Beginning Of The End?

VERO BEACH, Fla.–The Vero Beach Dodgers are leaving town, but the Los Angeles Dodgers are staying–at least for the time being.

The Los Angeles Dodgers announced they are moving their high Class A affiliate to San Bernardino, Calif. (the Inland Empire franchise in the California League), while the Devil Rays will move into Dodgertown and take over the affiliation with Vero Beach in the Florida State League.

Dodgers officials said the decision was not based on a desire for the club to leave Vero Beach, but people outside the organization interpret the move as the team’s first step toward moving its spring training base to Arizona.

“The primary reason for moving the team is to have the prospects closer to our baseball operations folks, so it is a little easier to monitor their development,” said Camille Johnston, Dodgers senior vice president of communications. “It also provides an opportunity for some of our major league players to have a quick rehab stint nearby.”

The Dodgers will return to Vero Beach for spring training in 2007, and their Rookie-level Gulf Coast League team and minor league rehabilitation site will remain at Dodgertown. “At this point there is no change in that status,” she said.

But the Dodgers have been linked to potential spring training sites in Glendale and Goodyear, two Phoenix suburbs that are trying to get state money to build two-team complexes. The Indians have already signed an agreement to move to Goodyear if that complex gets built, but the Dodgers are believed to prefer Glendale.

Vero Beach city manager Jim Gabbard said Craig Callan, Dodgers vice president of spring training and minor league facilities, told him about a week ago the Vero Beach Dodgers were leaving and he informed council members then.

“Obviously, we love the Dodgers and would have liked to have kept the team here, but I think it’s basically a business decision,” Gabbard said.

At the same time, Gabbard said he is excited about the Devil Rays minor league affiliate coming to town. “We are just glad to have baseball, and we think it will be a smooth transition,” he said.

Indian River County administrator Joe Baird said the county’s agreement with the Dodgers allows for the affiliation change, but he said the county tried to keep the Vero Beach Dodgers in Dodgertown.

“There is a lot of tradition with the Vero Beach Dodgers; that is the bad part,” Baird said. “It is disappointing, but sometimes you have to accept what is going to happen and move on.”

Baird also confirmed with Callan the Dodgers will remain in Vero Beach for spring training for now. He said he believes the Dodgers will eventually move elsewhere for spring training, however, and the county is already considering who might replace them.

“It appears more and more that they are leaving, and we are going to look at other teams,” Baird said.

Gabbard said the Dodgers have been talking with other teams about possibly moving in the future, but he said he hopes team officials will realize “we want them very badly here” and the best decision is for them to stay.

As for the “Baby Dodgers,” as they’re known locally, they will now play for the Inland Empire 66ers, while the Devil Rays will happily return to the Florida State League after six seasons in the Cal League. The Vero Beach franchise will get a new name, but that has not been settled on yet.

Devil Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Gerry Hunsicker said the change in affiliation worked out well for both teams involved.

“From a timing standpoint, (for) both our affiliate in Visalia and the Dodgers in Vero Beach, those agreements were up, and it was a matter of the Dodgers wanting to get to California, and we were trying to get closer to home,” Hunsicker said.

Though the Dodgers had an FSL team in Vero Beach since 1980, the opportunity to return to California was appealing. The Dodgers used to operate with Class A franchises in both the FSL and Cal League–and in fact were affiliated with San Bernardino from 1995-2000–but Major League Baseball began requiring teams to maintain only one high Class A affiliate along with one low Class A affiliate in 2001.

“It’s an nice opportunity for Dodger fans here to get to know the new Rookie players, and we have been affiliated with this organization in the past,” Johnston said.

While Dodgers fans in Vero Beach are losing a chance to follow players in their team’s minor league system, the Devil Rays said they are excited about the move to Vero Beach.

“Vero Beach, with the long tradition it has had, it has always been one of the best facilities in Florida, and it has that special charm,” Hunsicker said. “It is a great environment for our young players.”

The Devil Rays signed an agreement in September to move their spring training operations to a renovated complex in Port Charlotte, Fla., beginning in 2009. That could coincide with the Dodgers’ move to Arizona, so the Vero Beach FSL franchise could also move to Port Charlotte, a more natural fit if the team remains a Devil Rays affiliate.

Laurel Schiffel covers the Florida State League for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, where this story originally appeared.