Lerner says Nats in Viera through 2013, still looking to move

The Nationals will keep their spring training operation in Viera, Fla., through 2013, principal owner Mark Lerner said Wednesday at NatsFest, but he sounded as convinced as ever the team will leave Space Coast Stadium for either Florida’s west coast or Arizona.

“Our problem is the distance to travel to play other teams,” he said, repeating a well-worn refrain about the Nationals’ predicament in Viera. “We’ve got to get closer to where other teams are. Plus, you’re playing NL East teams all the time. We don’t want to have to do that. It’s not smart. We’d rather be playing teams on the west coast that we don’t normally play. I think, at the end of the day, we’re going to have to do something when the right opportunity presents itself.”

The team’s preference is to build a new facility, and would likely find another team to partner with them on a new complex. One thing they wouldn’t likely do, Lerner said, is try to lure another team to Viera and expand the facility there. The Brewers, who draw poorly in Arizona, have a Single-A team that plays in Space Coast Stadium during the year. But the Marlins and Cardinals have a clause that breaks their lease with the city of Jupiter if there are less than three teams on Florida’s east coast, so one domino falling could send all four teams - the Nationals, Marlins, Cardinals and Mets - looking for new homes.

“The risk for Florida is the existing teams going to the west coast of Florida, or leaving the state,” Lerner said. “I think the east coast is unfortunate, but it’s not what it was 15 or 20 years ago, when everybody kind of went that direction. When I was growing up, everybody went to Pompano Beach to see the Senators. It’s not like that anymore.”

Other highlights from Lerner:

* The Nationals will “play it by ear” about whether to cancel tomorrow’s opener against the Braves because of rain. There is currently a 50 percent chance of rain in the forecast, and Lerner said the team has seen forecasts projecting anything from a 30 to 90 percent chance of rain for the 1:05 p.m. start. “If we know it’s going to be really bad, we’ll cancel it early,” Lerner said. “If it could go either way, we’ll just keep on going and do the best we can. It’s a tough position to be in, because since it’s a weekday, a lot of people had the one day off, and they can’t really come on Friday. So we really want to try and get it in if we can.” If it does rain, the Nationals would play Friday, where there’s no rain in the forecast.

* Lerner said single tickets remain for tomorrow’s opener, but “I think we’re basically sold out.” He said season ticket sales have been “pretty much what we expected. It’s along the lines of what it was last year at this time. I think when we get Ws in the win column, there’ll be plenty of people out here, and that’s when we deserve to be rewarded, when we get Ws on a consistent basis.”