Dodgers say goodbye to famed minor league complex

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- His eyes red, his steps slow, Tom Lasorda waved to the fans for the final time at Dodgertown. Down in the right-field corner, his players and coaches silently gathered and formed two lines.

They had their own way of helping him say goodbye to an old friend.

Crossing bats overhead in a sacred baseball tradition, they created a tunnel for Lasorda to walk through and close this special place the Los Angeles Dodgers called their spring home for 60 years.

"These guys want me to cry," the Hall of Fame manager said Monday.

He didn't, but chances are a few people in the overflow crowd did. Some of them stood in the bottom of the ninth, bidding farewell to their team -- and a piece of paradise lost -- as Los Angeles fell to the Houston Astros 12-10 in its last game on these grounds.

So long, Dodgertown.

"We're going to leave, but we're not leaving our memories," Lasorda told them in a pregame address, pausing between sentences. Later, he reflected: "In all probability, I'll never be here again."

Set to move next year into an $80 million complex that they'll share with the Chicago White Sox in Glendale, Ariz., the Dodgers will take away more than a team from this town of 30,000 on Florida's east coast.

In an era when spring training has become big business, this complex was more like baseball's petting zoo, where players were encouraged to chat with fans and sign their balls. To many visitors, Vero Beach was a true field of dreams.

"It is a special place," former Dodgers ace Carl Erskine said.

His white hair ruffling in the breeze, Erskine played the national anthem on his harmonica. He threw the first pitch at cozy Holman Stadium when it opened in 1953, back when grassy embankments served as the outfield walls. Even now, there are just 17 rows of stands and no roofs on the dugouts.

The popular "Oisk" first arrived in 1948, when the Dodgers touched down at the converted naval air station a year after they trained in Havana.

The Boys of Summer are grandfathers now, Jackie and Pee Wee are gone and Brooklyn is now home to a minor league team.

But there was always that link to Dodgertown, where Sandy Koufax still came back to teach pitching. History abounded -- heck, the camp is older than almost half the franchises in the majors.

There is a slight chance that construction delays in Arizona will force the Dodgers to return next year.

The Dodgers are scheduled to play one more exhibition in Florida, against the Marlins down in Jupiter on Tuesday, and then finish spring training out West.

If they don't come back, the Baltimore Orioles are poised to move up from Fort Lauderdale. They wouldn't need to do much -- they could simply change the signs for Jackie Robinson Avenue and Pee Wee Reese Boulevard to Brooks Robinson Road and Cal Ripken Court.

Eileen Conneely stopped to snap one last picture of the markers at the corner of Don Drysdale Drive and Vin Scully Way. She grew up going to games in Brooklyn and traveled down from Long Island to see the finale.

"We came just for this day," she said.

"We missed closing day at Ebbets Field in 1957," husband Tom said.

Rocky Staniford also wanted a final look. Born in Brooklyn, he's a spry 88. Wife Cricket is connected to baseball: Her grandfather, Morgan Bulkeley, was the first president of the National League and is in the Hall of Fame.

"If it was anybody else, we wouldn't come," he said.

Probably extends to Tampa Bay's team in the Class A Florida State League, which moved into Dodgertown last season.

The Dodgers' presence extended beyond the complex.

Minus the team, no telling whether nearby Dodgertown Elementary School will keep its name. The local phone book will need a new cover -- many copies still feature a picture of Dodgers reliever Jonathan Broxton

"You get down here and see yourself like that, it's pretty cool. The next day, they put a bunch of them on the table for me to sign," he said.

Lasorda managed the Dodgers for a week while Joe Torre took the team to China, and went 1-6 in his stint.

He did everything to try to win his last game, putting runners in motion and calling for a suicide squeeze. Like his players, he wore a lucky green hat on St. Patrick's Day.

David Newhan hit one of Houston's five home runs. As a boy, he sometimes came to Dodgertown with his dad, longtime Los Angeles Times writer and Hall honoree Ross Newhan.

"It was a day in history," Newhan said after homering.

When it was over, Lasorda walked toward the clubhouse and the Dodgers waited with their bats. The tradition is older than the manager himself and mostly reserved for minor leaguers getting married and movies like "Bull Durham."

"It was a tremendous way to exit," Lasorda said. "I'm a very, very happy 80-year-old man right now."

Erskine was the last person off the field. He spent the game sitting next to Lasorda, talking about the old days, and lingered 45 minutes after it was over talking to fans.

"I hate to leave," he said.