Hotels filling up for baseball tourney at Dodgertown

VERO BEACH — Tommy Lasorda may not be holding court at the bar, but area hotels pretty excited about the prospect of thousands of Northerners descending on Vero Beach in a few weeks time for the resumption of baseball at Dodgertown.

From late February to the second week in April, 55 northern baseball teams – some college, some junior college, some high school – will visit Vero Beach from as far away as Ontario and Minnesota to take part in what is called the Russ-Matt baseball tournament. With each team will come an entourage of parents, brothers, sisters, all eager to see sons and brothers play baseball (and not incidentally enjoy a week of fun in the sun).

Given that this is the first year for RussMatt in Vero, there is no way to estimate what the total economic impact might be, but Holiday Inn Oceanside Sales Manager Jennifer Bates says so far it is looking mighty encouraging.  

“We have had a pretty huge success with this tournament,” Bates said,noting that four of the 55 times have already booked 267 room nights. She said she has had to turn away others because lack of space.

“We can’t measure what sort of impact spring training had (when the Dodgers were here) because most people did not request large blocks of rooms, what we saw was mostly transient walk-ins,” Bates said. “We defi nitely see more revenue with Russ-Matt.”

On the mainland next to Grand Harbor, the new Spring Hill Suites reports that eight of the college teams have booked rooms for the month of March.

“We are very excited about the response,” Amy Selby, a spokesperson for Spring Hill, said.

The Vero Surf Club, had also booked at least two teams, while the Best Western, Country Inn and Suites, the Hampton Inn and Howard Johnson had also made deals with RussMatt organizers to host teams and families.

RussMatt was the brainchild of retired baseball coach Dave Barnard, who well understood the eagerness of snow-bound baseball coaches trying to arrange a spring break outing for their teams to have a chance to play baseball as it was intended – under the sun and in short sleeves.

He added Dodgertown this year to two other venues he has in Florida – Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex and the Cleveland Indians old training facility at Winter Haven.

While this year’s crop of teams coming to Vero did not produce any big Division I schools, Thiel (Pa.) baseball coach Joe Schaly, who will have one of the first teams to visit the facility on Feb. 26, says it is only a matter of time before word gets out on the amenities at Dodgertown.

“I would imagine, that we as coaches are sometimes reluctant to make changes,” Schaly said. “They just signed up where they went last year. I’m sure this is going to be a good experience and as the coaches begin to talk to one another, there will be more teams wanting to go to Vero.”

Schaly was more amenable than his brethren in part because he had visited the Dodgertown facility before and he has friends who live in town and spoke highly of the laid back Vero Beach lifestyle.

That and the large body of water to our east.

“I wanted my kids to get a chance to see the ocean,” he said. “I’ve got kids from western Pennsylvania that have never seen it. Last year (at Winter Haven) if they weren’t playing ball they were sitting in their hotel room.”

Schaly has booked his team at the Surf Club, and said he will have about 40 people in his traveling party. Plus, if last year is any indication, he said about 70 friends and family will come watch the boys get ready for the season. That fact may be key to the county wideeconomic success of this endeavor.

RussMatt’s Barnard expects the Dodgertown venue to grow in stature once the coaching back channels begin working.

“I really had no idea what to expect this year (at Dodgertown),” he said.”Once the word gets out, everyone will want to play here. I think a lot of teams just booked where they had been before.”

Of the 55 teams, Barnard estimates about half have booked to stay on the Dodgertown property where they can use all the facilities that were available to Dodger staff and players. The tournaments will get into full swing in March, when most of the college teams will arrive for their visits.

Minor League Baseball Vice President Craig Callan said the RussMatt event is just one part of the effort to make Dodgertown successful beyond the six weeks of spring training.”I’ve always said that spring training was a lot of pizzazz packed into a four-week period when we were playing the games,” Callan said. “But if we are to be successful we are going to have to build a year-round business.”

Among the plans he is considering is building a cloverleaf of fields built to little league standards with the shorter base paths and pitching mounds to host youth baseball tournaments which run throughout the summer.

He is also looking to attract soccer teams and has already booked the Washington Freedom of Women’s Professional Soccer. The challenge will be to attract enough athletic events to keep the property humming with activity, Minor League Baseball took over Jan. 1 paying rent and the upkeep of the facility, but still keeping the identity of one of the most iconic spring training sites in the country. It was that identity that attracted Ed Mugridge.

Mugridge, baseball coach at Wickcliffe High School near Cleveland, has also booked his team at the Surf Club. Last year he travelled with his team to Cocoa Beach for the Cocoa Expo Sports High School Spring Training. The lure of being able to expose his players to major-league quality amenities at Dodgertown was too much to pass up.

“Coming to Florida is kind of overwhelming for the kids,” he said. “But once you got past that you could see that the (Cocoa Beach) facilities weren’t as updated as they could be. hese kids raise their own money for the trip and I wanted them to play on some really nice fields.

“We come from a working class community and most of our opponents are from private schools with really nice fields. Most of my kids have never experienced that with their own fields and to be able to play were pro players previously practiced could be the memory of a lifetime for them.”

The RussMatt Tournament will run from Feb. 27 through April 9.

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