When I first heard that the Dodgers would leave Vero Beach and move to Camelback Ranch, I knew that it was the end of an era, and that there would never in a million years be another place like Dodgertown. Sadly and happily, I was right! Dodgertown was a mythical place, where dreams were made and legends were galvanized. Dodgertown, Florida was a place where you could hear and feel the ghosts of the Walters, Campy, Gil, Jackie, Don and Branch dancing in the mid-afternoon humid breeze. It really wasn’t Dodgertown in the later years, as it evolved into ”Lasordaville”.
Tommy was god in Vero Beach, and when the Dodgers left, the ghosts left along with Tommy. Camelback Ranch is much bigger and so much more than Tommy Lasorda, not that Tommy isn’t still bigger than life (in more ways than one). I didn’t feel the ghosts last year (maybe they were still flying in, or maybe they just wanted to check the place out first), but this year, as I walked the paths to the minor league complex, I again heard the ghosts of the Walters, Campy, Gil, Jackie, Branch, Don and all the others dancing in the mid-afternoon Arizona sun. They were there – I felt them! This was their new home.
The Camelback Ranch facility, while it is not “Dodgertown” is a spectacular tribute to the Dodgers Player Development Commitment. It is not just a Spring Training Complex, but is a year-round rehab, training and nerve center for the Dodgers Minor League Operations. Part of the reason, the ghosts of Dodgers past, are dancing in the Arizona sun is because of who is in charge of the Dodgers Farm System – De Jon Watson. De Jon has been with the Dodgers for four years and his official title is Assistant General Manager – Player Development.
De Jon is a busy guy, Among his responsibilities are:
- Developing and evaluating all players in the Dodgers minor league system
- Appointing all minor league managers and coaching staffs
- Appointing all coordinators and instructors
- Overseeing winter league participation
- Overseeing Latin American player development
- Overseeing the relationship between the minor league clubs and the Dodgers
- Overseeing all minor league transactions
- Advising Ned Colletti on Major League acquisitions and 40-man roster moves
- Being husband of one and father to three
So, a typical day for him is 12-14 hours long, especially during the Spring. He travels most of the season to all the minor league affiliates, and while he maintains offices in Dodger Stadium and Camelback Ranch, his usual office is a hotel room. De Jon is obviously very bright, well-spoken, articulate and easy in his manner, but a guy I don’t think you want to cross. One thing that jumps out immediately to me is his passion for what he does. You can hear it, see it and feel it with every breath. I made the mistake of calling Great Lakes “Low A” and Inland Empire “High A.” De Jon set the record straight, and you could see his passion (and the fire in his eyes) as he explained that the Dodgers don’t differentiate between high A and low A, but feel they are both on the same level. The California League may have more hitting but the Mid West League has better pitching. He explained that he doesn’t feel there’s a difference between the two leagues, so if a player jumps from Great Lakes to Chattanooga he is not considered to be bypassing a step – both are A ball. End of story!
De Jon has helped implement a mentorship program whereby younger Spanish-speaking players are paired with an older player who speaks good English. The Dodgers start this even at Campo La Palmas in Santo Domingo, so that as the players develop they learn the English language and are able to easily communicate with anyone by the time they are at AA or AAA.
Not only is the Dodgers facility focused on physical development of the players, but De Jon sees the value the mental aspect of the game and actively tries to improve the mental performance of each players through the use of psychologists, and last season, an Aikido Master. Aikido training is mental as well as physical, emphasizing the ability to relax the mind and body even under the stress of dangerous situations.
That De Jon has such passion for his job bodes well for the Dodgers. His eyes light up as he talks about the youngsters from Odgen – Jerry Sands, Angelo Songco and Brian Cavazos-Galvez. His eyes flashed when asked why Blake DeWitt didn’t have a great season statistically “He was sent up and down seven times!”
A few other insights from De Jon:
- Ethan Martin and Nate Eavoldi will have the restraints lifted this year
- Martin may be at AA
- Pedro Baez can be a very good (not great) player
- On whether Josh Lindblom will start or relieve: “He’s in major league camp – I can’t say anything until he’s [mine].”
De Jon believes in giving youngsters all the tools they need to develop, and his passion to help them develop is what drives the Dodgers Farm System. I have a feeling that the best years are yet to come. Imagine what he could do if Logan White would draft him better players (that’s a joke)!