Vero Beach, Fla. — Like locusts they come, transistor radios protruding from shirt pockets; often a folding beach chair in each hand (their only protection against a sellout); their wives one step back and two to the side.
It is a tableau that is played at this time of year all over Florida, where 18 of major league baseball's 26 teams go for spring training. Most of the crowds are middle-age or older, but they still eat hotdogs, yell at the umpires, and buy souvenirs.
It is possible to paint a word picture of spring training the same way it is possible to paint a landscape on a postage stamp. But mostly it is something that has to be experienced personally to enjoy and catch its full flavor.
Basically it is baseball's version of Alice in Wonderland, and it's just about as far removed from the real world.
There was a time in the early 1920s when six weeks of spring training cost clubs only a few thousand dollars. Players bunked in second-rate hotels; got by on meal money of $2 or $3 a day; did their own laundry; changed into their uniforms in their rooms; and ran to the ballpark and back as part of getting in shape.
Today we have what are called spring training complexes, and most of them are excellent. But the Taj Mahal of such facilities is a former World War II Naval Air Station here, that since 1948 has been the spring home of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The area, called Dodgertown, is the only privately-owned baseball training camp of its size in the country. The original 40-acre site has grown to 450 acres as the team purchased additional land over the years from the city of Vero Beach. The club spent $102,000 in local property taxes in 1981 and has 220 full-time employees here with an annual payroll of $1.3 million.
The facilities today are a far cry from the original ones.Players who were once housed in old wooden barracks now contemplate their batting averages in a modern 90-unit rambling motel structure. Each unit is built to hold two adults comfortably and has plush Dodger-blue carpeting; wood paneling on at least one wall; air conditioning; color television; and maid and laundry service.
Most of the players who live at Dodgertown are single and like the convenience of eating at the complex's four-star restaurant, which has 20 tables with a seating capacity of 160. Married players with families either rent homes or live in hotels at or near Vero Beach.
The main building contains 23,000 square feet and includes the following: a major league clubhouse; a minor league clubhouse; a medical department; dining room and kitchen; main lobby; movie theater; radio and recording studio; photo darkroom; Western Union office; press working area; trainer's room; interview room; stadium club lounge; equipment room; and two laundry rooms. Outside there is a huge swimming pool, a basketball court, shuffleboard courts, and four tennis courts, two of which are lighted.
Holman Stadium, named for a local businessman who spearheaded the drive to bring the then-Brooklyn Dodgers here in 1948, has a seating capacity of 5,000. It also has eight light towers for night ball. When the stadium sells out, which is every game, the Dodgers' take is reportedly close to $25,000. Standing room for games here has become a way of life.
Adjoining the main stadium are three practice fields and two golf courses -- an 18-hole championship course called Dodger Pines, plus a 9-holer. Located on the perimeter of the golf courses are 45 residences, and beyond that are a small lake, stocked with fish, and a 41-acre citrus grove. It is also possible to land jets at Dodgertown airport, and five minutes after deplaning to have walked to one's motel room.
Although players are bused to most road games, extended trips to Fort Lauderdale and Miami, for example, are made on the team's own jet, an airliner whose original seating capacity has been cut from 150 seats to 75. This was done partly so that tables could be installed between facing seats and partly to give today's bigger player more leg room.
After spring training, Dodgertown becomes a conference center that has often been rented to some of the largest business corporations in the country. But by mid-July it is once again a sports facility, this time the training site of the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League. Holman Stadium is also the home field of the Vero Beach Dodgers of the Class A Florida State League, an LA farm club.
The relaxing, informal atmosphere of spring training is of course one of its charms. Returning from a movie one night last March at Dodgertown, I walked into my room and found Fernando Valenzuela stretched out on my bed. He was there for a visit with my roommate, Rudy Garcia, sports editor of LA Opinion, the country's largest Spanish-language newspaper.
My exclusive interview with Valenzuela turned out to be a quick Spanish lesson from Garcia. It only took me 15 minutes to learn to say: Le gustaria otra almohada?m
Translation: Would you like another pillow?