Perhaps no place in the world is more synonymous with the words "Spring Training" than Vero Beach's Dodgertown complex.
The sprawling facility, originally a U.S. naval base, enjoyed a six-decade run as the March home of its namesake franchise. Established by legendary Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, the 65-acre complex set the template for what Major League Spring Training would become.
But all good things must come to an end. The Dodgers played their last Grapefruit League season in 2008, deciding that it was in their best interest to relocate to Arizona's Camelback Ranch. This led to a period of uncertainty for Dodgertown. The city-owned facility was unable to find a new Major League tenant, leading to concerns that its time as one of Florida's pre-eminent sporting complexes had come to a close.
But as is so often the case, the end of one era signified the beginning of another.
Last April, Minor League Baseball announced that it would be taking over the day-to-day operations of Dodgertown. (The financial terms of the five-year agreement were not disclosed.) The organization, which serves as the governing body of affiliated baseball's 14 leagues and 160 teams, was motivated by the opportunity for growth.
"This allows us to expand the brand of Minor League Baseball by making it even more of a participatory experience," said Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner following the announcement. "We'll program a wide variety of events and plan on co-operating with national and international bodies."
This "wide variety" was envisioned to include everything from amateur baseball tournaments to umpire training clinics to practice facilities for sports such as lacrosse, soccer and football. This programming diversity is made possible by Dodgertown's large size, as it includes five playing fields, two half fields, batting tunnels, training rooms and on-site dining and lodging accommodations (in the form of 88 "hotel-style" villas).
And then there's Dodgertown's unique place in baseball history, which will ensure that it remains a place of interest to those concerned with the history of our national pastime.
"The opportunity to keep baseball in Vero Beach was very important to us," said O'Conner. "Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella played here during a time when baseball had just started to integrate, and that is still what these facilities stand for. Dodgertown is very important from a historical perspective, and now it's up to us to honor and preserve that legacy."
State of the art, regardless
Nearly a year has passed since Minor League Baseball assumed control of Dodgertown, and O'Conner is the first to admit that the transition has not always been easy.
"We're essentially a start-up business [in regards to Dodgertown] and not immune to economic pressures," he explained. "We're relying on amateur programs to spend money with us and missed a large chunk of the scheduling cycle while we were getting our feet on the ground."
There is also the matter of the facility's name, which is owned by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Talks are ongoing, but it remains unclear whether Minor League Baseball will be able to use the Dodgertown name going forward. This has hindered marketing efforts, including the development of a meaningful online presence.
But despite these challenges, the next era of Dodgertown is fully underway. And it is being overseen by someone uniquely qualified to do so -- Craig Callan, who managed the property for two decades as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. He retired from this capacity after overseeing the club's move to Camelback Ranch, immediately signing on as Minor League Baseball's head of Dodgertown operations.
Recently, Callan has been adjusting to some new sounds within his familiar environment, sounds which signify that the Dodgers have definitely left the building.
"I'm used to the crack of the bat, not the 'ping' of the bat, and there's a lot of ping-ing going on right now," he said.
This unfamiliar acoustical background comes courtesy of RussMatt Baseball, an operator of Spring Break collegiate and high school tournaments that is currently staging the RussMatt Invitational. Over 200 schools are expected to compete in the tournament over a two-month period, with many of the players staying on site.
"We were built to be a state-of-the-art facility for the Dodgers, but now that they're gone, we're still a state-of-the-art facility," said Callan. "We don't have one base tenant for six straight weeks anymore, nor the [Gulf Coast League], instructional leagues and June rookie camps. Now we need to go out and find other uses."
And when it comes to what those other uses might be, there's a lot of room for improvisation and outside-the-box thinking. In addition to the RussMatt tournament, Dodgertown is currently being used by the Washington Freedom professional women's soccer team and the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation, which is conducting umpire evaluations.
The man in charge of marketing the facility to the sporting world at large is Jeff Biddle, who previously served as director of athletics at the Cocoa Beach Sports Center in Cocoa Beach, Fla.
"I went to the National Soccer Coaches Convention, and when people heard 'Dodgertown' they'd look at me like I was at the wrong place," said Biddle. "It's my job to explain that we're open to all kinds of sports, and not just baseball."
And Biddle is confident that Dodgertown will become an increasingly sought-after facility, due to stepped-up marketing efforts as well as word of mouth.
"We're offering to our clients the same experience that the Dodgers had, where everything you need is all right here on the property," he said. "We've got rooms, meals, training facilities, a pool and recreation areas. You never have to leave the complex.
"Ultimately, we just want to be seen as an elite-type facility for elite-type teams."
Sixty years of memories
Of course, Dodgertown is also of interest on a historic and cultural level. One of Callan's long-term goals is to promote the complex's significant place in baseball history.
"Our goal is to offer a walking tour of the facility, with different plaques signifying different accomplishments and places of interest," said Callan. "Fans can see the heart-shaped lake that [Dodgers owner] Walter O'Malley built for his wife, Kay, which is in the same shape that it was in 1953.
"I've been at this facility for so long, and there are just so many memories, from Walter Alston to Tommy Lasorda to Steve Garvey to Steve Sax," he continued. "But I think the most unique thing is that there aren't a lot of fences, there's fan friendliness in all areas. It's just a beautiful place."
And no matter who occupies the space, Dodgertown will remain a huge part of the Vero Beach community.
"There's definitely an economic impact," said Callan. "While some teams stay at Dodgertown, we've also got players filling up rooms at four or five area hotels, eating at the local restaurants. ... This has been a very good thing for Vero Beach and [surrounding] Indian River County. In going from the Dodgers to Minor League Baseball, we were able to transition from one historic and well-known organization to another."