For about a dozen March games over the past few seasons, Bryce Harper has stood beneath a massive bird’s nest in the right field light towers at Space Coast Stadium. On Monday, he’ll stand there for the last time. The Nationals play their final Grapefruit League home game Monday afternoon against the Miami Marlins, whose stars and up-and-comers who came and went stood there, too.
The birds will stay. The ospreys or owls or whoever rents that nest these days will live on up there in the lights, blissfully unaware of an end. The people around Viera, Fla., the community that grew up with the Nationals, will feel it.
“I started [coming] when they built this stadium [in 1993],” said Jim Meyers, a local baseball fan who lives 25 minutes away from Space Coast, but prohibitively far from West Palm Beach. “I’ve seen the Marlins and the Expos. I adopted the Nationals. Before this whole field was here, I used to go to the Dodgers games. I love the Dodgers. Once the Marlins got here, I adopted the Marlins. This has been my team. And now I’m very disappointed.”
Those lights where the birds live did not illuminate many Nationals games over the years. Most spring training games, like Monday’s home finale — the last game the Nationals will play at Space Coast Stadium if all goes well in West Palm Beach — are played during the day. But they towered over 91 Nationals wins and 75Nationals losses, essentially meaningless games that nevertheless meant plenty to the people who spent years planning February and March around them.
Space Coast Stadium spring training staff are asked not to speak to the media. Many treasure their roles as ushers, practice-field watchkeepers and other jobs, and they stuck to that directive when asked about their memories this spring.
But many of them have been here since the beginning, long enough for players to know their names. Many of them are locals, at least seasonally, and therefore do not expect the same access to baseball when the team moves south next spring. Others said they would be interested in helping out at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, where the Houston Astros will also train, but they don’t know what staffing will be like there.
Fans feel the same way. Just above the Nationals’ first base dugout, close enough to see the players’ faces, near enough to joke with them, sits a devout crew of spring training season ticket holders. Some of them say they will buy tickets in West Palm Beach, too — drive be damned — if they can be certain they will get similar seats at the new stadium. Others, like Sandi Slesinger, will not be able to attend games as often anymore.
“We sit right behind the dugout, so you’re sort of up close and personal. We just love ’em!” Slesinger said. “We feel like they’re our sons, or our grandsons, they’re like my grandsons. We love coming to the games.”
Proximity is a special part of spring training. Here, things are less formal. Here, access is effortless. Jack Tavenner, known as Nats Jack to the more devout Nationals following, lives in Winter Haven. He used to live in the Washington area, and he says he left when baseball left in the early 1970s and returned when it did a decade ago.
A spring training regular, Tavenner said his favorite part is what happens down the road before games start. At the practice fields at the minor league complex, where a few ropes keep fans away from the dugouts and such, fans get near enough to see everything from conditioning drills to pitchers’ fielding practice (PFPs), blocking work and batting practice.
“That’s the best part, to go mull around over there,” Tavenner said. “I enjoy more than anything going over there watching pitchers and catchers show up. I have memories of Ronnie Belliard over there screaming, ‘Sunday Funday! What are you people all doing here, it’s Sunday Funday!’ ”
Tavenner plans to drive down to the games in West Palm Beach next season. Another regular from his section, Doug Lang, went to all the meetings the community had about the move, hoping to do his part to keep the team close. He won’t be able to attend next season.
“I’ll watch them on TV,” Lang said. “That’s all I can do.”
The nearest team to Viera is now the Atlanta Braves, at the Wide World of Disney, though they hope to move soon, too. The U.S. Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) will take over Space Coast Stadium, make improvements to the entire facility and host youth baseball and softball tournaments there. The birds might not know the difference. Locals will.
“We’re very upset,” Slesinger said. “But this is my feeling: I tell my husband, we’ve got to be thankful we’ve had [the Nationals] as long as we have. We’ve got to be grateful for what I’ve had, and don’t worry about what I don’t have.
“Also, I have a cousin that lives in Jupiter. She said come down when there’s two or three games together. You’ll stay over. You’ll have a nice visit, and you’ll go to a ballgame.”