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Dodgertown Elementary is one of the few reminders of the Dodgers' 61-year spring training history in Vero Beach. / Guy Tubbs/news-press.com

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Video: Vero Beach moves on following Dodgers' departure

Photos: Vero Beach Sports Village | Historic Dodgertown

VERO BEACH — Outside of the Vero Beach Sports Village, the complex formerly known as Dodgertown, there’s few overt reminders of the 61 springs the “Boys of Summer” spent in the city before relocating to Arizona following the 2008 exhibition season.

“As new people move into the community they don’t have that nostalgic feeling,” said Indian River County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan, who’s lived in Vero Beach for 29 years. “Every year that goes by, there’s less and less of that out there.”

A true affinity existed between the Dodgers and Vero Beach, one that other spring training locales envied. Part of it stemmed from the sheer length of the relationship, a time during which both grew in stature. The Dodgers won all five of their world championships as spring residents of Vero Beach, while the city’s population increased more than fivefold from the 3,000 residents present when the team arrived in 1948.

But much of the warmth extended from the Dodgers’ owners, first Walter O’Malley, then his son Peter, and their affection for and commitment to Vero Beach.

No endeavor symbolized that commitment quite like the team’s contribution to a troubled elementary school, located in the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhood of Gifford.

In 1986, 90 percent of the 310 students at Clemann Elementary came from single-parent homes and more than half qualified for the subsidized lunch program, both the highest in the Indian River County school district.

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That same year, the Dodgers accepted a proposal to “adopt” the school but did much more than write a check. The team designed and funded a facelift for the school, complete with Dodger blue paint, new office furniture, baseball light fixtures and the renaming of classrooms after legendary players like Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider.

Clemann also got a new name — Dodgertown Elementary.

Almost overnight, a school parents once resisted their children attending became the envy of its district neighbors.

“It was really uplifting,” said Carol Gollnick, an administrative assistant to the principal at Dodgertown, who has worked at the school for 40 years. “It definitely built morale and gave the children the incentive to try harder.”

During spring training, Dodgers like Orel Hershiser, Darryl Strawberry, Steve Sax and manager Tommy Lasorda would visit the school to deliver motivational talks and distribute free tickets and baseball equipment. Their messages resonated far beyond what the students heard daily from their classroom teachers.

“The kids would be ecstatic, ‘This is Dodger Day, someone is coming out,’” said Rodney McGriff, a custodian at Dodgertown Elementary and a Gifford resident. “The encouragement it gave to those kids carried them a long way.”

That connection abruptly ended after the 2007-08 school year when the Dodgers relocated their spring training operations to Arizona, taking the “Dodgertown” trademark with them. The school is the only property in Vero Beach with permission to use the name.

“We try and keep the baseball theme incorporated in everything we do,” said Takeisha Harris, who’s in his third year as the school’s principal. “But their presence and support is definitely missed.”

Harris said the school’s enrollment has dropped every year since the Dodgers left Vero Beach. In 2011, the Indian River County school superintendent recommended closing Dodgertown Elementary, but the school board rejected the proposal.

“We just don’t have that draw anymore, that boost,” Harris said. “I would love to have something like that to pull the parents in.”

McGriff said it’s an impact the school can never hope to replicate.

“When you have something as great as the Dodgers and they leave and nothing replaces it, what else do the kids have,” he said. “Now everything is FCAT and putting so much pressure on them.

“When I see those kids who were here when the Dodgers were, they’re grown now, they all say the same thing.

“It’s just not the same.”

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