Nats fans’ guide to spring training: The complex

It may be tough to envision right now, what with white stuff coating the ground and wind chills still in the teens this morning, but spring training is fast approaching. In fact, it’s only four weeks away.

Yes, in a mere 29 days there will be actual Nationals pitchers and actual Nationals catchers wearing actual practice uniforms and participating in actual drills in West Palm Beach, Fla., the first official workout of 2018.

I’ll be there, obviously. But I know some of you plan to be there as well. Or if not there for the first day of spring training, sometime later in February or March. And so let’s take this opportunity to share some information and advice for anyone who makes the trip down to South Florida to see some baseball.

We’ll break this guide into two parts. Today, we’ll run through everything you need to know about the complex at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, everything baseball-related. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how you’re going to get there, where you’re going to stay and where you should eat and drink and otherwise entertain yourself while you’re there.

This won’t be quite as comprehensive as the guides I used to write about Viera. Then again, I’ve only spent one month of my life in West Palm Beach so far, as opposed to the year-plus of my life I spent in Viera covering 12 spring trainings. So there’s a bit of a smaller sample size to evaluate right now, as the analytics folks might say.

Ballpark-of-the-Palm-Beaches-Sidebar.jpgThe 117-mile move down Interstate 95 last spring was a long time coming for the Nationals, who had grown tired of training in the outdated - and more importantly, remote - facility at Space Coast Stadium. The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches offers a much better experience for the team itself, with practice fields just steps away from the stadium, a state-of-the-art clubhouse with amenities that rival any other spring training facility in Florida or Arizona and much shorter drives for road games.

The complex itself is huge, a necessity because the Nats share it with the World Series champion Astros. Each team has its own clubhouse complex (the Nats on the first base side of the stadium, the Astros behind the left field wall), six full-size practice fields, 10-pack bullpen area, batting cages and more. The two teams barely even notice each other on a day-to-day basis because they’re spread out over different sides of the complex, co-mingling only on days when they face each other in a Grapefruit League game.

All of this is great for the players, the coaches, the club executives (and yes, the media, as well). Whether it’s great for the fans is a question for those of you who have been there can answer. My sense: The access isn’t as good as it was in Viera, though to be fair the old place offered perhaps the best fan access in Florida. It’s not bad access in West Palm Beach, but it does seem a little bit tougher to get as close to the players as you used to be able to get, with short fences creating a barrier between the two that didn’t exist in Viera.

All that said, if you’ve never done a spring training trip before, it’s definitely worth it. You’ll never find a more relaxed atmosphere to see major leaguers up close. Everyone’s usually in a good mood, and even with the fences, there’s plenty of opportunity to interact with uniformed personnel.

This is especially true during the first week of camp, before the games begin. On those days, the team holds a morning workout - we don’t know the official times yet under new manager Dave Martinez - on the practice fields behind the first base line of the stadium. Pitchers throw off the bullpen mounds, which you can see from up close. Position players take batting practice (sometimes off pitching teammates) on the fields. Everybody takes defensive drills, rotating from one field to the next usually in 15-minute intervals. All of this is free to the public, and the crowds are usually quite small (maxing out at maybe 150-200 on weekends).

Be warned, though, that there won’t be as many workout days this spring as there have been in the past. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 14, but they don’t hold their first official workout until Feb. 16. Position players report on Feb. 19, but they don’t hold their first official workout until Feb. 21. In each case, the Nationals will be the last team in the majors to begin spring training workouts.

And with the Grapefruit League kicking off super early this year - Feb. 23 is the opener - that leaves only seven days of formal workouts, only two of them with the entire squad together.

Which doesn’t mean there aren’t still opportunities to see guys up close once the games begin. There still are morning workouts before each game, much of it taking place inside the stadium but some of it still taking place on the practice fields. And by early March, the minor leaguers start holding their workouts (and eventually games) on those practice fields, again free and open to the public.

The Grapefruit League games themselves are very low-key, especially the first couple of weeks when veterans play sporadically and only for a few innings apiece. If it’s important to you to see big-name guys play five or more innings, save your trip until the final two weeks of camp.

The biggest advantage West Palm Beach has over Viera, of course, is its proximity to other camps. In Viera, you had to drive a minimum of one hour (often two or three hours) to see the Nationals play on the road. And many times, the traveling roster would feature only one or two players of consequence. In West Palm Beach, you rarely have to drive more than 15 minutes to see the Nats play on the road. The Cardinals and Marlins play right up the road in Jupiter, the Mets are a bit farther away in Port St. Lucie and the Astros are right there on-site (allowing for road games in the Nats’ home park).

Suffice it to say, there are tradeoffs that came with the move from Viera to West Palm Beach. Hopefully, the positives outweigh the negatives for fans.

That’s the lowdown on the baseball part of spring training. Check back tomorrow for the non-baseball part of spring training guide. And in the meantime, I’d love to hear thoughts from anyone who made the trip last year and is willing to share their experiences with the group!

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