WEST PALM BEACH — Many of the palm trees lining the walkways at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches have not grown roots yet, so pieces of wood serve as anchors to hold them upright. Fences line the areas around the stadium, though those will come down soon. For now, signs hang there, cautioning against entry, because the stadium itself is not quite as ready as the clubhouse or practice fields around it. Two weeks from Tuesday, those fences will be gone, and the Nationals and Astros will play an official spring training game in that building.
“Everything we need is pretty much ready,” said Nationals Manager Dusty Baker in a new interview room in his first meeting with reporters this spring. Baker had walked right by his new office earlier in the day, still getting used to his surroundings.
Nationals pitchers and catchers reported to West Palm Beach on Tuesday, and while some had been unable to get in as early as they might have at a completed facility, they found the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches ready for what they needed. Shawn Kelley, Oliver Perez, and Blake Treinen ran sprints on the new multi-purpose field just outside the clubhouse.
That field is made of brand new turf, with a shiny Washington Nationals logo built into the middle. The new clubhouse has a giant curly W built into it, too — a red one built out of the ceiling in the center of the room. The logo lights up, flashing subtly above the new red leather chairs below, arranged in a way that reminded Gio Gonzalez of an airport lounge, and made Joe Ross wonder whether the Nationals’ West Palm Beach locker room might be nicer than the one they have in D.C.
“This is pretty significant upgrade from last year,” said Ross, whose new facial hair was among the more notable changes to familiar Nationals personnel. “… It’s great. I’m glad we got to come down here. I haven’t seen the actual fields, but the cages and bullpens look pretty ridiculous.”
The Nationals’ batting cages are enclosed in a vast, roofed structure. Instead of the “12-pack” of bullpen mounds they used in Viera, the Nationals now have a “pack” so vast no one seems to know exactly how many mounds it will fit just yet. Ross speculated 14. Others estimated 20. The tussle for spots on the shaded pitching rubbers seems likely to hang over the early days of spring training, though the veterans will likely win any negotiations.
A few days ago, scaffolding covered the back wall and players could not settle into the locker room. On Tuesday, blue carpet lined the room and nameplates sat atop the 60 or more lockers that open up into the middle of the room. Sixty-four players will begin the spring in major-league camp, so spare lockers are hard to come by, though a few remain unlabeled in one of the back left of the heartish-shaped clubhouse.
The back right is reserved for proven veterans. Adam Eaton, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper have lockers there. Max Scherzer’s locker is at the head of the row of pitchers that winds around the other side of the room. In Viera, more-proven players had bigger lockers — or perhaps even more than one. In West Palm Beach, the lockers look identical, and while everyone seems to have plenty of room, no one has much extra.
Familiar faces like Gonzalez, Ross, Sammy Solis, Stephen Strasburg, Matt Grace, and others wandered in and out all morning. Strasburg completed his annual inspection of his team-issued gear, which seemed to pass the test, before joking around with Solis at the locker to his left. In the meantime, unfamiliar faces entered the clubhouse. Non-roster invitee Neal Cotts, with a Rangers bag in his locker, chatted with his new neighbor Gonzalez. Big Matt Albers met some of his new teammates. Little Tim Collins — accurately listed at 5 feet 5 — settled in, too. Adam Lind, who is not officially a National but agreed to a deal on Monday, set up his locker in the far corner. Introductions and handshakes mingled with hugs and hellos, as everyone commented on the new facility, and joked about the still-empty pool just outside the clubhouse.
At one point, a Ballpark of the Palm Beaches staff member showed an emergency response team around the clubhouse, pointing out the steam room, the exits, and other relevant points of interest to make sure everyone would know where to go in case of trouble. Construction workers meandered in and out, and hammers rang out in the lobby on the Nationals’ side of the complex. If it weren’t for the massive Astros logo casting a shadow at the front of the stadium, one could seemingly spend an entire day on the Nationals side of the complex and not know another team inhabited the facility at all.
“It’s like Houston is not really here yet,” Baker said. “Even though they’re just on the other side of the berm.”
Fresh paint is drying in the media workroom. Some of the rooms, like the coaches’ locker room, do not have signs outside them yet. Others, like the kitchen, have new signs, complete with braille. The general consensus after day one in West Palm Beach was that while the complex is still a work in progress, hurried work yielded plenty of progress for the Nationals to set their roots down here this spring, and grow into the facility in the seven weeks before opening day.