It’s been a while since we’ve gotten a whiff of news about the Nationals’ pursuit of a new spring training home. Depending on how you view the machinations, the saga has either plot twists befitting a taut mystery or all the kind of awkward exchange you felt when asking a date to the middle school dance.
But there’s new news, courtesy of this story in The News-Press of Fort Myers, one of the possible Sunshine State destinations for the Nationals. (a tip of the ‘ol ballcap to @misschatter for the link).
And for now, it appears as if Fort Myers has been supplanted on the Nats’ list of potential suitors.
Let’s recap for those new to this curious tale, which may be nearing a conclusion (assuming this latest news isn’t just another red herring tossed into the process).
The Nationals have trained in Viera at Space Coast Stadium since 2003, when they were the Montreal Expos. The facility is functional and the community welcoming, but the exodus of teams from Grapefruit League camps on Florida’s east coast has created an issue for the Nats. Their shortest road trip is an hour, to reach the Astros in Kissimmee in Florida’s interior. There are only three other teams remaining on the east coast - the Mets in Port St. Lucie and the Cardinals and Marlins in Jupiter, which means either the Nats play an inordinate number of spring training games against those teams (and deal with long bus rides) or they schedule other, further-away opponents (with even longer bus rides).
For several years, Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner has been trying to solve this dilemma by finding a new spring training home for his team. There have been rumors of a shared complex with the Mets in Port St. Lucie or the Astros in Kissimmee. There have been rumblings that the Nationals would move to Arizona.
Fort Myers has been a much-mentioned destination because that town has an empty ballpark and two other major league clubs, the Red Sox and Twins. This much is known: Lerner wants to move somewhere closer to more teams to cut down on travel and he’d prefer the Nationals get a new ballpark out of the deal.
Over the winter, it appeared that Fort Myers would finally come to fruition - until Lee County figured it didn’t have enough money after building the Red Sox their new Jet Blue Park and committing millions to renovate Hammond Stadium for the Twins. So City of Palms Park, the former Red Sox spring HQ, remains empty.
Officials in Brevard County hoped monies recently approved by the Florida legislature to help communities maintain spring training operations might be the solution. They’ve even talked about underwriting the cost of flying the Nationals to other Grapefruit League sites, as a solution to the miles they log on buses each spring.
Now come reports that the Nationals are in talks with an unnamed Florida jurisdiction willing to build a new complex for them. How will this mystery city foot the bill? By using the same funds Florida legislators made available - because they can either use them to retain a team or prevent an existing team from bailing from Florida for Arizona’s deserts and low humidity. That money would be combined with county tourism tax dollars to make the Nationals’ hopes a reality.
At the same time, the Nats would bid adieu to Viera, and officials there seem resigned to the fact that the Curly W could be a memory after 2015. The Nationals’ lease to play at Space Coast Stadium runs until 2017, but the team can escape the lease without penalty because it’s already paid off more than $7 million in construction bonds. (I’ve always thought the Cartoon Network whiffed on a great naming rights deal and could have renamed the park Space Ghost Stadium, but that may be a moot point).
So who’s the mystery city?
It could be Kissimmee. The Astros’ lease on Osceola County Stadium ends in 2016 and a new facility could be built to house both the Nats and Astros. The Astros could want to move to Arizona, closer to their Houston home, and that could open up Kissimmee for the Nationals as a sole occupant. Because of its proximity to Disney World, Osceola County generates more tourist tax revenue, which could tilt the balance Kissimmee’s way.
Maybe Naples, which has had dalliances with several different teams, is a possibility. Perhaps Fort Myers remains a player, if a new stadium could replace City of Palms Park (even if the Nats have to train briefly at City of Palms before a new park is constructed), though that’s a long shot. But the presence of these state-supplied funds basically means one Florida city can meet the Nationals’ needs at the expense of the city they’ve called their spring training home.
Whatever the Nationals do will likely change the face of the Grapefruit League. The Mets, Cardinals and Marlins have out clauses in their leases that are triggered if fewer than four teams train on the east coast. The Nats’ departure would leave three teams there, and those squads could be jockeying for new homes (or more team-friendly deals) while other cities try to entice them.
The Nationals aren’t saying anything. In spring training, a team spokesman said there would be no comment on future spring training sites - at least until there was something other than rumors and speculation to comment on. Lerner has been necessarily quiet because silence allows him to play various cities and jurisdictions against one another to allow him to extract the best deal. It may seem like hardline politics, but it’s just a shrewd negotiation tactic calculated to the maximum benefit of the Nationals.