Orioles’ move west could provide blueprint for Nationals

SARASOTA -- When they spent their springs in Fort Lauderdale, the Baltimore Orioles dealt with all sorts of indignities, from a clubhouse that flooded any time there was a hard rain, to a stadium that was literally crumbling, to the constant roar of small jet planes from the executive airport adjacent to the facility. But the worst part was the travel. The majority of the Orioles’ road games during the Grapefruit League schedule were at least 1 1/2 hours away.

These days, the Orioles are living large and traveling light. They moved across the state to Sarasota in 2010 (into a facility that had been abandoned by the Cincinnati Reds), and this spring saw the first phase of a $31.2 million renovation completed. Ed Smith Stadium sparkles now, with beautiful Mediterranean architecture, fan-friendly concourses and 2,500 additional seats that pushed its capacity to about 9,000. The 25,000-square-foot building that houses the clubhouse and executive offices will be the next phase, and is expected to be completed by next spring.

Best of all, by moving their base to the center of baseball’s Gulf Coast cluster, the Orioles have reduced their travel burden significantly. Now, the vast majority of their road games are less than -- instead of more than -- 1 1/2 hours away.

The Orioles’ path west is one the Washington Nationals are exploring, with team officials <a href=”http://www.floridatoday.com/article/20110303/SPORTS/103030323/0/NEWS01/Washington-Nationals-ponder-move-from-Viera?odyssey=nav|head”>acknowledging</a> their interest in leaving their current home in Viera, on Florida’s east coast. Although the Nationals’ lease in Viera runs through 2017, it could be bought out.

The Nationals are exploring possible sites in both Florida and Arizona. (Arizona seems like a longshot, given its distance from the team’s Washington fanbase; no east-coast teams currently train in Arizona. But it’s worth noting that all 15 teams currently in Arizona are within a 40-mile radius of each other.) Not surprisingly, the Nationals cite travel and geographic issues as their primary motivation. As one of only four teams left on Florida’s east coast (along with the Mets, Cardinals and Marlins), the Nationals routinely travel more than two hours to play road games.

The most logical landing spot for the Nationals would be the Fort Myers facility being vacated by the Boston Red Sox (for whom the city of Fort Myers is building a new facility) after this spring. It’s not a perfect site, with a practice facility that is about a three-mile drive from the stadium. But with three teams in Fort Myers (the Twins also play there), and the Rays (in Port Charlotte) and Orioles also nearby, the team’s travel toll would be reduced greatly.

A move by the Nationals would leave the Mets, Marlins and Cardinals in a tenuous situation, stuck on an island of sorts on the east coast. But that’s not the Nationals’ problem. The Nationals simply want to get off this island and back to civilization.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.

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