Being a Kid at Heart
By John Holzapfel aka jna1488
Can you remember the moment in your life when you became a sports fan? I was thinking about this the other day, and a flood of memories filled my mind about some of the happiest times in my life growing up and they all revolved around sports and sports cards. I am in my 30s now and still find myself acting like a little kid when I watch my favorite team on TV. I’ll throw a temper tantrum when my team is losing and gloat when they are winning. When I open a box of cards, I feel like its Christmas morning and there’s a pile of presents waiting for me to open. The speechlessness and the shaking you feel when you realize you’ve just pulled an autograph of your favorite player. Do we ever really grow up as sports fans? I have traced my memories back to the moment that the sports fan inside of me was born.
From big cities to the small sleepy little towns, the persistent plague of boredom looms inside every child’s mind. No matter how many toys, video games, or channels on TV a child has at their disposal. The same words seem to always come to life, “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do.” Hearing my kids saying these same words that I said to my parents some 30 years ago, brought me back to a time where my boredom was wiped away. It wasn’t because of a new video game or a new toy, we were too poor and with 6 of us kids it was a struggle for my parents to keep us all feed, let alone buy us an Atari or Nintendo. The boredom was wiped away because of a little sanctuary called Dodgertown, the spring training facility of the LA Dodgers.
The city of Vero Beach is a coastal retirement community in South Florida. The sidewalks roll up when the sun goes down, and if you don’t like hanging out at the mall or go surfing, you are pretty much out of luck when it comes to entertainment. Living in this town is like staying at your grandparent’s house every day, it does have its perks but you have to be on your best behavior at all times because someone is always watching. Dodgertown was one of the perks of living in a town like this; a place where the town comes together, no matter whether you are 8 or 80, this is a place where everyone becomes a kid again.
Before the Dodgers called Vero Beach home starting in 1948, the site where Dodgertown sat was home to the United States Naval Air Station. In 1942 the United States Navy notified the city of Vero Beach that their airport has been chosen for a Naval Air Station, and that the Navy purchased 1500 acres to build housing and offices for the Naval and Marine Corps personnel that were to train there. In the United States in the 1940s, the war effort was the priority. After the end of the war, the Naval Air Station Vero Beach was cut down to a minimal staff and later closed in 1947. Even though the Navy vacated the airport and the 1500 acres surrounding it, the U.S. government had guidelines that Vero Beach was to follow. The government had to approve the one who occupied the land and that all money made from the land went back into the airport. In 1947 Bud Holman, a local businessman and manger of the airport saw a lot of potential for the land and buildings that the Navy left. This was to be the beginning of a 60 year relationship between the Brooklyn Dodgers, later to be known as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Vero Beach, Florida.
In 1947, Bud Holman heard that the Brooklyn Dodgers were in search of a training facility inside the United States, and decided to approach Branch Rickey and executive with the Dodgers to pitch his proposal. Holman told Rickey that the land and the housing would be a perfect match with the Dodgers because at the time the Dodgers had 26 minor league teams due in part to Rickey’s feeling that player development was extremely important to baseball. There was also another hurdle that the Dodgers faced which was Jackie Robinson had just crossed the color barrier in 1947, and many towns in the South did not want any part of it. Vero Beach was different, even though racial tensions existed; the community had more acceptance than most. In 1948 the city of Vero Beach and the Brooklyn Dodgers had a deal, and Dodgertown was born.
I was 5 years old the first time I went to Dodgertown, to watch my first major league ball game. Being enrolled in tee ball for the first time, my parents wanted to see if baseball was something that would spark my interest and what better way to do it than to take me to a game. I really do not remember who the Dodgers were playing that day, but I do remember everything else. The feeling of excitement I had when we got out of the car and started to make our way to the stadium. I was nervous, and bouncing around not knowing what to expect, and the closer we got, the more nervous and excited I became. I could smell the concessions stands, the aroma of popcorn and Dodger Dogs being cooked filled the air even outside of the ball park. The closer we got the sounds of batting practice filled the air; the cracking of the bat, the smack of a ball being caught, the program salesman yelling “get your program”. This was just overwhelming, I couldn’t wait to get inside and see what all was going on.
