Feb 6, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
As you can tell by the countdown clock to your right, we are now down to the final stretch of a long offseason. Nationals pitchers and catchers (not to mention yours truly) report to Viera in one week as baseball season officially begins.
And, from what I gather, a good number of you plan to make the trip down yourself to witness spring training firsthand. If you’ve been before, you know the great experience that awaits. If you’re making your first trip this year, you’re in for a real treat. And if you’ve never gone before … well, it’s not too late to make plans.
Before you head to the airport or gas up the SUV, though, you’ll want to read our annual Fan’s Guide to Nats Spring Training. It’s broken into two parts: Today we detail the complex at Space Coast Stadium and what you can plan to see, and tomorrow we’ll look at the rest of Viera and the surrounding area with advice on where to stay, where to go and what to eat while you’re there.
The Nationals, to be honest, aren’t exactly thrilled to be opening their 10th camp in Viera (it’s the franchise’s 12th spring there). As you’ve heard numerous times before, they are trying to relocate to another spring base, preferably on Florida’s Gulf Coast, perhaps in Central Florida, almost certainly not in Arizona.
To date, those efforts have been thwarted by various local governments that don’t want to foot the bill to either construct new facilities or renovate existing ones. So the Nationals, whose biggest issue with the current setup is the long drive (minimum one hour) to get to any other Grapefruit League site, reluctantly head back to Viera this spring.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing for fans, though, because there may not be a more fan-friendly spring training complex in all of baseball, offering the kind of up-close access to players you just won’t find anywhere else in Florida or Arizona.
This is especially true when it comes to first two weeks 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. 20, 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 (though we don’t know Matt Williams’ exact schedule quite yet).
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. Yes, you can stand 10 feet behind Stephen Strasburg and watch just how much his curveball breaks.
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.)
As they move into the second week of workouts, you’ll see the entire squad take the field together for defensive fundamental drills, baserunning exercises and my favorite drill: live BP. That’s when pitchers take the mound and throw their full repertoire at teammates, who take full hacks. Perhaps this spring we’ll finally get our first Strasburg-vs.-Bryce Harper encounter.
The daily workouts continue through Feb. 27, 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, teams wearing Tigers and Yankees jerseys and caps will make a couple of trips to Viera this spring, but don’t count on seeing Miguel Cabrera or Derek Jeter. Veterans usually don’t make many road trips, especially the longer ones to remote locales like Viera. Prepare to see a lot of guys destined to open the season in Toledo and Scranton, not Detroit and New York.
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 regular 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.
One note about the weather: While it certainly will be warmer in Viera than it is in D.C., be prepared for just about anything. It can get surprisingly chilly down there, especially during the first part of camp. It’s always windy, especially out on the back fields, and that makes it feel much colder than the actual temperature. But also make sure you bring plenty of sunblock, especially once the games begin. Space Coast Stadium has a rare, south-facing orientation, so nearly every seat in the park is in direct sunlight.
That should pretty much cover it all. Check back tomorrow for Part 2, on Viera and the surrounding communities. And between now and then, please feel free to share your own experiences from past springs, offering whatever advice you may have for others.
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