NOAH ADAMS, host:
Spring training just ain't what it used to be. Baseball's annual warm-up is wrapping up a major consolidation. Next year, half of all teams will get ready for the upcoming season within 50 miles of each other around Phoenix, Arizona. As NPR's Ted Robbins reports, that change and others has some old-timers remembering.
TED ROBBINS: Spring Training 2010, Camelback Ranch, Glendale, Arizona, a 13,000-seat, sunken stadium with natural stone veneers and a fish-stocked lake separating the facilities of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox. Even the tickets approach regular-season prices.
Unidentified Woman: So I'm going to get you seats one and two. Total is going to be $52.
ROBBINS: Billy DeLury is having a hard time getting used to this place. The skinny, bespectacled 76-year-old drives around in a golf cart comparing the luxury here to the former military barracks the Dodgers slept in at Vero Beach, Florida, when he joined the team as a 17-year-old office boy in 1951.
Mr. BILLY DeLURY: Three outs, four balls, three strikes, nine innings. That's all the same, but mostly everything else has changed.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Announcer #1: Spring is here. Well, baseball is, anyway, as the Yankees train at Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Unidentified Announcer #2: The Dodgers trained at Clearwater, Florida, coached by Ben Egan(ph) with Zack Wheat(ph) as captain.
ROBBINS: In the early days, teams trained wherever it was warm and cheap: Havana; New Orleans; Catalina Island; Waxahachie, Texas. They didn't care if other teams were nearby.
Mr. CHARLES FOUNTAIN (Author, "Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training"): Early spring training back in the 19th century was a fat farm. It was a way to get the players literally into shape.
ROBBINS: Charles Fountain is author of "Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training." In the early days, he says games between teams came only toward the end of spring training. Billy DeLury, who worked his way up to team travel manager, remembers how the Dodgers and the then-Boston Braves would get on a train and barnstorm north, playing each other.
Mr. DeLURY: We would stop at, say, Jacksonville, maybe Savannah, maybe Richmond, Washington, Baltimore. Sometimes you would lay over that night. Sometimes you wouldn't. We'd go on to the next town.
ROBBINS: Charles Fountain says gradually, owners started to see a bigger opportunity.
Mr. FOUNTAIN: Somewhere around the mid-1980s people suddenly discovered that hey, we're getting fans out to games here and they're putting money in our coffers.
ROBBINS: Spring training became a marketing tool. Having a major league team gave towns in Arizona and Florida prestige. City leaders offered deals, often fancy new municipal stadiums. And every year or two, teams moved a little closer to one another. Now, 15 major league teams play in central Florida. The other 15 play here in Arizona.
The Camelback Ranch complex has 12 practice diamonds, including exact replicas of Dodger Stadium in L.A. and U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. Billy DeLury marvels at the fancy facilities today's athletes have.
Mr. DeLURY: I mean, the equipment in the training room, 40 years ago, all there was in there was a whirlpool, and that was it.
ROBBINS: A whirlpool bath?
Mr. DeLURY: A whirlpool and a bottle of alcohol and some liniment, and that was it. But you walk into a training room today, it looks like some Mayo Clinic for crying - with all the machines they got in there.
ROBBINS: It's probably no coincidence that upscale spring training facilities followed multimillion-dollar salaries for baseball players. Back in the '40s, when former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda played, guys came to camp out of shape because they couldnt afford to stay in shape.
Mr. TOMMY LASORDA (Former Manager, Los Angeles Dodgers): We had to work in the off-season. We had to go out and get a job because, you know, we weren't making money in those days.
Mr. CASEY BLAKE (Baseball Player, Los Angeles Dodgers): Yeah, you know, it's not like that anymore.
ROBBINS: Now, Dodger third baseman Casey Blake says you have to arrive ready to go. The fans expect it.
Mr. BLAKE: Because you start playing games right away. So they expect you to be in pretty good shape.
ROBBINS: With big salaries and agents, there's also been a subtle power shift in spring training.
Larry Bowa was an all-star infielder in the '70s. Now, he's a Dodger coach.
Mr. LARRY BOWA (Coach, Los Angeles Dodgers): When I played, the manager told you when that was your last at-bat. Players now come up and say, that's it, I had enough today. I ain't never seen that, but that's the way it is.
ROBBINS: Still, the objective for a coach or manager in spring training is the same: to figure out which players you can count on, which you have to coddle and how to get them all playing as a team.
For fans, well, the lure is pretty much the same, too: a chance to get out of the cold and into the sun and a chance to experience big-league ball in an intimate setting.
Mr. LASORDA: What grade are you in, first?
Unidentified Child: No, kindergarten.
Mr. LASORDA: Kindergarten? Man, you are smart.
ROBBINS: Fans can get autographs and pictures from legends like Tommy Lasorda.
Unidentified Person: Ready, one, two, three.
Unidentified Child: Thank you.
Mr. LASORDA: You're welcome.
ROBBINS: Who cares if the pitchers aren't throwing a lot of strikes yet, or that the starting lineups only play four innings? It's spring training. The sun is out, you can see your team up close, and the season is just days away.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, from the Cactus League.
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