An usher watches the Dodgers and White Sox face off at Camelback Ranch. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images Photo)
The following is the fourth of an occasional series by Charles Fountain on the history and culture of spring training.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- I arrived at the Dodgers new Camelback Ranch spring training headquarters a little before 8 a.m. last Friday, which happened to be almost two hours after the one and only Manny Ramirez arrived.
In his second day back in a Dodgers uniform, Manny continued to be the model citizen he’s been since arriving in Los Angeles last summer, a mentor -- as well as a role model of hard work and hustle -- to the younger Dodgers players, and a gregarious and accommodating source to the beat writers. No. 99 Manny jerseys are flying off the racks at the Camelback Ranch merchandise store, and LA fans have faith that a full season with Manny is going to finally mean deliverance from their championship drought that dates back to 1988.
Fans back in Boston, meanwhile, are thinking: Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .
But I haven’t come to Glendale to see Manny Ramirez; I have come to see Camelback Ranch. So much of the history of spring training -- so much of what I have written about during this series -- has been tied to the Dodgers’ long history in Vero Beach, Fla., and so this new $100-million complex they are sharing with the White Sox in the west-of-Phoenix suburb of Glendale holds an inordinate fascination for me and for a lot of other spring training fans.
At first blush, it would seem to be perfect. It is most assuredly a thing of beauty. From the fans’ parking lot, a long promenade surrounds a man-made lake leading to the stadium. Walk left around the lake and you parallel the White Sox complex; walk right and you’re on the Dodgers’ side.
The two sides have their distinct personalities. The White Sox’ major and minor leaguers dress together; the Dodgers have a separate clubhouse for their minor leaguers, just as they did in Vero Beach. There are fences surrounding the White Sox’ practice fields, the Dodgers have tried to transplant much of the intimate feel of Dodgertown to their new home, and in many places have just a thin yellow rope separating the fan areas from the fields. As they did in Vero Beach, players walk alongside and through the fan areas to get to the practice fields.
And over in the pitchers’ area, there’s a piece of Dodgertown that hasn’t even been in seen in Dodgertown for a lot of years. The row of home plates facing the six practice pitching mounds have two strings running parallel to the ground, across the front edge of the plate. One would be knee high to a batter, the other waist high. This is Branch Rickey’s “visible strike zone,” the strings first used in 1948 to enhance a pitcher’s concentration. Long after the strings disappeared from Dodgertown, the pitching practice area was known as the “strings area,” and so it will be at Camelback Ranch too, however long the strings may remain.
So much has been written about Dodgertown through the years that many fans who never saw it no doubt felt they knew it. The idea was to instill a bit of the franchise’s spring training heritage for those fans experiencing it for the first time.
“You can take the spirit of intimacy that was the essence of Dodgertown and you can bring that with you; you don’t have to leave that in Florida,” said Charles Steinberg in an interview in Los Angeles last May. Steinberg is the club’s executive vice president for marketing and public relations, the man charged with making Dodgers fans feel all warm and tingly about the game. He fulfilled the same role in Boston from 2002-2007.
“That which was unique to Vero Beach, stays in Vero Beach,” Steinberg said. “But that which was unique to the Dodgers organization, the intimacy of the fan-player interaction, can transfer beautifully out here to the desert, and you don’t leave Dodgertown behind. You bring Dodgertown west with you.”
However much there may be player-fan intimacy and strings that evoke Branch Rickey, nobody is ever going to confuse the new home with the old. Holman Stadium in Vero Beach is Old Florida simple; the stadium at Camelback Ranch is desert opulent. It has the all the luxury suites and party pavilions that have become de rigueur in spring training ballparks. And as with most Cactus League ballparks, the horizon beyond the outfield is defined by distant mountains.
But the Camelback Ranch Stadium -- the complex takes its name from the Glendale neighborhood where it’s located -- also has appointments that lend it a character that is decidedly desert and decidedly unique. Throughout the stadium the landscape retaining walls are made of wire baskets -- think large lobster traps -- filled with Gabion stone, a brownish granite. In center field, the green backdrop that allows the hitter to see the pitch coming in, will one day be a forest of natural Russian pines. The trees are in place, but they are small and a little sparse right now, so a conventional nylon screen serves as the backdrop at the moment. As the pines thicken and grow together in the next couple of years, that screen will be removed.
The stadium’s most striking feature is the rusted steel façade of the press box and luxury suites. It is not just the color of rusted steel; it is rusted steel, the plates allowed to rust to a coppery hue and then treated to arrest the rusting. The color fits perfectly with the camel-colored seats, the Gabion stone walls, and the recycled-granite paths, all chosen to deliver the feel of the desert. The rusted steel, however, is not to everyone’s taste. For everyone who has admired this particular architectural flourish, there has been somebody else who’s asked when and how it’s going to be finished.
On the baseball front, the facilities are likewise state-of-the-art. But more importantly, the Dodgers and White Sox are right in the middle of a concentration of a dozen major league teams that train in greater Phoenix. For the White Sox there are no more twice-a-week bus rides up I-10 to the Valley; they’ll travel down to Tucson just four times all spring. For the Dodgers it means a whole new world of nearby spring games after the long bus rides of Florida.
Last Friday morning, as the Dodgers made ready to cross the Valley to play the Cubs in Mesa, a 30-40 minute ride, Tony Jackson of the Los Angeles Daily News noted that outside of the two trips the club will take to Tucson, the trip to Mesa would be their longest of the year, and that it was just about the same length as the trip from Vero Beach to Port St. Lucie, which was the Dodgers’ shortest trip in Florida. Joe Torre, who in his 50-year career as a player and manager has never trained in Arizona -- the Mets, Braves, Cardinals and Yankees were always Grapefruit League teams -- is already a believer. He told reporters after the first week of games that he was struck by how the time he used to spend on buses he was now spending on the practice field.
Three exits west on I-10, meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians are settling into their new spring training facility in Goodyear after 16 seasons in the Red Sox old complex in Winter Haven. Goodyear’s complex just may be every bit as nice as Glendale’s. And its vision for the future is even more remarkable still. More on that next ...