We reached the gate and gave the tender our ticket and we were finally inside, but I still could not see anything but the concessions and the stairs leading up to what looked like nowhere. I started to run up the stairs to see where they led to and when I reached the top, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I stood at the top of the stairs, gazing at the biggest and greenest baseball field that I had ever seen; green mound of grass surrounding the outfield, with a giant scoreboard separating right and left field. The orange dirt of the diamond with players warming up for today’s game, the open dugouts full of coaches and player lining the first and third base line, the bull pen, one by right field and one by left field with pitchers and catchers playing catch. The seats of blue beginning to fill up with people coming to watch the game. This was the most amazing and beautiful sight that I had ever seen. I still was bursting with excitement but I couldn’t move or speak, I was too memorized by everything that was happening in front of my eyes. After a few minutes, I realized that my parents were standing behind me smiling down to me overjoyed in my excitement.
We started to make our way to our seats which was on the home side of the field so we had to walk around to the third base line. On the way we passed by more concessions and souvenir stand and stopped to look around. This being my first game, my dad wanted to get me something to remember this day, so he bought me a miniature bat and a pack of cards. I became fascinated by this pack of cards. I wasn’t allowed to open it until we got to our seats so my excitement began to build again. When I thought that this day could not get any better, this little pack of cards came into my life. Reaching our seats I ripped into the pack and found a stick of gum and like any other kid I threw it into my mouth and chomped on it while I thumbed through my cards. My dad was watching me flip through the cards and started to point out players that were on the cards some of them where on the field in front of me. That was all it took, this day, this game and this little pack of cards turned me into a fan and a collector for life. This is the moment where it all began.
As I got older, Dodgertown became a bigger part of my life. During the spring, my friends and I watched all the practices and the games. We got to know a lot of the players and coaches because we were starting to become permanent fixtures at the field. We would get yelled at by Tommy Lasorda a few times a day without a fail because we were keeping his players from practice. We became such regulars that the people taking the tickets would let us watch the games for free just as long as we didn’t attract too much attention to ourselves, but being a group of boys we always seemed to draw attention. What started out to be a spring hangout soon began to turn into a season hangout. We started to watch the many minor league teams who came to practice and play at Dodgertown, which made this place become an even bigger part of my life.
As life went on this place that I loved as a boy grew further away from me, and I moved on to other things to occupy my time, even though the love of sports and the collecting of cards was still with me, I didn’t seem to have the time anymore. I moved away from Dodgertown for a time, finished high school and joined the Army not having been back to the training fields of Dodgertown for years. After getting discharged from the Army I met my wife and we both end up getting a job at the same place that gave me so many childhood memories. During the years between my absence from Dodgertown, I lost the love of baseball that I had when I was younger, the lockouts and the greed that I didn’t see as a child but became visible as I got older turned me off. I still had a love for sports and sports cards but was geared more towards football and Nascar, and not baseball.
During my employment with the Dodgertown Conference and Convention Center, I started to regain a spark of excitement that I had felt for this place years before. It wasn’t as strong as it was when I was 5 but it was there. My work at Dodgertown was in the food service area, I ran the buffet line for the guests and players that visited. In my youth I had no idea what went on here when baseball wasn’t in season, but I was beginning to see that there were all types of events and activities all year long. It was my first month working there when we had to get ready for a 2 week baseball fantasy camp. I had heard about fantasy camps before but I really didn’t know all that went on during one. I knew that people paid a lot of money to attend to live out their fantasy of being a professional ball player. This particular camp was a Dodger Blue Fantasy camp. The people that I worked with, many of whom had worked here for years and had been through many fantasy camps started to tell me some of the people who attend these as guest coaches. Among the names were many that I had recognized such as; Duke Snider, Maury Wills, Clem Labine, Carl Erskine, Sandy Koufax, and Ralph Branca. At first I thought they were kidding but the following week I found out that they weren’t…
When the camp started I was finding it hard to work, because I was surrounded by baseball greats that I had only heard stories about from my dad. I never would have thought back when my dad was telling me these stories, that I would ever have the chance to met them, but here I was in the middle of a Brooklyn and LA Dodger reunion. When I was at work employees were not allow to fraternize with the guests, which was extremely difficult for me because I had so many questions I wanted to ask, but I contained myself and kept my mouth shut. A couple of days into the camp during breakfast, a group came through the line, I recognized a couple from the group being Erskine, Snider, and Labine. I was professional and greeted them as they made their way through the line answering any questions they may have had. I was shaking with excitement; I was having a hard time trying to contain it when Duke Snider asked me what my name was. I was in shock; Duke Snider wanted to know my name. I told him my name and that I was a fan, even though I was too young to have ever seen him play. He then introduce himself and the two that were in line with him, and I let them know that I knew who they were and shook their hand. This moment right there was the moment that the spark I felt when I started this job grew into a flame.
