VIERA, FLA. — The bottom of a large Nike cleat lies on the warning track of Field 5, the practice field right next to Space Coast Stadium where the Washington Nationals used to spend spring training days like these. Staff used to back their cars against the right field fence, so that if a well-struck ball flew foul, it would shatter the back windshield and not the front one. But Field 5 does not have an outfield fence at all these days, just a rope strung around the few metal poles that did not succumb to Hurricane Matthew last summer.
The cleat could be anyone’s, really, from Stephen Strasburg to Max Scherzer, or any of the Nike-sponsored members of the Nationals’ organization. Nearly every player to wear the Curly W hit or fielded or ran on that field at some point in their tenure.
Now a bottom of a cleat, invisible from some angles because of the weeds that have infiltrated over the past few months, is all that remains of the decade-plus the Nationals spent training there. Home plate, where Bryce Harper took batting practice before his magical MVP season, where Ryan Zimmerman hunted for some part of his old self, where Davey Johnson and Matt Williams and Dusty Baker watched infields take shape, is all but consumed by muddy dirt that would never have been allowed to encroach like this before. In the background, Space Coast Stadium looms, intact but inert. Padlocks and chains hold its gates shut, and boards cover old concession windows.
The United States Specialty Sports Association bought Space Coast Stadium and the surrounding fields, the former spring training home of the Nationals. The group plans to renovate the entire complex with turf fields, and make it a multi-sport destination for a variety of leagues and tournaments, according to their website. But work has not yet begun, leaving residents of Viera with frequent reminders of what used to be, instead of what is to come.
Brad Strode grew up in Viera, and always knew the town to have baseball. Before the Nationals, the Marlins and Expos trained there each spring. The Brevard County Manatees played there in the summers. His 12-year-old son, Blake, does not know spring without the Nationals. Blake’s godfather is former National Jamey Carroll, who lived in the Strodes’ neighborhood and became a close family friend.
Many players, including Tanner Roark, lived near the Strodes and knew the neighborhood kids by name. Blake used to hurry to the fields to watch them before school, then rush back when the bell rang. When Hurricane Matthew forced the community to evacuate last year, Blake disregarded clothing and packed the autographed bats and balls he had collected over the years.
“We have to drive by it to come home from work every day,” Brad said.
“ … and school, and baseball,” Blake added. “On the way home from everything.”
Many of the former workers from Space Coast Stadium, for whom spring training became an annual tradition, could not follow the team to West Palm Beach. While the Strodes made a weekend trip to the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches during the first days of workouts, the Nationals’ departure is more than sentimental for some in Viera.
Each March, for example, the Nationals used to rent 80 rooms at the nearby LaQuinta Inn and Suites to house their minor leaguers during spring camp. From April to October, when rehabbers and rookie-ball Nationals were using the facility, the organization rented 30 rooms per month.
LaQuinta General Manager Scott Kennedy said last week it is too early to tell how much the Nationals’ departure might affect the hotel’s business. He posited that because the team rented at a group discount, the hotel might even make more money in March than it did in years prior.
“But in April to October,” Kennedy said. “We might lose some.”
Not far down Wickham Road from the LaQuinta, well back from the road in a small strip mall, sits a restaurant called Amici’s, unremarkable to the uninitiated. But Amici’s was a Nationals favorite, and everyone from Harper to General Manager Mike Rizzo dined there regularly. Eventually, the Nationals hired Amici’s to cater player lunches and suite meals at spring training games.
“I miss them to be honest with you,” said owner David Dashi, as his restaurant bustled with business Friday afternoon. “Not because of the business, but because of the relationships. Every year you had new faces and met new people. I wish our town could have done something to get them to stay.”
Nationals players signed a flag with the team logo on it and gave it to Dashi, who treasures it too much to leave in public and keeps it as his home instead. He texted Rizzo, who promised he would stop by and see him soon, and offered him tickets to games in D.C. should Dashi ever make the trip.
“Every year, we looked forward to that month of spring training,” Dashi said. “I talk about it every day.”
But business is good for Amici’s, and the surrounding businesses, who nevertheless show the effects of the move. Target’s sporting goods section, for example, features a couple rows of Nationals hats these days and a full display of Yankees and Rays gear. Both teams play games in Tampa, across the state from Viera.
The Nationals now play two hours south, at a new facility players seem to appreciate more because of the somewhat outdated digs they left behind. But for many in Viera, the Nationals’ gain is a loss of one kind or another, because a spring tradition is no more.
Svrluga, Feb. 2016: Just as Viera, has grown, the Nats are leaving the nest