West Palm Beach, Fla. — The Washington Nationals’ clubhouse in the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is nicer than the Oval Office. It’s bigger. It has 10 huge TVs (eat your heart out). Its teak — or is that cherry wood? — is glistening new. Its leather seats and sofas shame that classy but uncomfortable antique stuff at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And the White House doesn’t (yet) have a gigantic “W” in its ceiling that throbs on and off with light.
How big is that lit-from-within “W”? Probably bigger than the one in right field at Nationals Park. If they peeled back the roof — and given that there’s plenty of construction still going on here, they might — you could see the darn thing from space.
The Nats’ complex is so vast — with six fields, including two that duplicate Nationals Park, right down to the quirks and corners in the outfield walls — that you sometimes shake your head at the contrast with the past. In one fenced spot, you can have 20 pitchers throw side-by-side simultaneously off 20 mounds. The Nats’ weight room is bigger than — and probably cost several times as much as — the entire Nats locker room at dilapidated RFK Stadium when the team came to D.C. in 2005.
The place is so sprawling you might forget that the Houston Astros also share its 160-acre campus — the Nats on the first base side, the Astros on the third. You can’t see or hear or even imagine the Astros, though dozens of them, including minor leaguers, are “over there” on the other side of a large, pretty park.
Suddenly, the Nats have as much as — and probably more than — any baseball team could possibly need in a spring training site after enduring a dozen years in which they coped with perhaps the worst spring site in MLB.
What took so darn long?
For 12 springs, the Nationals’ ludicrously remote, bare-bones, windy, chilly practical joke of a spring home in Viera, Fla., had been embarrassing to those familiar with MLB standards.
The first time that Jayson Werth got a full dose of the place in 2011, he said the people of Viera were very nice; they couldn’t help that their fast-growing little town was so far from any other team’s spring training camp. But “over time, this place is going to cost us free agents,” Werth had said.
Viera itself, with its range of zany entertainment options, covering the gamut from lunch at Panera Bread to dinner at Panera Bread, wasn’t a draw either.
Werth, other vets and senior Nats execs talked to ownership for years about the self-imposed competitive disadvantage that Viera constituted for the Nats. How could a family worth billions not fix such an obvious issue?
Those three- to four-hour bus rides to Jupiter — the city that just felt like an orbit away — might contribute to extra injuries. As for the vagaries of Florida weather, “everybody” knows that West Palm Beach, about 130 miles south of Viera, is generally warmer. This week, the high every day will be between 78 and 87 degrees.
“Oh, this is much better,” reliever Shawn Kelley said. “Can’t be too warm for baseball. And it’s nice not to get strep throat just from walking in the hallway.”
The Lerner family explored options in Fort Myers and Kissimmee. Nothing panned out. Like every other MLB team in every other ballpark negotiation, they wanted an enticing deal from the lucky town that got them. And, like many, I nagged owner Ted Lerner that a decent spring training site was a core essential of a proper operation, not a frill to give his fans a fancier destination in winter. Plus, for a fraction of the cash he had spent on some free agents, he could build a very good one.
The projected cost of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches was $135 million, about a third of which was paid by the teams — but with that cost paid over the course of their lease, in part through use fees. Yes, sounds pretty sweet. Any overages, guesstimated at about $15 million, are paid by the teams.
Ironically, as a reporter, I liked Viera. In my chats, I would tip fans that Viera was an uncrowded bargain, a chance to see players up close at a fraction of MLB prices and have a pleasant if unspectacular Florida vacation in whatever price range suited them. Public golf course, drinks in a tiki-hut bar on the beach at sundown. Even oceanfront rooms in Melbourne Beach, 25 minutes away, were cheaper than an airport motel room here at ritzy Palm Beach International.
So if you’re headed here, bring your wallet. After all, Palm Beach is the “polo capital.” When it comes to more-money-than-taste, this is the place. If you want to find a town that epitomizes income inequality — filthy rich and dirt poor — come here.
Is it actually possible that BPOPB could be a competitive advantage — a reason for a free agent to become a Nat?
“Stuff like that’s for real. It can factor into a decision if you are trying to sign a free agent — this could gain us one,” Kelley said. “If you can come to a beautiful area and your family is happy, there’s things for your kids to do while you’re getting ready, then you have peace of mind.”
All the extra hours wasted on bus trips are stolen from family time in a business where time with Dad can be painfully thin.
“Baseball is a six-month grind as it is. You don’t want to start that grind seven weeks earlier,” Kelley said. “Last year, I didn’t even want to bring the kids down. They’re just going to be miserable. What are they going to do? Last year I told friends and family, ‘Maybe go to Miami or Tampa.’ Now I’m, ‘Come on, come on.’ ”
The difference in a year is so stark that, driving over the causeway here, you have the illusion that the water is a much “richer,” clearer turquoise — entirely different water — than a similar causeway near Space Coast Stadium in Viera.
“That’s not an illusion,” Kelley said. “The water is clearer here. Should be better fishing. Oh, it was brown with algae in it [in Viera]. Here you can see all the way to the bottom.
“Yup, they’ve even got better water.”