Extra Innings: Blue heaven on earth

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Day 2: Dodgers | Extra Innings

VERO BEACH, Fla. – The streets are named after Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson and similar legends. There are trees and shade and a ballpark with an open dugout – softball league-style – so the fans from any seat can see the players.

There is a pool, tennis and shuffleboard courts, beach volleyball and housing suites on campus, not to mention acres of lush playing fields. Signs are shaped like baseballs and even the faucets and flushers in the bathroom have the Dodgers' logo on them.

Welcome to Dodgertown, the oldest and, at least according to Baseball America, the best Spring Training facility in the game.

"You're asking me about my love," said Dodgers vice president Tommy Lasorda, who has come here every spring since 1949 as a player, manager or team executive. "I love it very, very much. This is the greatest Spring Training complex in all the world."

It was once a military base. The Dodgers started coming here in 1948 when they still called Brooklyn home. They owned the facility until 2001 when they sold it to the City of Vero Beach, and now they lease it. Despite offers from communities in Arizona, which would make more sense for the now West Coast-based team, the Dodgers have a 20-year lease with the town. New owner Frank McCourt has vowed to keep the team in Vero.

And why not? As beautiful as the grounds are – many spring training complexes are located behind strip malls or in old cow fields – the facilities are just as modern.

"Our club house is better than the one in Dodger Stadium," team public relations director John Olguin said.

Then there is the sentimental value. Only the Tigers (Lakeland) and the Phillies (Clearwater) have trained in the same place for a longer period of time.

"I've been coming down here since 1949, and it hasn't changed my feeling one iota," Lasorda said. "I was happy and proud to be here as an aspiring young left-hander with a lot of hopes and dreams, and I have maintained it through all these years.

"I belong here. This is where I want to be. And I call this, just as I call Dodger Stadium, Blue Heaven on Earth."

Don't let Lasorda's age of 75 fool you. He is still active, sharp and very much involved in building this club. He still works daily with players teaching fundamentals. Even though he officially is a vice president, you can't keep him out of his uniform.

And his famous wit, full of old-school baseball axioms and putdowns, remains active.

You could tell he just couldn't wait to get on guys. It was like all winter he had been waiting to say a few things. As the players stretched on the first day of official workouts, Lasorda already was barking to physically imposing outfielder Reggie Abercrombie, whom Lasorda thinks needs to play with more passion, in front of the entire camp.

"You've got to love this game, Reggie," Lasorda said. "Sometimes you don't show me you love this game."

"Yes, sir," Abercrombie said.

"God blessed you when he put that uniform on you, Reggie. Do you know that?"

"Yes, sir."

Then there is the stuff that leaves everyone in stitches. Lasorda on a player with some noted personality quirks: "That guy is so crazy he'd make an insane man nuts."

On a player with a bad haircut: "His wife gave him that haircut. She figured no [groupie] would like him then."

• Vero Beach native and author Rody Johnson is working on a book about the Dodgers and his hometown with the working title "A Town and Its Team." The 70-year-old used to fish with legendary Dodgers executive Branch Rickey and has attended every Spring Training session since the team started coming here.

"There is just fantastic tradition," Johnson said. "And the fact Tommy Lasorda has been here since 1949. I saw him then, I see him now." Johnson, who is looking for a publisher, has done scores of interviews and dug up some impressive research for what should be a great baseball read chronicling the town, the team and the tradition.

• How seriously do folks take golf down here? When we passed through Harmony, Fla., it was boasting of not just its 18-hole golf course but the "Harmony Golf Preserve." How very.

• Not sure it can get better than driving to Dodgertown early Monday morning, with the Intracoastal Waterway to our left and John Fogerty's "Centerfield" booming from the Mustang's Sirius radio system (channel 015, Classic Rewind).

• He's not on the roster but Japanese third baseman Norihiro Nakamura, who stars for the Osaka Buffaloes, is in camp to practice with the team. He is attracting plenty of attention. It's not just his long blond mullet or his bright red glove either. This guy is a real-deal slugger who has "trimmed the trees" (hit into the woods over center field) here this week.

• A sizable contingent of Canadian media were in Vero Beach on Monday to speak to Eric Gagne on the day he reported to camp. The best part of that was all the good hockey talk during down time. Not to mention the chance to use some gems from French 101 like Ca va? and Bon chance, mon ami.

• In an effort to get closer to Vero Beach, we spent Sunday in Melbourne, Fla. This allowed us to take in the fresh seafood at Conchy Joe's down by the Causeway.

• We had to find something to do Sunday night other than watch the most self-centered show in the history of television (ESPN's "Dream Job," which basically is ESPN promoting ESPN promoting ESPN). And it wasn't going to involve Sarah Jessica Parker, we assure you. So we went and killed time with all-around good guy and top bartender Robert at the enjoyable On Tap Cafe & Lounge near historic downtown Melbourne. Alas, the nightmare show was on at the bar. But at least it was muted. Somehow, Stuart Scott was still audible. Amazing.

• Monday afternoon, getting out of Vero Beach, we stopped for lunch at the Harbor Cove Restaurant in Fort Pierce. The place had unreal shrimp bisque, an unreal view of the docks and a too-real hyperactive waitress.

• In an attempt to get the full Dodgertown experience, I whipped Anti-Tab Master (and Mustang co-pilot) David Scott in a game of shuffleboard. He then protested the decision claiming I was "using a corked shuffleboard stick" and I had "THG in my system."

• Mealtime and cocktail hour are definitely the times we miss college basketball Tab Master Bret Bearup the most.

• New Dodgers GM Paul Podesta spent a good chunk of the late morning picking Lasorda's brain near the cages. We're not going to harp on Podesta's youthful look, but he probably gets carded for Bazooka gum at 7-Eleven.

• Next campaign stop: Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

• Total miles thus far: 103.9

• Number of Peter Gammons sightings: 1 and holding

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