My Vero: Craig Callan, the face of Dodgertown, is retiring

Craig Callan was sitting behind his desk at Historic Dodgertown last week, pointing to his attempts to organize 40 years of memories, photos and memorabilia stacked around the room in not-so-neat piles.

“This is all very personal to me,” he said as his eyes scanned the keepsakes-covered walls of his spacious office, which offers a panoramic view of Holman Stadium. “The photographs, the jerseys, the hats, the bats, the plaques … Everything here means something.”

Together, these cherished mementos tell the story of a mostly wonderful, sometimes-tragic, never-dull life spent as Peter O’Malley’s full-time ambassador to Vero Beach, where, for 20 years, Callan represented the Los Angeles Dodgers and their owner with the class, character and compassion expected of a franchise once regarded as baseball royalty.

And he will take all of them with him, along with the memories, when he leaves the room for the last time, which will probably happen within the next few weeks.

Callan, a month shy of his 69th birthday, announced his retirement this week, ending four decades of devotion to a baseball treasure that always will occupy a special place in his heart.

Officially, his retirement becomes effective April 25, exactly 40 years after he launched his Dodgertown career as the general manager of the complex’s Sports and Conference Center and 10 years after being named director of the entire baseball campus.

“Peter and I have been talking about it for a year,” Callan said of O’Malley, who sold the Dodgers in 1998 but returned to Vero Beach in 2012 to rescue the town’s struggling sports facility, four years after the team moved its spring-training headquarters to Arizona.

When Callan finally decided he was ready to go, O’Malley embraced his decision, thanked him for his years of service and warned him about the difficulty that sometimes accompanies the transition to retirement.

“Peter was great with this,” Callan said. “He was very supportive, very accommodating. He talked about how hard it was for Tommy Lasorda when he left managing and how tough it can be to pull yourself away from what you’ve been doing your whole life.

“But this is the right time for me,” he added. “I could still keep going, but I’ve done pretty much everything I can here. I’ve got nothing else to prove. I’m also getting older, and running this business is 20 times harder than working for the Dodgers was.”

He paused for a moment, then continued: “I’ve been reading more and more articles about people my age passing away, and there are things I want to do before it’s too late. I’ve got a 9-year-old son, Liam, and I want him to have memories of doing things with me because I might not be around when he’s in his 20s.

“So I’m going to spend more time with my family and use whatever years I have left to take it easy, enjoy life and make more memories.”

He knows the future doesn’t come with a guarantee: His first son, Christian, was 29 and suffering from bipolar disorder when he committed suicide in Arizona in 1999.

“Christian’s been gone for 19 years,” Callan said wistfully. “There are pictures of him here, too.”

Callan was only 20 and attending Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn., in 1971, when he married his first wife and their son was born. When the couple divorced, he was granted custody of Christian.

“I wanted him, and I got him at a time when you never heard of fathers getting their kids,” Callan said. “Remember that TV show in the 1970s, ‘The Courtship of Eddie’s Father?’ That was us.”

Callan eventually moved to Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, where he worked for Harrison’s Conference Centers, which in April 1978 sent him to Vero Beach to run Dodgertown’s conference center.

“My boss asked me if I wanted to work with the Dodgers, and I told him, ‘Hey, I’m from Brooklyn,’ ” Callan said.  “I didn’t know where Vero Beach was, but I didn’t care. It was the Dodgers.”

It didn’t take long for Callan to impress the Dodgers’ then-director of Dodgertown, Charlie Blaney, with his work ethic, enthusiasm and attention to detail – all of which earned him the opportunity to take over in 1988, after O’Malley promoted Blaney to vice president of minor league operations.

“Peter didn’t really know me,” Callan said, “but he took a chance and I made sure he never regretted it.”

As the Dodgertown director, Callan was responsible for the year-round operations of the conference center, overseeing the management of the Dodgers’ Vero Beach-based Florida State League (Class A) and Gulf Coast League (Rookie level) teams, and supervising all aspects of big league spring training.

He also made arrangements for training visits from international baseball teams and NFL teams, along with the wildly popular Dodgers’ Adult Baseball Camps. And he supervised the operations of the team-owned Dodgertown Golf Club and Dodger Pines Country Club, prior to their sale in 2002.

It was in 2002 that the Dodgers rewarded Callan for his performance by promoting him to vice president in charge of spring training and minor league facilities – a promotion that expanded his duties to include overseeing operations at the Dodgers’ Campo Las Palmas training facility in the Dominican Republic and serving as a liaison with all of the organization’s minor league affiliates.

He also was responsible for directing the 2002 construction of a 30,000-square-foot building beyond Holman Stadium’s right-field wall. The much-needed structure would include clubhouses, training facilities and administrative offices.

Under Callan’s leadership, Dodgertown was named Major League Baseball’s “Best Spring Training Site” by Baseball America three times.

“People ask how I could do the same job for 40 years, but I never did the same job,” Callan said. “I was like a utility infielder. I played a lot of different roles.”

None, though, was more important than being the year-round face of the Dodgers in the Vero Beach community, where Callan served as a United Way of Indian River County president, sat on several civic-group boards, received a “Key to the City” in 2004 and was honored with two “Citizen of the Year” awards.

“He’s been a real hero in this community,” said former Vero Beach police chief Jim Gabbard, one of Callan’s closest friends. “The Dodgers gave him carte blanche to do good things in the community, and he’s done more than anybody I can think of – a lot of things most people don’t know about. He’s just a really good guy.”

