Jan 24, 2013, 12:00 PM EDT
USA Today Sports Images
Stephen Strasburg signs autographs following a workout last spring.
The countdown to spring training is in full swing, so what better way to note how tantalizingly close we are to baseball season than to start talking about what you can expect to see at Nationals camp in Viera?
Yes, it’s time for the annual Nats Insider Spring Training Fan Guide. Also known as Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Spring Training but Were Afraid to Ask.
Those of you who have been to Viera know there may not be a more fan-friendly experience in either the Grapefruit or Cactus Leagues. The up-close access to players is unparalleled, the atmosphere is laid-back and the weather is … well, it’s usually better than what you’d get in Washington that time of year, though be forewarned that it’s often legitimately chilly down there, especially when the wind kicks up.
We’ll spend today talking about the daily drill at Space Coast Stadium and its adjacent practice fields. Tomorrow we’ll turn our attention to the surrounding area, where to stay, where to eat and where to play.
If you haven’t made the trek down to Viera before, you might want to make every possible effort to do it this spring. This could be your last chance to see the Nationals in this location, with the franchise hoping to relocate to Fort Myers (or perhaps Kissimmee) as soon as next spring.
The club has a valid reason for wanting to move: Viera is the most remote location in either Florida or Arizona, a full hour from the next-closest spring training site. But from a fan perspective, a relocation could actually be a negative development, because odds are the Nationals’ next spring home won’t be as welcoming to fans as their current one.
This is especially true when it comes to first week of camp, before the games begin. The Nationals spend those days holding morning workouts at the facility adjacent to Space Coast Stadium, and the access for fans is spectacular.
The first official pitchers and catchers workout is scheduled for Feb. 15. Position players are scheduled to join them on the fields beginning Feb. 18, though you’ll still find plenty of early arrivals prior to that date. Workouts (and parking) are free to the public and generally run from about 9 a.m. through noon.
The practice facility includes four full-size fields arranged in a cloverleaf pattern, plus a half-field used for baserunning and infield drills and a huge bullpen where as many as 10 pitchers can throw off a mound at the same time. Players rotate from field to field during the course of the workout with a specialized drill being taught at each station (pitchers’ fielding practice, pickoff moves, bunts, baserunning, batting practice).
Pitchers typically throw off the mound every other day for about 10 minutes at a time, and you can watch it all right from the bullpen fence, a few feet away from the players. Trust me, if you’ve never seen a big-league pitcher throw from that point-blank range, you’re in for a treat.
You can also watch the other drills from behind the fences that surround each field and co-mingle with players as they jog between stations. (Just don’t be offended if they won’t sign autographs at those moments. Most everyone is happy to do it after the workout ends.)
The daily workouts continue through Feb. 22, after which the Grapefruit League season commences and the center of attention becomes Space Coast Stadium. The team still holds a full morning workout prior to those games (in addition to the regular batting practice they’ll take during the regular season, they also spend extra time in the morning working on defensive and baserunning fundamentals) but unfortunately those aren’t open to the public. Stadium gates open one hour before first pitch, though spring season ticket holders are allowed in two hours before first pitch.
The games themselves are low-key affairs, and you may find yourself surprised just how relaxed they are, especially early in camp when most starting position players are done after four or five innings and most starting pitchers are done after two or three innings. If you’re coming to games in late-February or early-March, be prepared to see a whole lot of backups, minor leaguers and anonymous players called up from minor-league camp for the day.
Also be prepared to see plenty of backups and minor leaguers from the opposing teams. Yes, a team wearing Cardinals jerseys and caps will make two trips to Viera this spring, but don’t count on seeing Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran. Veterans usually don’t make many road trips, especially the longer ones to remote locales like Viera.
The same theory applies when the Nationals go on the road. You’ll get to see a regular member of the starting rotation and a couple of big-name position players, but you certainly won’t see all of them at the same time. Most stay back in Viera for a morning workout inside the stadium (closed to the public, unfortunately).
You can still watch some live baseball in Viera even on days when the Nationals are playing elsewhere. Those workout fields the club used during the first two weeks of camp are used for minor-league camp and games beginning in early-March. Those intrasquad games (often played in front of less than a dozen fans) can be fun to watch themselves, especially when a rehabbing big leaguer is sent over for the day to get some extra work.
There you have it, spring training in Viera in a nutshell. Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of the Fan Guide to Spring Training, focusing on what you can do with your time when there is no baseball to watch. Until then, I’d love to hear from those of you who have attended camp before. Please feel free to share your stories and tips for anyone who is planning to make the trip this spring.
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