A final and fond farewell to Viera

VIERA, Fla. - The question inevitably would come from someone every February, once you mentioned you were getting ready to leave for spring training.

"Where do the Nationals train?"

"Uh, it's a town called Viera. You've probably never heard of it."

"Vero Beach?"

"No, Viera. It's near Melbourne."

"Where's that?"

"Do you know where Cocoa Beach is?"

"Sort of."

"Well, it's ... eh, it's 45 minutes east of Orlando."

Space-Coast-Stadium-sunset.jpgYou'd have thought after 12 years folks would have learned about Viera, but it just never really happened. And it won't ever happen now, because this afternoon the Nationals and Marlins play the last spring training game at Space Coast Stadium.

Ten months from now (barring terrible weather that screws up the construction schedule) the Nats and Astros will christen their brand new, joint facility in West Palm Beach. It promises to be one of the nicest stadiums in baseball, maybe the nicest one in Florida, which has sorely lagged behind Arizona in building state-of-the-art spring training facilities over the last decade.

And everyone who sets foot in the place probably will remark at some point: "Boy, I don't miss Viera."

Viera has taken plenty of abuse during the 12 years the Nationals have called it home, not to mention the previous two years when the then-Expos trained there, not to mention the previous nine years when the Marlins served as the town's original spring residents.

It's easy to make fun of Viera. It's a planned community that sprung up overnight in an otherwise empty portion of Brevard County. The original vista from behind the plate at Space Coast Stadium featured cow pastures, brush fires and that one county government building way off in the distance.

Fine dining? Not in Viera, at least not in those early days. When then-Nationals general manager Jim Bowden needed to take the recently acquired Alfonso Soriano and his agent out to dinner in February 2006 to convince the career second baseman to move to the outfield, he picked the classiest restaurant within five miles of the ballpark: Perkins. (Maybe we shouldn't have been surprised when Soriano initially refused to take his position in left field, leaving only eight Nats standing out there until Frank Robinson could find a last-minute replacement.)

Then there were the official town slogans, plastered on the outfield wall in an attempt to lure someone watching a game back home on TV they might actually want to pack up and move down here someday. Remember "Viera: Home to Choices"? Or "In Viera, Even Better"?

Personally, I always felt like local leaders were missing an opportunity to really sell outsiders on the place with this potential slogan that has the added advantage of being true: "Viera: A Walgreens on Every Corner!"

See, it's just too easy.

Here's the thing, though: Viera gets a bad rap. It's really nowhere close to as bad as we've made it out to be over the last dozen years. It has grown considerably over time. And in the process, it has grown on us.

If you want a decent meal, you don't have to go to Perkins anymore. LongHorn Steakhouse in the bustling outdoor shopping center known as The Avenue is more than adequate. Or head down Wickham Road a little bit and enjoy Amici's, as good a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant as you'll find anywhere in the United States.

Or do as we all did over time and expand your reach into the surrounding area, from quaint Downtown Melbourne to relaxing Cocoa Beach to any of the charming establishments that feature an outdoor deck along the banks of the Indian River.

See, this place isn't so bad after all. Which isn't to say there aren't plenty of things we'll happily leave behind next year and beyond ...

I won't miss the cramped layout of Space Coast Stadium, where the press conference room doubles as a chapel, a marketplace for various companies hawking baseball bats and gloves, designer suits and designer cowboy boots, and the only passageway to get from the front lobby to the clubhouse.

I won't miss the elevator, which offered at least a one-in-three chance of going the opposite direction you asked it to go.

I won't miss the quarter-mile walk to and from the practice fields where the Nationals would hold workouts the first two weeks of camp.

I won't miss the 30 mph wind on a 48-degree February morning out on those back fields, with nothing tall enough to block it from cutting right through however many layers you remembered to wear that day.

And I certainly won't miss the long drives up and down Interstate 95 and across the Beachline Expressway every other day in March for road games. The shortest drive we've been making from Viera all these years to other teams' complexes is an hour. The longest drive anybody in Arizona has to make each spring is 45 minutes.

That said, there are far more things I will miss about Viera than I won't miss ...

I will miss the intimacy of spring training here, where fans have been able to mingle with players, managers, team execs and media members closer than they can get at any other big league camp.

I will miss the people who worked at Space Coast Stadium, trying to make things a little better for us, always with a smile across their faces.

I will miss Boyd the security guard at the front desk, commenting each and every morning on your choice of clothing: "Going with shorts today, huh?"

I will miss Thomas Bell, the club's longtime director of Florida operations, who had the thankless job of making sure every mundane task was taken care of (too often forced to just do it himself).

I will miss the rocket launches from the nearby Kennedy Space Center, a thrill to watch in person every single time.

I will miss the veal parmesan at Amici's, the lobster chowder at River Rocks and the grouper bruschetta at Bonefish Willy's. I'll really miss the grouper bruschetta at Bonefish Willy's.

And I will miss trying to explain to people where the Nationals hold spring training. West Palm Beach? Everyone's heard of that.

Viera? That's much tougher to explain.

Maybe it wasn't perfect. Maybe it had its disadvantages compared to other spring training towns.

But it was the right place for the Nationals to call home for these last 12 springs. Back in 2005, there wasn't much to Viera. It still needed time to grow into something more substantial. Just like the brand new Washington Nationals. Together, the franchise and the town grew.

The Nats grew faster than Viera did, though. Now they need to train someplace bigger, someplace more notable, someplace easier for the rest of the baseball world to locate.

It's time to move on, but not before recognizing the role this town played in the Nationals' slow and steady growth. The Nats needed Viera, and Viera needed the Nats.

And so after 12 years of punchlines and complaints, of long road trips and outdated facilities, it's OK to admit the truth.

We'll miss you, Viera.

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