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Major league baseball may soon return to Dodgertown
BY IAN M. LOVE - MANAGING EDITOR (Week of March 12, 2009)

Dodgertown could have a new tenant before the end of the month, and county officials say it is a major baseball name – others hint it could even be Major League Baseball — that would bring instant credibility and year-round operations to the now empty facility.

The county has been working to line up a new lessee ever since terminating negotiations with the Baltimore Orioles, once the front-runner to take over Dodgertown, in January. Now, those efforts appear on the verge of success.

Officials have been careful not to divulge with whom they are holding discussions, but have said current plans call for the new organization to maintain the facility under the same $1 a year lease agreement the Dodgers enjoyed before skipping town for Arizona.

“We are hoping to have this done in the next couple of weeks,” said County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan, who added that the county has not signed a confidentiality agreement, as was the case with the Orioles, but the party has asked not to be identified until a contract is signed.

Tom Colucci, executive director of the Treasure Coast Sports Commission, told Vero Beach 32963: “I have no idea what is being discussed, I just know it has something to do with Major League Baseball.”

Under the proposed agreement, which has not yet been committed to paper, the entity that takes over Dodgertown would use the facility for its own baseball-related purposes and sublet the property to other groups interested in using Holman Stadium and the other fields on the property throughout the year.

In addition, the county would be off the hook for upkeep of Dodgertown, which had been estimated at about $100,000 a month (but ran under $60,000 in February), and would only need to spend a fraction of the $13 million the Orioles were asking on stadium improvements.

The Dodgertown golf course, which the Orioles had coveted for development as a retail outlet, would remain property of the city. Vero Beach had offered the golf course to help entice Baltimore to move from Fort Lauderdale, but the City Council’s stated preference all along has been to maintain the land as green space.

At present County Commissioners are looking for the first draft of that contract, O’Bryan said. “We are just waiting to get a written response and see if it looks like all the things we have been talking about are in the proposal,” he added. O’Bryan said if the two sides are close, it should not take long to complete the deal and turn the keys over to the new owners.

Among the groups that had previously expressed an interest in Dodgertown was RussMatt Baseball, which claims to be the largest operator of college baseball spring break tournaments in the United States.

But Director Dave Barnard said after initial discussions with County Administrator Joe Baird in January, he has heard nothing since.

“I am hoping to speak with (Baird), while I am down here,” said Barnard, whose operation is in full swing in Winterhaven this year, but is looking to expand in 2010. “I have sent e-mails and called those folks, but nothing. I was working with Tom Colucci to reach out to the county.”

The county also has held discussions with Minor League Baseball, which has its headquarters in St. Petersburg and provides administrative oversight of almost all minor league baseball leagues in the country. The organization also runs umpiring schools and camps.

Those talks with Minor League President Pat O’Conner have been described as informational in nature. When contacted by Vero Beach 32963, spokesman Steve Densa provided the same answer he did a month ago.

“Discussions are on-going, but there is nothing to announce at this time,” he said via e-mail.

Major League Baseball has not been mentioned as a potential new tenant of Dodgertown before, but it would make an interesting choice as it holds instructional leagues, umpiring schools and national and international player combines, all operations that have been suggested uses by the organization under consideration.

For his part Baird said he is anxious to make an announcement, but at this point the negotiations need to remain confidential.

“Believe me the sooner the better,” Baird said. “Nobody wants to get this off the books more than Joe Baird.”

Also under discussion is for the new tenant to take over the conference facility, which could be a boon to the county after about 100 of those workers were let go when the Dodgers vacated.

Officials were unclear if the hoped-for new tenant would operate the conference center on its own, or hire an outside company to oversee those operations.

While finding an organization to replace the Los Angeles Dodgers seems to be moving in a positive direction, it is difficult to calculate the loss of spring training to Vero Beach.

In recent weeks, the New York Times ran a story on Dodgertown being a ghost town these days, and the Wall Street Journal, in an otherwise positive article on Vero Beach, also noted the lack of spring-training baseball after 60 years of the Dodgers.

The silent spring has even had an effect on the County Commissioners. O’Bryan, who has been closely involved with trying to bring baseball back, said the complex is eerily quiet, when it should be bustling with fans from here and around the country.

“I was out there last Friday,” he said. “I was sitting in the empty stands (conducting an interview) and it was about 10 minutes before a game should have been underway, and the place was just empty. “We’ve got to get baseball back being played there. “ O’Brian said. I am very hopeful.”