A week from Monday, I'll be hopping on a plane from Washington Dulles to Orlando and wading through one of the country's worst airports. I'll pick up my rental car and start the 45-mile drive - east on State Highway 528, then south on Interstate 95 - from Orlando International Airport to Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla. There's nothing special about the trek, through a stretch of Florida that feels endlessly suburban, and by the time I arrive at Space Coast Stadium, there'll be no traces of a new baseball season anywhere nearby.
Some of you have probably made the same drive, and everyone involved with the Nationals, from players to instructors to front office officials, certainly has. And that feeling - the sense that you're heading toward one of the remotest outposts in the Grapefruit League - is why that drive, as well as everything else about springs in Viera, could be headed for extinction.
Though the Nationals' lease at Space Coast Stadium runs through 2017, it's no secret that they've made overtures to other cities about a spring training move, and could leave Viera well before their lease runs out if they find a home that's more to their liking.
Spring training on Florida's east coast is endangered, in general. The Mets are committed to Port St. Lucie through 2018, and the Marlins and Cardinals have a lease in Jupiter that runs through 2017. But Palm Beach County officials are already pressing the Marlins and Cardinals to extend their lease for 10 years before making improvements to Roger Dean Stadium, while those teams are pushing for a provision that would let them leave if the Nationals and Mets relocate.
The main issue, of course, is one of convenience: the Nationals, Mets, Marlins and Cardinals are the last four teams left on Florida's east coast, and after the Dodgers left Vero Beach following the 2008 season, the Nationals had no opponents within an hour of Viera. Meanwhile, teams have been moving to Arizona, where facilities are located in much closer proximity and rain is virtually a non-issue. There are now 15 teams in both Arizona and Florida, and the Cactus League pulled even with the Grapefruit League for the first time in 2009.
In Florida, the Grapefruit League almost has two divisions; there are eight teams on the Gulf Coast, with another three in the middle of the state (the Tigers, Braves and Astros) that can reach the west side of Florida. Then there are the four teams nestled along the Atlantic Ocean, seemingly with fewer opponents to pick from each year.
I'm also interested this year to see how the team's attendance shapes up this year; the Space Coast area has been ravaged by job cuts that coincided with NASA budget reductions, and the local economy has sagged as a result.
The Nationals could be the first team off Florida's east coast; they've talked with the Astros about building a new, joint facility in Kissimmee, and toured City of Palms Park in Fort Myers when they played the Red Sox last year, looking at moving into the park once the Red Sox get a new home in Fort Myers in 2012. There, the Nationals would be the third team in Fort Myers (with the Red Sox and Twins). They'd be a half-hour from Port Charlotte, where the Rays are located, and they could once again play the Orioles, who moved from Fort Lauderdale to Sarasota in 2010.
There's a real chance, then, this will be the team's last spring in Viera. There's nothing distinctive or memorable about it, but the area has seen plenty of growth over the last six years, and several Nationals players have bought homes near Space Coast Stadium. It's close to the ocean, and some of the towns along the coast offer a glimpse of old Florida, before the boom of strip malls and chain restaurants. The museums and exhibits at the nearby Kennedy Space Center are fantastic. And the baseball facility has given the Nationals a solid place to work. Though the area is far from spectacular, it's got its charms, and for six weeks every spring, it becomes home.
I'll wrap this up with a question: If the Nationals leave Viera, would you miss it, or is it time for them to move? And if you'd miss something about it, what would it be? Post your thoughts below.