonds?" Koufax quipped the next day.

There was another reason for all the pools, golf courses, movies, chapels and game rooms. The Dodgers had broken baseball's color barrier in 1947 with the promotion of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn club. O'Malley wanted a place in the segregated South where black and white players could mix easily.

But beyond the gates was another world. Black players had to go to nearby Gifford for many services like dry cleaning or "off base" entertainment.

Jim Crow reached right into Dodgertown, where Holman Stadium was segregated, down to "whites only" bathrooms, until 1961.

The barracks for major-leaguers are long gone. Wealthier players don't even stay at Dodgertown, preferring to rent beachfront homes or condos in town.

The rambling old clubhouse is gone, replaced by a modern two-story building where the players dress downstairs and the corporate brass has offices upstairs.

But a lot of the old remains. The streets are named for former stars like Robinson, Alston and Drysdale. Players still sit on an open bench -- no dugout -- leaving them at the mercy of the Florida sun and rain and the occasional rant of a vocal fan. Bathrooms say "Bat Boys" and "Bat Girls."

Lampposts are topped with glowing baseballs -- like those in the Dodger Stadium parking lot in Los Angeles.

There used to be no outfield wall, just a sloping, grass-covered berm. Then in 1971, Dodgers outfielder Dick Allen ran uphill after a long fly ball and did a face plant on a palm tree. A wall went up soon after, but the berm tickets are still a good cheap seat to see the action.

A game with the Boston Red Sox didn't just get rained out in the third inning. It was flooded, howling, thunder-and-lightning, get-on-the-phone-to-Noah washed out. Too bad -- the official crowd of 9,067 would have been a Holman Stadium record. The sparse crowds return the next day for a game against the Astros.

After three days, I was in love with the place. How could the Dodgers leave such a gem of a place, with all its history? Times change. Walter O'Malley died in 1979. His son, Peter, sold the team to media mogul Rupert Murdoch in 1998, and Murdoch sold it to Boston businessman Frank McCourt in 2004.

Spring training evolved from sparsely attended tune-ups to big business.

Cities, particularly in Arizona, promised vast sums of land and cash to induce teams to move.

I caught up to owner McCourt at "the bridge," and he readily acknowledged there was a financial upside to the move. But he said it was also about the Dodgers fans. Moving west means more Southern Californians will be able to come oen the fans and the players. It's not going to be Vero Beach, but my plan is that we will still have the most fan-friendly environment of any spring training facility in baseball."

Fans like Burdett Hallett, 60, of Huntington Beach and his son, Jeff Hallett, 31, of Dana Point. Though they are the target audience for the move, they have very mixed feelings.

"This is our fourth trip to Dodgertown," Jeff said. "Yes, the team will be closer in Arizona. But we will be bummed not to come out here again. I understand that sports is business and that's why they are moving, but the history here is just magic. You can't re-create that."

They have been to the theme-park-like field in Orlando, Fla., used by the Atlanta Braves for spring training. They prefer Vero Beach.

"It's an old-school feel that you don't find anywhere else," Burdett said.

"It's like it's the 1950s and time stopped."

"Is Koufax ever around?" I asked after the Astros game. Koufax, 70, isn't a ghost, but he's a shadow. Even though he lives in Vero Beach, sightings are rare. A veteran volunteer usher suggested I come around on a day when the team is playing elsewhere. Koufax doesn't like crowds, so he'll drop by when he can work with the young pitchers in peace.

"He doesn't even like the gate guards to tell the bosses when he comes in," the usher said.

The next day the Dodgers were in Winter Haven, Fla., to play the Cleveland Indians. I took a last swing through Dodgertown. I wandered around the sprawling minor-league side of Dodgertown. The motel-like rooms are low-slung and backed by dirt roads and palm trees, across from the rows of practice fields. Everyone seemed either under 25 (the players) or over 50 (the coaches and scouts).

I gingerly asked around. No Koufax today. I walked toward the bridge, when a familiar face appeared, alone, on the path. It's Vin Scully, out for a stroll. Scully, 80, wasn't making this road trip to Winter Haven. The legendary -- one of the few guys for whom the overused title fits -- announcer takes an occasional breather from games, just as he does back in Los Angeles.

Scully invited me to join him, and we trod the back roads of Dodgertown for about 10 minutes. He said he's met thousands of players over more than five decades in Vero Beach. Most disappeared. Some made it to the big leagues. A few became Hall of Famers.

Scully said he will miss Vero Beach, but understood the move. Think of all the kids, he said, who could come for a weekend in Arizona but not a week in Florida.

"Dodgertown is my memory factory," Scully said. "But they're not the Brooklyn Dodgers anymore. They're the Los Angeles Dodgers."

IF YOU GO:


TICKETS: The Dodgers will play just 11 games in Vero Beach this year, starting Feb. 28. They will end with the traditional St. Patrick's Day game March 17. In a tradition going back to late owner Walter O'Malley's day, the Dodgers wear green uniforms and run green bases. Single game spring training tickets went on sale Saturday. Prices range from $10 to $20. Call 866-363-4377. Tickets also available at www.dodgers.com. The Holman Stadium ticket office is at 400 1 26th St., Vero Beach. A stroll around Dodgertown is always free.

HANG YOUR HAT: Driftwood Inn. This old hotel and time-share resort is a bit worn around the edges, but it's my first choice. It has a great location on the beach and a funky, local atmosphere you won't find anywhere else.

Dodgers fans come and stay for up to a month. Rooms from $125 per night. 3 150 Ocean Drive. 772-231-0550 or thedriftwood.com

Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Vero Beach Oceanside. Utilitarian, but convenient to restaurants and shops. A short drive to the ballpark. Rooms from $131 per night. 3384 Ocean Drive. 772-231-2300 or ichotelsgroup.com

Disney's Vero Beach Resort. Despite the "Vero" name, the hotel-time-share resort is 1 2 miles from Dodgertown. Rooms from $ 170 per night. 9250 Island Grove Terrace. 800-359-8000 or dvcresorts.com

GOOD EATS: Bobby's Restaurant. A traditional meeting place for Dodgers fans, it also attracts the occasional player. 3450 Ocean Drive, 772-231-6996.

Cravings. Good breakfasts, baked goods and ice cream. 3149 Ocean Drive. 772-231-0208 or cravingscookies.com

Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q: Good baby back ribs at this local outpost of a popular regional chain. 500 1 20th St. 772-770-4190 or www.sonnysbbq.

The other popular barbecue place in Vero? Bono's. Sonny's and Bono's. Where would Cher eat?

CLICK ON IT: www.visitflorida.com



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