WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Washington Nationals have only known one spring training home: Space Coast Stadium in relatively remote Viera, Fla. on the state’s East Coast. The biggest complaint about the location was always exactly that. The closest spring training opponent was in either the Atlanta Braves in Lake Buena Vista or Houston Astros in Kissimmee, about an hour-plus away on the team bus. Frequent trips to play the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie or the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins in Jupiter were nearly three hours round-trip.
On Monday, the Nationals and Astros took a major — albeit ceremonial — step toward a new spring training site that will make their stay far more convenient. Although work had already recently begun, the Nationals and Astros were joined by many local officials and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred to put shovels in the ground at their planned $144-million, 8,600-person capacity, two-team, publicly and privately funded facility on Haverhill Road in West Palm Beach.
“It really will help us prepare for the season,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, who will also attend the General Managers Meetings in nearby Boca Raton. “Not only was travel kind of tedious, but it really affects your preparation. Because of the long road trips, it’s hard to get work done in the morning before you take off for games. That should alleviate that problem. You’re looking at a cluster of five teams here that you can play at all times. This is not only about spring training. Don’t forget we play instructional league games here throughout the season. It’s going to help us with all facets of our organization.”
After years of searching for a new spring training home that included many false starts with municipalities across the state, the Nationals and Astros joined forces and found a willing community in Palm Beach County, which is already home to the Mets, Cardinals and Marlins. When the Nationals and Astros move into the county in 2017, those five teams will be within 45 minutes of each other.
The construction timeline is aggressive. The teams hope to have the facility mostly completed by Jan. 15, 2017 and ready for pitchers and catchers to report the following month, according to Art Fuccillo, a Nationals’ general partner who spearheaded the team’s spring training efforts. The development costs are expected to be more than planned given the 140-acre site is a former landfill that will need changes to a bordering canal that supplies drinking water to the city.
“We’ll be thinking about it not so much in weeks ahead or weeks behind,” said Fuccillo, who credited Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner for pushing for a better spring training home for years. “We won’t even be thinking about it days ahead or behind. We’ll be thinking about it an hour ahead or an hour behind. That’s how tight we are.”
The project has proved challenging for many reasons. State law, with the support of Gov. Rick Scott (R), was tweaked to allow construction near the canal. West Palm Beach, which controlled the site, and Palm Beach County swapped land for the project. The county approved the sale of $130 million in 28-year bonds and gave $5 million in tourist tax funds for initial work. Any cost overages will be covered by the Nationals and Astros, Fuccillo said.
“It’s extraordinary difficult in today’s economic environment to get a project like this going,” said Manfred, who added that he owns a home nearby. “We in baseball believe these projects pay for themselves in terms of economic development. But it takes people with intestinal fortitude and foresight to get projects going.”
The site will also be an upgrade for the Nationals over 21-year-old Space Coast Stadium. Each team at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, as the facility is called, will have two major league size practice fields plus four minor league size practice fields. There will also be an agility field, a half field, batting cages and pitching mounds. The stadium will feature 6,400 ticketed seats plus 1,250 berm seats. As part of the agreement, the teams will also build a 12-acre city park that include soccer fields, basketball courts and a jogging trail.
“The last thing players want to do in spring training is go on long bus rides,” Manfred said. “Having a body of teams here in southeastern Florida all within an hour makes spring training great, not only for these two new teams, but for the exiting teams in the area.”