Since it's the middle of winter - and since some of you are probably making spring training travel plans, while others are looking out the window and wishing for spring, in the words of Rogers Hornsby - I thought I'd pitch in and put together a little travel guide to Nationals spring training in Viera, Fla.
You'll spend a lot of time in a rental car, being as Space Coast Stadium isn't within an hour of any other Grapefruit League complex, but if you don't mind doing a little driving, and you're adept at the Snowbird Slalom, there's plenty to see. So here we go:
Aside from Space Coast Stadium, the Nationals will play road games at seven different ballparks this spring: Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter (Marlins and Cardinals), Steinbrenner Field in Tampa (Yankees), Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie (Mets), Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee (Astros), Champion Stadium at Disney (Braves) and Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland (Tigers). All but Tampa are within 90 minutes of Space Coast Stadium, but none are closer than an hour.
My first couple years on the beat, I was sour on Roger Dean Stadium, for some reason - I think it might have been the year I stayed in Cocoa Beach, adding a half-hour to the drive. But from Melbourne (where I stayed last year and probably will stay this year), it's only about 90 minutes. The facility is new, with plenty of shopping and restaurants built up around the complex and Florida Atlantic University just to the west. And as a bonus, it's always a few degrees warmer there than it is in Viera.
I've only been to Steinbrenner Field once, and it's, well, Yankee-ish. It's built to look like Yankee Stadium, complete with an unnecessarily difficult parking setup and more surly security guards than you'll find most other places. But if you want to see Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and the rest, that's the only way you'll get it done, since the Yankees won't send most of their veterans on road trips.
I'm a big fan of Tradition Field -- it's probably got the coldest press box (and slowest elevators) in Florida, but the Mets redid the facility a few years ago, and it seems like everyone who works at the stadium is either a transplanted New Yorker or flew down to Florida from the Big Apple for the winter. And, they seem to have gotten all the happy New Yorkers! That, along with the abundance of open grills in the stadium, gives it one of the best ambiances in the Grapefruit League. Definitely worth the trip.
And speaking of food, you're not going to do any better than Osceola County Stadium, which has by far the best ballpark food on the Nationals' road circuit (this is a Kristen Hudak favorite). From Chicago dogs to Southwestern fare and cinnamon-roasted nuts, they've got plenty to munch on - which is a good thing, because the baseball between these two teams usually leaves something to be desired. It's only about an hour west of Viera, though, and you can head on to Disney World with the kids easily from here.
Speaking of Disney, the Braves' complex is unlike anything else in the Grapefruit League. It's big - Champion Stadium holds around 10,000 fans - and the entire experience is Disney-fied, complete with dancing ushers and silly in-game emcees (Suzie Q., if I remember right). But it's a nice facility, and if you're looking to do Disney, you're already right there.
Last up on our tour is Joker Marchant Stadium, which is one of the coziest, old-timiest ballparks left in the Grapefruit League. It's a hike from Viera - it's past Orlando on I-4 - but the stadium has hosted the Tigers for 45 years, and as such, its fans bleed blue and orange. A 2003 renovation gave it some creature comforts, and though there isn't much around the stadium in Lakeland, it's worth the drive for the throwback factor.
As for Space Coast Stadium? It's somewhere in the middle of the Grapefruit League pack, much like Nationals Park is among big league stadiums. It's right off the freeway, which is nice. Sightlines are good, as they are almost everywhere in the Grapefruit League, and there's some decent food (I particularly like the carved turkey sandwich as a healthier option). There's nothing special about the park, and n-o-t-h-i-n-g to do around it, unless you like swampy parking lots (and possible gators). I will toss a shout-out, though to Pizza Gallery, which did an excellent spread in the press box last year and has some good food. There's a supply of chain restaurants - they've now got a Five Guys, and the Barry Svrluga/Chico Harlan Memorial Panera is alive and well. Enjoy it while you can, though, because the Nationals will likely migrate to the western part of Florida in a year or two.
If you stay up in Cocoa Beach, there's plenty to do (though the town gets a little spring break-ish in March), and you can make a quick drive to Cape Canaveral to see the excellent attractions at the Kennedy Space Center. There's also plenty to do in Melbourne, a quant little town south of Viera, and both spots are close to the water, which is one of the best things about where the Nats hold camp.
Looking to make a weekend out of a trip to spring training? I'd recommend either March 10-13 or March 24-27. The first option would allow you to see five games in four days, if you're up to it - the Nationals have a day-night split-squad doubleheader on March 10 in Viera and Kissimmee, and you could easily make both games. You'd also see the Yankees on Saturday, and be able to get to Jupiter to see the Marlins on Sunday. Plus, you'd get an extra hour of daylight on Sunday. One caveat with this one: If you're flying out of Orlando, don't book a Sunday afternoon flight - you'd have no chance to make it from Jupiter. But nearby Palm Beach International has direct service to BWI or Reagan National.
As for the second weekend, you could fly into Orlando on the March 24 and head straight west to Lakeland for that night's 6:05 p.m. start against the Tigers. The Nationals are home on Friday and Sunday, and head to Kissimmee on Saturday. You could fly out Sunday night from Orlando (it's only about an hour from Viera) or extend your trip by a day or two and see the Nationals at Disney on Monday night (there should be fireworks after this one).
The road-savvy traveler might go for a midweek trip in mid-March; the Nationals have three straight road games, all an hour from Viera, March 15-17. You'd get to see Port St. Lucie, Kissimmee and Disney, before a home game on Friday, and the sports bars will be filled with March Madness. The Nationals are back in St. Lucie on Saturday with games in driving distance of Orlando on Wednesday and Thursday, so there are a few options here.
Anyway, that's my nine or 10 cents on spring training this year (this seemed like a lot more than two cents, didn't it?). Hope it helps. And if you make your way down to Space Coast Stadium, come on up to the front of the press box and say hi. Don't worry about the grumpy troll in the front row - that's just Craig Heist of WTOP. I'll be in the second row, and would love to talk baseball with you for a few minutes. Hope to see you there!