Camelback Ranch: History in the Making

Unlike Randy Wolf, I put a lot of stock in the sentimentality of Dodger history. To be fair, the newest Dodger starting pitcher and Southern California native clearly cherishes the memories of watching the 1970's Dodgers during his most formative baseball years as a teen pitcher at El Camino Real High School. But, when asked about the glaring lack of historical identification at the Dodgers new spring training complex in Arizona, Wolf is indifferent.

"Honestly, there's not a ton of value for me in all that [historical paraphernalia]," Wolf said Saturday. "But it makes sense to be in Arizona. For the Dodger fans, it's a lot better a commute. It's gonna be incredible."

In some respects it already is.

The $113-million complex 363 miles from Dodger Stadium is, in many respects, a beautiful monument to baseball as it was intended. The sprawling, 13 ½ field complex (the half is for bunting drills) shared between the Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox includes at least 12 batting cages, a luxurious clubhouse for each team and grassy knolls on which fans can bathe under the desert sun while drinking in some baseball.

Players, coaches and fans seem genuinely thrilled with the confines and its proximity to Los Angeles. Players, like Wolf, raved about the lush grounds and wide-open spaces both in and around the stadium. The Dodgers locker room (or clubhouse, as they call it - a realistic departure from the literal connotation a "locker room" carries), is bigger than the one in Chavez Ravine and a cozy locker room specifically for coaches and Dodger Manager Joe Torre is a luxury the team's brain trust does not have back home.

While the outfield walls' main diamond is longer than at Dodger Stadium, the dimensions of a practice field less than 200 feet away that is used solely for the boys in blue is exactly the same. The distance from home plate to center field on that field is identical, as is the type of dirt used while the warning track is just as wide and the grass is cut the same height as back home.

Coaches lauded a small field for bunting - dubbed Maury Wills' pit for the Dodger coaches prolific ability to lay one down - while others generally reflected the widespread mood of the new training complex.

"It's great," first base coach Mariano Duncan said. "And it's only gonna get better."

Get being the operative word. Though Dodgers Vice President of Communications Josh Rawitch said the complex is "functionally complete," the stadium lacks a familiar feel the Dodgers in general and its owners specifically have gone to great lengths to sell: history.

The original Dodgertown in Vero Beach, FL, breathed its glorious past with regularity. It was not just a mere spring training complex, but an ongoing monument to the greatest Dodgers in the organization's 126 years replete with Vin Scully Blvd., fields that bore the memories of Dodger greats and scores of older fans willing to paint a portrait of Sandy Koufax as a young man.

There are some elements that have carried over from Vero Beach to Camelback Ranch, on which the new complex sits. The usual distance between players and fans so pervasive in major sports complexes is largely scaled back in Arizona, as it was in Florida. Players must walk from practice fields to the clubhouse along dirt paths with just a simple yellow rope separating them from gawkers; players, like Manny Ramirez (who was seen jumping into a crowd of fans Sunday) freely schmooze and signed autographs with ticket holders; and security is noticeably lax, an ethos that is stressed company-wide.

"That was by design," Rawitch said of the laid back guards. That design includes unsuspecting white shirts donned by each guard complemented by an easy demeanor that was on display during the weekend series.

Still, the proximity to Los Angeles was key for many fans, many said, allowing some to drive from point A to Point B in five hours instead of the five hour flight from LAX to Orlando Int'l Airport. Add to that the congenial feel of a resort-type atmosphere with meandering dirt paths, a river that snakes through parts of the complex and a pleasant Arizona sun and you have a comfortable baseball stadium. Which is fine and pleasant and perfectly acceptable.

But this is the Dodgers - an organization that single-handily integrated baseball and trots out its past almost as much as the Daughters of the American Revolution. Opening Day 2008 featured a dramatic, 30-minute ceremony in which great Dodger players from each decade were introduced, which is why it is so surprising that there is nothing unique about Camelback Ranch Stadium. In fact, there is barely any signage or overarching theme (say, a brushstroke of blue instead of brown swells of paint) that tells you this is a Dodger complex. To that end, officials said, that is not an oversight but a facet of this joint venture with the White Sox.

Based on interviews with Dodger players and personnel, that lack of branding is temporary. Each team seems to be feeling their way around this shared complex and seeking the best means to separately stamp their insignia on a complex that is not solely theirs.

The lack of Dodger personality is not the only thing about the complex that seems incomplete. Dirt roads were carved from scratch weeks ago and empty lots wait for developers to supplant mounds of mud with hotels, restaurants and shopping centers.

Still, for a team that wreaks of history and for owners as verbally proud of their teams past as they claim to be, it seems like a glaring omission that Don Drysdale Dr. has been replaced by...nothing.

Hopefully not symbolically, all that historical paraphernalia from Florida sits in a box somewhere on the new complex, according to Rawitch, who added that a means to honor the team's history is on the horizon.

That effort could include monuments of past Dodger greats along the river (which is filled with reclaimed water recycled throughout the stadium) and fields named for legends of yore.

"This was something that was completed in 16 months, where it was supposed to take 21 months," he said. "The focus was on getting it built. But throughout the process, [owners] Frank and Jamie [McCourt] made an effort to carry the history."

Helping out in the interim, Rawitch said, are coaches and team personnel who have helped relay the message of yore to younger players during the spring. One of those is Manny Mota, an all-star in his day who was as well known in Florida for riding his bicycle around Dodgertown as Lasorda was about eating pasta. His bike was plopped in front of the clubhouse this weekend, close to where he was was asked about the history, essentially saying that Rome wasn't built in a day.

"We just have to be here for 50 years," Mota said. "That's what makes history."