Fans’ guide to spring training, Part 1: The complex

We don’t know yet where Bryce Harper will be reporting for spring training, but we do know when the Nationals will be reporting for spring training, with or without their longtime slugger.

The club officially announced key spring dates Tuesday, with pitchers and catchers set to report to West Palm Beach on Feb. 13 (with their first workout the following day) and position players set to report on Feb. 18 (with the first full-squad workout the day after that). The Grapefruit League opener against the Astros comes Feb. 23, at which point the Nats will be off and running in preparation for the 2019 season.

Yes, there are only 35 days to go until baseball. And if that thought doesn’t warm your heart just a little bit, you may be a lost cause.

Given the fact we’re now five weeks away, and given the fact many of you are making your plans to head down to Florida to witness some portion of the action in person, this is an opportune time to publish our annual Nats Guide to Spring Training.

If you’ve never been before, we hope this will provide some key information to help get you started. And if you have been before, perhaps there are some new bits of advice here you didn’t already know.

We’ll split this up into two parts. Tomorrow we’ll delve into the West Palm Beach area, with hotel, restaurant and entertainment options aplenty. Today we’ll start with the baseball portion of spring training, everything you need to know about FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and what you can expect to see when you’re there.

This will be the Nationals’ third season in West Palm Beach, so at this point they’ve grown pretty comfortable with the surroundings. The complex is totally finished, and everyone who works there should now have a good sense how things operate. (Hopefully, this means very few glitches now that they’re in year three.)

The complex is located near the corner of Haverhill Road and 45th Street, roughly 1 1/2 miles west of Interstate 95 and only 10 to 15 minutes away from downtown West Palm Beach. It’s a massive complex, home to not only the Nationals but the Astros as well.

scherzer-doolittle-stretch-spring.jpgIn addition to the main stadium, there are also 12 total practice fields, two artificial turf agility fields, two batting cages, two bullpen areas with 10 mounds apiece and two large clubhouse facilities that host not only the major leaguers but all the minor leaguers as well. Even though both teams are there every day, it’s almost like they train at totally separate facilities. Nobody crosses paths with each other unless they’re playing each other in a game inside the stadium.

Yeah, Space Coast Stadium in Viera feels like ancient history at this point.

From a fan’s perspective, there’s plenty to see and do up close, especially on those practice fields. The first nine days of camp are spent exclusively out there, with players typically emerging from the clubhouse around 9 a.m. for Davey Martinez’s daily “Circle of Trust” meeting on the agility field before they fan out to the various grass fields and bullpens for different drills.

The workouts are relatively brief, rarely passing the two-hour mark. Pitchers, in particular, usually wrap things up early, so don’t be late. Parking is abundant and free on workout days, and you can watch it all from close range (albeit behind short fences that create a barrier between fans and players).

That said, there’s still ample opportunity to interact with the players before and after the workout. There’s an open area between the fields and the clubhouse where you can position yourself to try to get autographs as they head inside at the end of the session. (Most are willing to stop and sign.)

Come Feb. 23, the schedule changes as the games begin. But don’t just assume that means you should head straight into the stadium when you arrive. Martinez tried out a new pregame routine last spring, and I expect him to stick with it this year. Instead of holding batting practice inside the stadium, they do it out on the practice fields. So, here’s your first pro tip: Don’t bother entering the stadium more than an hour before first pitch. You’ll see much more outside.

This also holds true even when the Nationals are playing on the road. Taking up a routine used by clubs that train in the Cactus League in Arizona, Martinez has all of his players work out and take BP at home before boarding the bus for nearby road games. So if the Nats are playing the Cardinals or Marlins in Jupiter, or the Mets in Port St. Lucie, you can still see them work out in West Palm Beach beforehand.

As for the games themselves, they’re very low-key. Many regulars play or pitch only a few innings during the first week or two of Grapefruit League action. Some sit out altogether until the calendar shifts to March - CoughRyanZimmermanCough - so don’t be surprised if you’re seeing a lot of minor leaguers and guys wearing No. 96 without a name on the back.

If it’s important to you to see the big names get more than a token at-bat or inning of work, you’re better off waiting until mid-to-late March to come down.

The stadium is nice and very comfortable, if somewhat lacking in charm. The concourse is wide open, and you can walk all the way around without ever losing sight of the field. There’s a kid’s grassy area down the third base line where foul balls are plentiful, and there are grassy knolls in both left and right field in case you enjoy sitting on a blanket and soaking up the sun.

In short, it’s a really nice way to spend a few spring days. Baseball from up close, warm sunshine, everybody in a good mood? Really, does it get any better than that?

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 on hotels, food and entertainment. In the meantime, I encourage anyone who has made the trip the last two years to share your own experiences and recommendations in the comments section below!

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