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New Nats fans flock to spring training camp as interest in team surges

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Viera, Fla. — Last year, the insurgent Nationals snuck up on Washington fans. This year, the fans are ready.

After their surprise breakout in 2012, interest in the team’s annual spring training camp, which began this weekend, has surged. Sales of travel packages have jumped more than 200 percent over last year as more Nats fans have vied to get a head start on 2013.

“We actually had to bring in a second hotel to accommodate everybody,” said Lisa Goularte of Sports Marketing USA, the California-based travel broker that arranges spring training packages for the Nationals and 20 other major league teams. Nats packages jumped more than any team’s and sold out by mid-January.

“That’s a first for the Nats,” she said. “The excitement around the Nationals has been extraordinary.”

In a harbinger of what may be a big bandwagon year for a perennially losing club, the sleepy preseason rite of spring has become more crowded and inevitably, veteran fans lamented, more formal.

“Now we’ve got all these people hanging on the fences, but we can’t get as close to the players,” Mike Moore, a Falls Church native and frequent spring training visitor, complained during a team workout. “I guess that comes with being a winning team.”

It was Opening Day-minus-five-weeks on a Friday morning, and red-clad migrants from the Washington area were draped along the chain link surrounding one of the four practice fields at Space Coast Stadium, the Nats’ Viera home. An osprey flew sorties over the crowd, fetching sticks for its nest in one of the stadium light towers. Bryce Harper signed anything fans could squeeze through the gate as giddy young boys jostled with cheerless autograph dealers to catch the eye of the 20-year-old phenom. 

“Nick, push it through,” urged Jeff Kuntz, a wireless-technology executive from Great Falls. 

“Pretty cool,” Nick Boushell, his 18-year-old nephew, said emerging from the scrum with a Harper-ized baseball. He wore a (Gio) Gonzalez for President T-shirt.

“Good job, buddy,” Kuntz said.

It was winning that brought Kuntz, 47, and five brothers and nephews down from Severna Park and Great Falls. Longtime season ticket holders, they had been talking for years about a pilgrimage to Viera. After the team charged to a division championship and a thrilling playoff  run last fall, they decided to book some February rooms at the La Quinta in nearby Cocoa Beach.

“Last season, that finally created the impetus for us to come down,” Kuntz said. 

It’s the idea that the team may be even better this year that makes these fans want to go all in from the very first pitch. “If they go all the way, and they could, we’ll never forget that we were down here at the very beginning,” Stephen Boushell, 15, said.

A few yards behind them, pitcher Drew Storen warmed up, snapping a towel violently through his fastball motion. The memory of the Nationals’ sudden collapse in the final inning of Game 5, with Storen pitching, has also weighed on the offseason psyche of Nats fans. Seeing the squad work out, brawny and confident in the Florida sun, was a chance to reboot for many. 

“It’s kind of a cleansing experience after the long winter and the way the season ended,” said Jaime Wright, a phys-ed teacher at Indian Head Elementary in Charles County, who came down with his brother. “But now it’s going to feel like a long time before they actually get this season started.”

Sunshine and baseball

For some, it was latitude as much as Natitude that brought them to spring training; the temperature was in the 80s for the team’s first preseason games, against the New York Mets on Saturday and the Florida Marlins on Sunday. 

In the days leading up to their debut, the Nats’ training routine allowed fans a morning of baseball workouts followed by an afternoon at the beach, the nearby Kennedy Space Center or one of the many waterside deck bars along highway A1A. 

Starting Saturday, the pace picked up with games against other Grapefruit League teams almost daily for the rest of the preseason. The Nats have begun mounting the kind of spring crowds that older teams have long enjoyed.

“The Nats didn’t really have a spring training scene until now,” said Mike Vasiliauskas, an English teacher and former Montreal Expos fan from Maine. He and his wife, Mary, who both transferred their affections to the Nats, have driven the 30 hours to Florida since 2007. This year, they found themselves in a crowd for the first time.

“It may be a while until it’s like the Red Sox. Those people are crazy,” said Vasiliauskas, standing with his autograph book outside the Mets stadium in Port St. Lucie on Saturday morning. “But this really feels like . . . hold on. There’s Strasburg.”

Vasiliauskas trotted over to where a massive Lexus with California plates was pulling through the gate. Stephen Strasburg, the day’s starting pitcher, climbed from the driver’s seat. He didn’t come to the fence where the markers and programs were waving.

“Good luck,” Mary shouted.

“Thank you,” Strasburg murmured, disappearing through the players’ entrance.

Charlie Slowes, the radio voice of the Nationals, said the uptick in spring buzz is noticeable.

“Now when I wear a shirt with a curly W around here, they know it doesn’t stand for Walgreens,” said Slowes, who had just driven over from his offseason home in Tampa to get a first look at the team. He predicts a breakout year for fan interest in the District. “I knew spring was going to be big this year.”

For a new team such as the Nationals, which arrived in the city in 2005, a great year means that new fans flock and old fans upgrade. Casual attendees may pony up for a season ticket; season ticket holders may add seats; and the truly enthralled may fly to Viera (or drive — plenty of the hotel lots in Viera had Maryland and Virginia plates).

“Look at the all the red in here. I think there are more Nats fans than Mets fans,” said Mike Cerretani, an investment banker from Great Falls and lifelong Mets fan. He comes to spring training every year, but this time his sons insisted that they time the trip to catch this preseason opener against the Nats. “D.C. is becoming a baseball town.”

One spring training first-timer, sitting unceremoniously in Section 107 on Saturday, was D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). He threw out the first pitch Sunday at the Nationals home opener in Viera, but for the Mets game, he was just taking in the play.

“I’ve never made it down before,” said Gray, an avid softball player and onetime minor league prospect. “But after the great season we had, I wanted to come see what they were up to.”

“Look at this,” he said, marveling at the rows of Washingtonians filling seats on all sides, 940 miles from Nationals Park and more than a month before official baseball. “I think it’s going to be a breakout year for the fan base.”

The Mets fans were by no means outnumbered, as became clear when Ruben Tejada smacked a two-run homer off Strasburg in the first inning. But there was an answering roar an inning later when the Nats pulled ahead by a run. On Sunday, the Nats and Marlins ended tied after 10 innings, an only-in-spring-training result.

As with many Nats followers who have made the jump from fan to pilgrim, the devotion of Alexandria’s Laura Peebles has grown in phases. She has the bobble heads to prove she’s been on board since 2011. In 2012 she was a fixture at Nats games, and this year she has purchased a season ticket and come to see the boys of summer in their spring setting.

“After 35 years, I have finally snuck out of the office during tax season,” Peebles said. And for a tax accountant, that’s a big deal.

© The Washington Post Company