Thirteen years ago, Jamey Carroll was a 29-year-old utility infielder from Indiana just trying to keep a job in the major leagues. One evening, he and his Montreal Expos teammates returned by bus to their spring training headquarters, stashed along a barren road running parallel to Interstate 95. Carroll peered out the window, past the desolate cow pastures, and saw construction crews creating a neighborhood from nothing. He had one thought: “Why in the world would anyone want to live here?”
Welcome to Viera, Fla., a community seemingly created by an eye-dropper and some dehydrated cul de sacs. Need a neighborhood? Just add water.
“The Wal-Mart wasn’t there,” said Shawn Hill, then an Expos farmhand, later a Washington Nationals pitcher. “The Target definitely wasn’t there.”
That, in Viera, is how progress is measured. Pitchers and catchers report to Space Coast Stadium on Thursday, the final spring gathering at the only spring home the Washington Nationals have ever known. This isn’t the shuttering of historic Dodgertown, back in 2008. But if you came up as a National, two of the 12 months of your year were spent at this outpost hard by I-95, not far from Florida’s Atlantic coast. Next year, the Nationals will relocate 130 miles south to West Palm Beach, a relative metropolis where they’ll share a brand-new facility with the Houston Astros.
But after a dozen springs that marked baseball’s return to Washington – real, live ballplayers first wore the “Curly W” on their hats right there – Viera deserves an … ode? An appreciation? Maybe not exactly. But something.
“I’d say it’s surprising what’s happened here,” Hill said. “But not shocking.”
It’s hard to conceive of a strip of American land changing as much over a modest amount of time. When Dave Sheinin covered the Florida Marlins’ spring training of 1998 for the Miami Herald, brushfires broke out daily in the distance beyond the outfield fence. For the Nationals’ first spring training here in 2005, the only place to eat within a couple miles of the ballpark was a Panera Bread anchored in a mostly vacant shopping center known as the Avenue at Viera. (Believe me, somewhere I have the receipts from dozens of Bacon Turkey Bravo sandwiches to prove it.)
Now, there’s a Five Guys and a Melting Pot and a Bonefish Grill and … well, this is what we used to get excited for when we left Washington in the dead of winter. What new chain might further break up the monotony? Lone Star Steakhouse? As Adam Kilgore rightly points out, the Viera he came to know as the Post’s Nationals beat writer for the spring trainings of 2010-14 was vastly different from the one I encountered every February. We both appreciated dinner at Bonefish Willy’s, along the Indian River in adjacent Melbourne. But by the time he arrived, the Avenue at Viera included a World of Beer outlet he was able to patronize (frequently).
“As we speak now, there’s five to 10 new neighborhoods going up,” said Carroll, who, like Hill, moved to the community and is raising his family there. “Heck, from this time in spring training last year, there’s a bunch of different things. They’re finally filling out the restaurants and developing the commercial real estate. There’s more and more plans that keep coming in, so it just keeps growing. We’re wondering where everybody’s coming from.”
It’s why I found the place fascinating, if bizarrely so: Where were all these people coming from, and what were they doing? Somehow, I didn’t start asking those questions to people who could answer them until now, on the eve of the Nationals’ last spring training there.
Viera, it turns out, is something called a “master planned community.” Reston, Va., and The Woodlands, Tex., fall into this category. The master plan started with 38,000 acres of ranch land that a local family, the Dudas, had owned since the 1940s, according to Scott Miller, the vice president of sales and community management for the Viera Company, the developers responsible for the plan’s execution and a subsidiary of A. Duda and Sons. Andrew Duda, the family patriarch, emigrated from Slovakia; Viera means “faith” in his native tongue.
Given the mix of cattle and brush 20 years ago, faith seems appropriate. Baseball was a cornerstone of the project from the start. When the Space Coast Stadium was built for the Marlins, the only development that joined it west of I-95 were the offices of the Brevard County Covernment. But the master plan was in place.
“A sports complex was always a part of the original vision for Viera, and baseball was a great way to showcase the community to fans from across the country,” Miller wrote in an e-mail.
People would always ask, “Where do the Nationals train?” and more explanation than a simple dateline – Tampa for the Yankees, Ft. Myers for the Red Sox – would have to follow. “Where, again?”
For the Nationals, though, it became not just a joke about being removed from other big-league franchises, but a real logistical hurdle. Dodgertown, the Vero Beach home of the Dodgers dating from their Brooklyn days, was long the closest road trip for the Nationals: 53 miles – less than an hour, according to Google Maps (not to mention personal experience). When the Dodgers bolted for Arizona, the shortest trip became 55 miles and 59 minutes over to Kissimmee to play the Astros. Beyond that: 65 miles and 63 minutes to Lake Buena Vista to play the Braves; 75 miles and 70 minutes to Port St. Lucie to face the Mets; 113 miles and an hour and 40 minutes to Jupiter for either the Cardinals or the Marlins.
For comparison’s sake: The longest trip in the Cactus League, which features 10 ballparks in and around Phoenix, would be if the Royals left Surprise to face the Athletics in Mesa: 50 miles and 52 minutes, less distance and time than the Nationals’ shortest trip now. The changes for the Nationals’ new home: no travel to face the Astros, 12 miles to play the Cardinals or Marlins, 47 miles to get to the Mets.
“As much as I, as a homeowner, don’t want them to leave because I think it’s fun for the town,” Carroll said, “at the same time, when people do ask, I’m able to share that experience that having to travel a lot makes a difference in your preparation for the season.”
When the Nationals filter into town over the next several days, they’ll do so via Stadium Parkway, now a busy four-lane road that runs past a Publix, past Slow & Low Bar-B-Que, past Viera High School, none of them open when the team first arrived there.
Back in 2003, Hill met a local girl working at a smoothie shop. Now, she’s his wife, and they have two daughters with a third child on the way. They have lived there ever since, and Hill watched his adopted home, as he said, “go from a cow pasture, literally, to a nice little quiet area.”
Except here’s the thing, the final indication that the Viera to which the Nationals arrived is so different from the Viera they will depart: that nice little quiet area, it’s still growing. “My cup of tea is a little bit more quiet,” Hill said. He and his family moved a couple exits south off I-95 into Melbourne.
So this completely altered community is, in some way, home to bits and pieces of Nationals history: Frank Robinson gathering his first team there in 2005, Alfonso Soriano refusing to play left field there in 2006, Jason Simontacchi and Mike Bacsik and Jerome Williams and other castoffs battling for rotation spots in 2007, Stephen Strasburg facing major league hitters for the first time in 2010, Bryce Harper sitting on a bench in the dugout and asking, just a year ago, “Where’s my ring?”
Viera changed, and the Nationals changed too. Now, they begin their separation. Better go order a Bacon Turkey Bravo to keep the reminiscing alive.