Judi William didn't need caller ID to know who was on the other end of the line. "Are you coming down for the Washington Nationals?" the proprietor of the Wisteria Inn bed-and-breakfast asked me when I called in desperate search of a room within easy reach of the spring home of our new baseball team. "You and the rest of D.C."
Florida's Space Coast hasn't seen a storm of this magnitude since last September's Hurricane Frances blew through. There hasn't been a baseball-related onslaught like this here since last never. Rooms are so hard to come by that when William could put me up for only one night, she offered me a hammock in her orange grove out back for another night.
A young fan races around Viera's Space Coast Stadium during Sunday's game between the Nationals and the Houston Astros.
(Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
Washington's case of baseball fever is so acute that Opening Night tickets for the Nationals' RFK Stadium debut next month are selling on eBay for $200 and up for the worst seats and well into the thousands for the prime spots. Those who can't wait, and those who want a close-up look at the players, are taking spring break 15 miles inland from Florida's Atlantic Coast in a part of the state that until a few years ago was mostly fields of celery.
What they'll find through the end of March is all the delights of spring training -- ballplayers who have plenty of time to chat and sign autographs, seats so close you can hear the on-field conversation and, for long-suffering Washington fans, an unspeakable pride that this team is ours -- all in one of the strangest settings in all of baseball.
Space Coast Stadium is not one of Florida's grand little relics, but a serviceable 1990s facility, with tributes to the Columbia and Challenger shuttle crafts on the outfield foul poles and seats in Florida Marlins teal (the Marlins were the original tenants). If the Nats are going to stay in Viera, a red-and-blue makeover is warranted.
During Sunday's game against the Houston Astros, kids played catch on the big berm beyond the outfield fence, clambered over the dugout to hand balls full of autographs to willing players and clustered along baseline seats to chat with Nats who won't make the trip north but are happy to play big-time ballplayer for a few weeks before they're cut.
This is baseball without the bling, without the hip-hop fanfares that greet each batter's arrival at home plate, without the blaring ads over the PA system. Sweet touch: The scoreboard is hand-operated by a gent who scoots across a catwalk after each run, hooking the numbers on, giving traditionalists in the crowd a warm feeling all over.
"This is my religion," said Stephen Klatsky, who's down from Alexandria for an extended spring training pilgrimage, following his new team from Viera to Lakeland to face the Tigers (Joker Marchant Stadium! Tigertown!) and onward, crisscrossing Florida, always in the sunshine.
The Nationals' spring home, Viera, according to the advertising slogans plastered along the outfield wall at Space Coast Stadium, is "A Town Built for You." This may be true, except for the "built" part. Mostly, the Nationals' spring home town is a plan to fill 38,000 acres of farmland owned by A. Duda & Sons, one of Florida's agricultural giants, with a new city of houses and condos. You've heard of "Build it and they will come?" The "it" here is Wal-Mart, Super Target and a world-class collection of big-box stores. Oh, and for students of how government really works, check out the spanking-new Brevard County government, Brevard County school board and Brevard County courts buildings -- all smack in the center of Viera, all provided courtesy of the Viera Co., which needed a whole load of government permission to build its new city.
Viera doesn't yet rate an interstate exit sign of its own. Neither the Weather Channel nor Mapquest has it in their databases. Basically, it's a bunch of half-built condos, some new houses and Space Coast Stadium, which rises above a classic Florida landscape of sand, construction trailers, grazing horses, lakes, sawgrass and baby palm trees.