Two months or so ago, the construction crew building the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, future spring training home of the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros, put a flagpole in the ground. They held a little ceremony for it, hung an American flag an Astros flag and a Nationals flag from it, to fly over the site of home plate in the stadium those teams will use next season. If all goes well.
No one has denied that this project is rushed. Ground broke last fall, and the teams are counting on it being ready for 2017 spring training. So far, progress is steady. In February, the teams hired former University of Illinois baseball player Brady Ballard — who was in charge of historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach, among other professional-baseball locations — to oversee the project. Ballard admitted that the whole thing requires a quick turnaround, but he said last week that everything is on schedule and that everyone is conscious of the fact that delays may be unavoidable during hurricane season.
For now, the Nationals’ side, to the right of the stadium as one drives into the complex, is slightly ahead of the Astros’ side, to the left. Crews had to lay pipes and electrical wires and other underground necessities through the Nationals’ part to get to the Astros’ side, and were therefore able to build upward on that plot first. The foundation of the L-shaped Nationals clubhouse is taking shape. One side will be for minor leaguers, the other for the major league players, and each group will have its own weight room. The Nationals’ side will have a hydrotherapy pool and a lap pool, and a classroom for big meetings. The door will open right out to the Nationals’ practice fields, two of which are laid out in the exact dimensions of Nationals Park.
The practice fields are set up and graded now, and a couple already have gravel on them, meaning they are nearly ready to be planted. One of the first parts of the facility the group will finish is the maintenance storage area, so that the ballpark operations staff can begin growing and maintaining the fields as soon as possible.
The basics of the stadium are in place, including outfield walls and the beginnings of dugouts, including the Nationals’, for which the entrance tunnel is already in place, leading to a trench below field level (see below).
One of the main concerns about the spring training site, which is located at the crossroads of important West Palm Beach thoroughfares and about five minutes from Route 95, is that it was a former landfill. The site had to pass inspection for an environmental-impact report, and concerns lingered about what the crews might find there when excavating the site for use.
“The disposal area closed in 1991,” said Ballard, noting that the term “landfill” was used loosely in this case. “It was used mostly for concrete, tire, metals, not hazardous stuff.”
Excavators are still moving piles of dirt filled with that debris, and Ballard pointed out one particular pile too full of it to be repurposed. But he said that, for the most part, the crews are filtering the existing dirt for backfilling around the stadium or what will become the berm in left field. In other words, the site’s former use has not posed outrageous amounts of trouble.
Ballard estimates around 200 workers a day man the site, a process overseen by HKS and Hunt Construction, which have built spring training facilities like this before — and done so quickly. They built Camelback Ranch, home to the Dodgers and White Sox, in Glendale, Ariz. Hunt Construction built Nationals Park. Ballard pointed out that because the World Baseball Classic will be played next spring, some players will be reporting even earlier than they might normally. He said crews are aware of that, and working to make sure necessary facilities will be ready to handle them.
“We know our timeline,” Ballard said. “This isn’t the first time [HKS and Hunt] have done this.”