The late, great Yogi Berra – the New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher who went on to manage the crosstown Mets to the 1973 World Series and will be forever remembered for his colorful butchering of the English language – is quoted as saying:
“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
Big crowds, though, have had little to do with a scarcity of Vero Beach baseball fans at First Data Field in Port St. Lucie, the spring-training home of the Mets, who’ve enjoyed record-setting attendance for their Grapefruit League games the past two years.
According to Bobby McCarthy, Vero Beach’s affection for spring training began dissipating a decade ago, when the Dodgers packed up their bats and balls and moved their preseason camp to the Arizona desert.
“I go down to watch the Mets once a week and I usually take guys with me, but I don’t see a lot of people from here at the games,” said McCarthy, an island resident and owner of Bobby’s, the Vero Beach restaurant and lounge frequented by the Dodgers’ players, coaches and media types for more than 20 years before the team moved west.
“I don’t get calls – ‘Hey, Bobby, can you get us tickets?’ – the way I used to when the Dodgers were here,” he continued. “I’m sure there are some Mets fans here, but, other than that, I don’t know anyone who goes down there on a regular basis.”
Fay Vincent, the former baseball commissioner who lives in John’s Island, agreed with McCarthy, saying he doubts that many baseball fans in Vero – other than Mets fans, of course – make the trip to Port St. Lucie more than once or twice a spring.
“It’s still a pretty good drive from here,” Vincent said.
He said he still misses the festive six-week celebration of spring training in Vero Beach, which brought the town alive, but that the community has gotten past the pain of losing the Dodgers and moved on.
“Life went on,” Vincent said. “A lot of the people who went to see the Dodgers were 65 and 75 years old when they left. Ten years later, a good number of them aren’t here anymore.”
“We don’t do demographic studies on who buys our tickets” said Paul Taglieri, the Mets’ executive director of minor league facilities. “Obviously, a large share of our crowds are people visiting from the Northeast, especially the New York area. We also get a lot of baseball fans who come to Florida on spring-training trips and travel around the state.
“But I have no idea how many people from Vero come to our games,” he added. “I do see the occasional Los Angeles Dodgers T-shirt, even a couple of faded Vero Beach Dodgers hats now and then, so I know we’re getting at least a few of those folks.”
Probably not many, though.
It was 10 years ago next month – on St. Patrick’s Day 2008 – that the Dodgers’ buses pulled away from Vero Beach for the last time, moving their spring-training headquarters to the Phoenix suburb of Glendale and ending a mostly wonderful, 61-year marriage between the team and town.
Last year, the Washington Nationals transplanted their spring-training operations from Viera to a glitzy, new complex in West Palm Beach, where they share facilities with the world-champion Houston Astros, who relocated their camp from Kissimmee.
The moves by the Nationals and Astros saved spring training on Florida’s east coast, which almost certainly would’ve been abandoned by Major League Baseball if West Palm Beach hadn’t been added to the Grapefruit League map in 2017.
There’s no chance the Mets, or the Jupiter-based Florida Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, would’ve stayed with only three teams along the I-95 corridor – a geographical predicament that would’ve required too many costly, time-consuming trips across the state to play exhibition games.
“The future,” Berra said, offering up another of his verbal gems, “ain’t what it used to be.”
Not for spring training in Florida, and certainly not for the Mets.
The Dodgers’ departure from Vero Beach, followed by the Nationals’ move from Viera, left the Mets as the Grapefruit League’s northernmost team on the Atlantic seaboard – and the team seems to be benefiting from the new geography, with Port St. Lucie the first spring-training stop on I-95 for southbound visitors.
“The last two years have been great, and this year looks just as good,” Taglieri said. “The team has played well two of the last three years, which helps, and with no baseball in Vero and Viera, we’re probably seeing more spring-training traffic here.”
Surely, the presence of Tim Tebow – the University of Florida’s Heisman-winning quarterback, who switched from football to baseball and signed with the Mets after struggling in the NFL – also has had some impact on the crowds in Port St. Lucie.
And he’s back this year.
To quote Berra again: “If you don’t know where you are going, you might end up some place else.”
That seems to apply, too, to spring training fans who still end up at Dodgertown – or Historic Dodgertown, as it’s now known – even though the stadium has been without a team for a decade.
Craig Callan, who has been involved in Dodgertown’s management for 40 years and now serves as a vice president at Historic Dodgertown – which has been transformed into an all-sports training facility – said the nostalgic complex continues to see a significant number of spring-training visitors.
“We get a lot of people this time of year,” Callan said. “They’re on their way to spring training down south, they see the Vero Beach exit sign on I-95 and they decide to stop by because of the history of the place. Some of them, particularly the ones who’ve never been here, say it’s like a pilgrimage for them.
“Usually, it’s older couples, but we also get people who say their father would talk about Dodgertown, so they had to see it,” he added. “Some of them just drive through. Others will walk around and take pictures, especially of Holman Stadium.”
In many ways, Historic Dodgertown is as much as museum as a busy sports complex, which is fitting: Spring training, like the Dodgers, is part of Vero Beach’s past.
Its future in this area is in Port St. Lucie, where the Mets will open their 31-game, Grapefruit League schedule Friday against the Braves – and where a sellout crowd is expected on March 7, when the Yankees come to town.
“I go to a few Mets games now, and I go because I’m a baseball fan,” McCarthy said, adding that the spring-training weeks no longer impact his business. “They’ve done a great job with their stadium down there, and they get nice crowds, but it’s different from what we had here.
“The whole thing with the Dodgers and Vero Beach and Dodgertown . . . That was unique,” he continued.”
Or as Berra once said, as only he could say it: “If the people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them.”