By 2007, though, the Dodgers had decided to move their spring-training operation to Arizona, where they put Callan in charge of transforming a Glendale broccoli farm into Camelback Ranch – a glitzy, new Cactus League complex they would share with the Chicago White Sox.

“I was in Glendale for two years, on and off,” said Callan, who supervised the design and construction of the facility, which opened in 2009.

In fact, when Callan returned to Vero Beach for the Dodgers’ final Grapefruit League game at Dodgertown 10 years ago, he flew back to Arizona the next day.

Callan vividly remembers St. Patrick’s Day 2008 – the nostalgia-filled, pregame ceremony before the final game at Holman; the large crowd that jammed the Stadium to say good-bye to an era; and, as the March sun set on spring training in Vero Beach, the Dodgers’ buses pulling away from Dodgertown for the last time.

“It was a really sad day,” Callan said. “I remember standing on the field after the game, just looking around, seeing the looks on people’s faces and thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is happening.’

“It was the end of something unique, something special,” he added. “It was the end of a 60-year marriage between the team and the town, and it didn’t end well. It was like a divorce, which, I think, is why there were so many hard feelings.”

Callan, though, had a job to do – a job that went beyond the much-anticipated opening of Camelback Ranch.

“I was going to run the place when it was finished,” Callan said. “I was working for the Dodgers, and there was no longer a job in Vero Beach. So we were going to move to Arizona. That’s where my job was.”

Then fate again threw him a curveball: Ten years after the devastating death of his son, Christian, Callan nearly suffered another tragic loss.

He returned to Vero Beach in late January 2009 to accompany his eight-month-pregnant wife, Cindy, to what was expected to be a routine doctor’s appointment at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando, fully expecting to fly back to Arizona the next day to prepare for Camelback Ranch’s opening.

More than a month later, however, he was still in Florida –  and his wife, then 49, was still in the hospital.

Hours after undergoing an emergency Caesarian-section delivery of the couple’s son, Liam, Callan’s wife experienced life-threatening complications stemming from a pregnancy-related blood clot.

Doctors treated the clot with a blood thinner, which caused her to bleed internally. Not long afterward, some of her organs, including her kidneys, began shutting down, prompting the medical team to put her in a chemically induced coma.

“She was in a coma for 10 days, and the doctors were preparing me for the worst,” Callan said. “We almost lost her.”

But Callan stayed at her bedside and kept praying, never giving up hope. Miraculously, mere minutes before doctors were to begin harvesting his wife’s organs, her kidneys began functioning again.

Six weeks later, Callan and his wife returned to Vero Beach, where she underwent a slow, difficult recovery. Their son, Liam, who was a heathy baby, is now 9.

“When I first came to Vero, I was a single parent and 28 years old, taking my 9-year-old son to school,” Callan said. “Fast-forward 40 years, and now I’m 68 years old and still taking my 9-year-old son to school.

“Back then, I was one of the younger parents,” he added. “Now I’m the oldest parent. People think I’m his grandfather.”

Actually, Callan also has a 19-year-old granddaughter, Corliss-Rose, who was Christian’s daughter.

Oh, and he never made that move to Arizona.

“I had to stay in Vero with Cynthia and Liam, so the Dodgers needed to bring in someone else to run the facility in Arizona, and that’s what they did,” Callan said. “They were ready to open the new place, and I couldn’t be there, so I was out.

“They took care of me,” he added, “but, all of a sudden, I didn’t have a job there or here.”

He wasn’t unemployed for long.

Dodgertown was closed for less than six months when Minor League Baseball leased the property and hired Callan to help turn the baseball complex into a year-round, multi-sport training facility, which would eventually operate under the name “Vero Beach Sports Village.”

After MiLB endured heavy financial losses, however, the place was about to be shuttered again in 2011.

That’s when O’Malley returned to Vero Beach with a newly formed, five-way partnership, which took control of the complex’s operations, expanded its facilities and negotiated with Major League Baseball for permission to use the name “Historic Dodgertown.”

O’Malley also kept Callan on as a vice president, a position he held for the past six years.

“Craig Callan has devoted his adult life to leading, managing and enhancing Historic Dodgertown, and he deserves tremendous credit for how this renowned training and conference center looks today,” O’Malley said in a statement announcing Callan’s retirement.

“Craig is a community treasure, and I’m happy that he and his family will continue to enjoy living in Vero Beach.”

That’s the plan, anyway – for Callan to relax more, play some golf and spend more time with family, especially his son.

Certainly, Callan won’t experience another year like 1988, when he was hired to be Dodgertown’s director, married Cynthia, had a home built in Vero Beach and watched the Dodgers win him a World Series ring.

And as much satisfaction as he derived from helping O’Malley bring Dodgertown back to life these past six years, he admits nothing could approach the thrill of being a member of the Dodger family, where he enjoyed friendships with the legendary likes of guys named Lasorda, Koufax and Scully.

But he knows the time has come to pack up those memories and get on with the rest of his life.

“I know I was just a small cog in the machine, but I was a part of something very special – the Dodger way, the O’Malley way, doing things and treating people the right way,” Callan said. “This hasn’t been a job as much as it’s been a lifestyle.

“I couldn’t ask for a better career,” he added. “Now I’m looking forward to the next chapter.”

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