It was early March of 1978 in Vero Beach when I saw Dodger superstar outfielder Dusty Baker launch a batting practice fastball over the left field light tower at Dodgertown. I was four, and that was my first sports memory.
My family moved to suburban Detroit before the next spring training, and naturally, I grew up a Tiger fan. We moved back here in 1992, and the place didn’t change a bit. The town had evolved a little, but Dodgertown still had those fan-friendly dugouts, palm trees looming over the outfield, and yes, Tommy Lasorda.
Spring in Vero Beach was never mundane or routine, thanks to the presence of the Dodgers. I miss driving 10 minutes to watch major leaguers play baseball. I miss hearing Vin Scully’s voice over the loudspeaker the moment I walk through the gate and into the stadium. I even miss the burgers they used to make on the south side of the stadium, right as I’d walk in. Here are some of my most pointed memories over the past two decades from Dodgertown:
-Watching Raul Mondesi throw a baseball almost 310 feet on a line was always the most impressive thing I’d ever seen, no matter how many times I watched him take outfield.
-Darryl Strawberry taking batting practice was always a spectacle. How can anyone hit that many balls in a row over 450 feet?
-Most people remember Mike Piazza as an arrogant veteran slugger. I remember him outworking everyone on the team as a rookie to claim a spot on the team he wasn’t supposed to get. They might as well have handed him the Rookie of the Year–which he won–before the season started.
-The sight of Eric Gagne warming up before his first spring training start was impressive. He had some of the biggest, strongest legs I’ve ever seen. My father and were talking about him, when a very knowledgeable baseball fan from Gagne’s native Montreal offered some insight on how much ability the young pitcher had. Sure enough, Gagne ended up being a great Dodger–he’s most likely the best closer in team history.
-Although I wasn’t in town for Fernandomania back in the early ’80s, I was here in ’96 for the arrival of reigning National League Rookie of the Year Hideo Nomo. The Japanese press was everywhere during his time here! Nomo was the first Japanese-born player to play in the majors in 30 years. He is the only pitcher besides Dwight Gooden to strike out 200 batters in his first three seasons. Nomo is also one of five pitchers to throw a no-hitter in both the National and American League. You may have heard of the other four: Cy Young, Jim Bunning, Nolan Ryan, and Randy Johnson.
-I remember rooting for my friend, Greg Miller, to finally break into the major leagues after undergoing over two years of rehab for a painful shoulder blade injury. The 2002 first-round draft pick was one of the most promising pitchers in the Dodger organization until an injury set him back. I saw Greg put together one of his finest starts in 2007 at AAA Las Vegas, where he threw a two-hit shutout through 6 2/3 innings. The big lefty battled control problems the rest of the year, and through the rest of his minor league career.
-Or the time I took a line-drive foul ball to the chest on St. Patrick’s Day of 1998. All I have to say is good thing it happened on St. Patrick’s Day!
Having to read about the New York Mets and their spring training is almost like adding insult to injury. If there was ever an organization which was the opposite of the Dodgers, it is the Mets–from top to bottom.
Will Vero Beach ever host spring training again? Most signs point to no, but some of us maintain hope. Major and minor league baseball is still a part of this town’s culture, and at the very least, they can’t take away our memories from great springs of the past.