“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.