My very first meeting with Duke Snider started a landslide of introductions during this camp and spreading to the other camps and onto spring training. I had the opportunity to meet a long list of retired greats and active players, and as the years passed I became somewhat of friends with many that I met. Even though fraternization with the guest was looked down upon, but the guests have the last say so. One of my favorite people that I got to meet and was on first name basis with was Tommy Lasorda. This was the man that yelled at me and my friends for distracting his players. What I remembered about Lasorda was he loves to yell at everyone. Once I got to know him I realized that was just his nature, but he was one of the nicest people that I met at Dodgertown, you just had to get to know him.
The number of people that I met during the camps and spring training kept growing, greats would introduce me to players, players would introduce me to coaches, and coaches would introduce me to more players. Me being a card collector, the thought of autographs crossed my mind but I was enjoying talking to these players more than just asking for their signature. The first time I got autographs came on mine and my wife’s day off. The day before our day off, Duke Snider and Maury Will sat down at the same picnic table where we were taking a break at. I had talked to them about our son who started little league and was getting discouraged because his team wasn’t that great. They asked my wife if we would bring our son up so they would have a chance to meet with him and talk. This absolutely floored me and my wife, the thought that these two legends would want to take the time out for our son was amazing. I let them know that we were planning on bringing him up there on our day off which happened to be the next day, and the smiled and told us to make sure that we found either one of them as soon as we got there. We agreed that we would, and I felt the love that I had for this game starting to burn strong again.
When we arrived at Dodgertown my son was nervous and as excited as I was 30 years earlier when I came to this place for my first time. He told me and his mom that he was so nervous because he did not know who he was going to be meeting. As we were walking to the field where we knew either Maury or Duke would be at, our son was trying to hide behind us. We walked up to a group of people who were surrounding a golf cart; news reporters and autograph hounds trying to get the attention of the person driving the golf cart. Just as we saw who was driving Duke Snider noticed us and waved us to his cart. At this moment I got a little nervous because everyone who was trying to get Dukes attention was now focused on us. We got to the cart and Duke stuck out his hand and introduced himself to our son “hi there I’m Mr. Snider, and who might you be?’ I know my son was so nervous because of all the people around us, but he mustered up the courage to introduce himself. At this time, Duke told the reporters and the people around us that he was sorry to cut it short but he needed to spend some time with an up and coming ball player. Everyone seemed to respect what he said and left us alone. He then asked my son to get in the passenger seat of the golf cart because there was a lot of people who wanted to meet him, at this moment the nervousness seem to leave my son and he relaxed and acted more like himself. Duke Snider told me and my wife that he was going to take our son around for awhile which was fine with us, and they sped off towards the practice fields.
The thoughts that I had about this day brought me back to my childhood, spending so much time at this place. I took my wife around sharing my memories with her and telling the stories as they flooded into my head walking in the same steps that I took so many years ago. At the end of the day when we met back up with our son and Duke Snider, the smile that was on our sons face reminded me of the smile that I had when I was five. His arms were full of signed baseball that he had received throughout the day. As the reporters and fans surrounded the golf cart again we thank Duke and made our way back home, on the way my son told us that this was one of the best days of his life.
On St Patrick’s Day in 2007 the Los Angeles Dodgers played their last game at Dodgertown, 61 years of tradition came to an end, the Dodgers moved to their new multimillion dollar spring training facility in Glendale Arizona. The past 61 years, Vero Beach has played host to some of the greatest ball players to ever play the game; Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills, Steve Sax, Orel Hershiser, Mike Piazza, and on and on. The history of this place is etched in the minds of so many people who came to it to be a part of baseball history.
Dodgertown was the place that made me a sports fan, not only a sports fan but a fan of sports cards. Even though Dodgertown is now gone, every time I open a pack of cards I become that 5 year old kid again. Many of you know the feeling that I am talking about, when It comes to our hobby we go from an adult to a 5 year old in the matter of seconds.
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