VERO, BEACH FLORIDA – The Dodgers MLB franchise sure has a way of breaking the hearts of towns that love them.
First, back in 1957, “Dem Bums” — as they were then-affectionately known — jilted Brooklyn and split for the riches of Los Angeles. To this day, Brooklynites old enough to remember the move are still bitter over the breakup.
Meanwhile, for over fifty years both the Brooklyn and L.A. versions of the Dodgers had made Vero Beach, Florida, their spring training home — the team’s complex was famously known as Dodgertown.
Mention Vero to any diehard baseball fan over 20 and they automatically associate it with the Dodgers.
But then in 1998, the O’Malley family — which had bought the team in 1950 and then set up spring camp in Vero — sold the Dodgers to News Corp., which later sold them to Frank McCourt. Soon after, McCourt moved Dodgers spring training to Arizona, opting for scorching heat over the balmy breezes of Florida’s Atlantic Coast.
The residents of this laid back seaside community were greatly saddened but, unlike Brooklyn, there was no rancor over the move. Instead, they choose to wistfully remember — and miss — the good ol’ days.
The team may have left this sleepy little burg, but many of its players have chosen to stay. A great many Dodgers fell in love with the Rockwellian feel and beauty of Vero Beach and made it their permanent home.
For starters, there’s Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. Among others, Rick Monday, former outfielder and current Dodgers broadcaster lives here, too.
Many ex-Brooklyn Dodgers from the ’50s who now play on Heaven’s team, like Clem Labine, once called Vero home sweet home as well.
Then there’s Ron Perranoski, who set the team record for saves during his nine seasons as an L.A. Dodgers closer and then spent another twenty-one seasons as a pitching coach for the ballclub.
Each night after 8 p.m., you can find Ron, now retired, holding court at Billy’s Beach Bar and Restaurant on tony Ocean Drive in Vero.
The best bar seat in the house, with unobstructed views of all the big screen TVs carrying sports of all sorts, is reserved for Perranoski.
Ron is always surrounded and fussed over by a sea of regulars. Like a present day Moses, MAS recently parted that sea to have a nearly two-hour sit down with the ex-Dodger lefty.
While Ron sipped scotches (that he NEVER had to pay for — others vied for that honor) and MAS pounded Miller Lites (which MAS ALWAYS had to pay for), Perranoski regaled yours truly with tons of Dodgertown tales, some of which had a Japan pro baseball connection.
“It was a magical time,” Ron said of the springs the Dodgers spent in Vero, especially during the 1950s and early ’60s when they were the class of the National League. “You had Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson — my gosh, some of the most famous names in baseball history.
“The whole format of Dodgertown was to give the fans an opportunity to intermingle with the players and communicate with them.”
Thus, it was a time when players and fans developed personal relationships.
“I remember when I was just a young kid in ’61, a fella named Booger Barrett and his wife befriended me,” Ron recalled. “They let me stay at their trailer home (instead of in the team’s barracks), used to barbecue steaks for me and drive me to practice each day.”
“Then, later on in my career,” Perranoski continued, “I would return the favor — fly them out to L.A. and have a white limousine pick them up at the airport. It was like Ma and Pa Kettle visit Hollywood.
“The Dodgers were always a part of the Vero people’s whole life; they really miss all that now.”
Perranoski remembered well the spring the Yomiuri Giants trained with the Dodgers in 1966 during the Giants’ V-9 Era, when they won nine straight Japan Series titles.
“They had an unbelievable work ethic,” recalled Ron. “They were great guys — all gentleman, we had a heckuva time; I used to throw barbecues for them.
“Sadaharu Oh, (Shigeo) Nagashima (Masaichi) Kaneda, their lefty pitcher were the only ones who could have played in the majors.”
“Now the Japanese players are bigger and stronger,” Ron continued, “That’s why you see so many in the majors.”
MAS asked Ron if that threesome ever expressed a desire to “defect” to MLB.
“No,” he replied, “they never even mentioned it.”
Of the Dodgers’ Vero departure, Perranoski says, “This town was devastated; Dodgertown was a tradition. But it was a business decision and, well, life goes on.”
Dodgertown is now Vero Beach Sports Village. It still houses Holman Stadium (named after the man who brokered the Dodgers move here) but, alas, just visiting youth teams train and play there, not the “Boys of Summer.”
MAS moved to Vero only a year ago. Yet, every time I drive by Dodgertown, I somehow still feel like my best gal just dumped me.
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