After Slow Start, Dodgertown Settling Into New Role
More and more, spring training has been moving west to Arizona, and even those teams that have remained in Florida have moved into new or renovated facilities in recent years.
That trend threatened to leave behind the history of Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., which the Dodgers abandoned in 2008 to move to a huge new facility in Arizona.
Rather than lying dormant, however, the former Dodgertown has been remade as a sports training and meeting facility, thanks to Minor League Baseball. The complex is now known as Vero Beach Sports Village, and it was abuzz with activity this spring.
And in many ways this is the reborn facility's first real spring training, with its name and marketing plan well in place and the facility's management having had plenty of time to attract teams and corporate groups.
Minor League Baseball took over management of the complex in May 2009—it's owned by Indian River County, and MiLB has a five-year lease with two five-year options—and then it struggled with finding a name for it. It wanted to keep the Dodgertown name because of its obvious recognition and cachet in the baseball community, but ultimately the Dodgers were not willing to let that happen. So last spring it settled on the Vero Beach Sports Village moniker and got down to marketing and booking. Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner is pleased with the early results.
"This is really the first year in our program and our marketing," he said. "We're not there yet, after stumbling and bumbling our way through the first 16-18 months. But we're finally getting traction on programming, the facility is looking good and we have a great staff.
"We're not where we want to be yet, but the future is absolutely on target with our vision."
In the first two months of the year alone, Vero Beach Sports Village welcomed the Chinese national boxing team for training, several umpiring clinics, a youth baseball tournament, a management meeting for the Papa John's pizza company, and a mascot "boot camp" conducted by Dave Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic.
And all of that activity peaked when more than 70 teams from 24 states, as well as Canada, came to the inaugural college and high school spring training event, scheduled to run through March 26 for college teams and April 23 for high school teams.
"We are very pleased with the number of schools that will be traveling to Vero Beach this spring," said Jeff Biddle, the facility's director of athletics and marketing. "Given that this is a first-year program, we see tremendous growth potential."
The event gave amateur teams access to the full amenities of a former major league spring training facility, including workout facilities; five full fields; eight indoor batting and pitching tunnels, equipped for live pitching or pitching machines; four outdoor batting tunnels with pitching machines; and 32 mounds and home plates set up for pitchers and catchers.
The spring training event comes after the inaugural Treasure Coast President's Day Challenge, which included more than 25 youth teams in a three-day event.
"The tournament was a great success. We had good competition and outstanding weather," Biddle said. "Based on the feedback that we have received from the teams that participated, I expect next year's tournament to be much bigger. We also expect a much bigger turn out in the younger age divisions because we will have our new youth fields in place."
Minor League Baseball is steadily building momentum in Vero Beach, though the challenges have been steep. O'Conner is optimistic now that people are finally getting to use the facility and see all the potential in it. Minor League Baseball has plans to open an umpiring school next year, with more to come.
"It's really good to see the kids on the field, and hear the families talk about all the history at the facility, not only with the Dodgers playing there, but also with players like Jackie Robinson having been there," he said. "Every day we're getting closer."