Fans' guide to Nats spring training, Part 1: The complex

Would you believe the Nationals are about to enter their eighth spring training in West Palm Beach? Doesn’t it feel like yesterday we were all still in Viera, complaining about long drives to road games and controlled brush fires off in the distance beyond Space Coast Stadium?

The Nats made the move south to their new complex in 2017, and it’s been a win for the organization, no doubt. The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is one of the nicest spring training facilities in baseball, and after more than a decade spent driving all over the state of Florida for road games, the majority of Grapefruit League games are now no more than 15 minutes away.

Is West Palm Beach better than Viera for fans? I’ve heard both sides of the argument over the years, if we’re being honest. While the new complex is much nicer, and there’s more to do in the area, West Palm Beach is considerably more expensive and access to players isn’t quite as unrestricted as it used to be.

Having said all that, it’s still a great fan experience. And if you’ve never been before, what are you waiting for?

It’s been a while since I published one of these fan guides – looks like the last one was in 2019! – so it’s probably a good time to revisit the subject. We’ll focus today on what you can expect baseball-wise at the complex each day, then Tuesday we’ll run through everything you need to know about everything else away from the ballpark.

For those who don’t know, Nationals pitchers and catchers are set to report Feb. 14 and will hold their first official workout that morning. Position players will join them Feb. 20, with the Grapefruit League schedule commencing Feb. 24.

If you’re planning to come before those games start, you will have free access to parking lot and workout fields. Players typically come outside around 9 a.m. for the morning “Circle of Trust” session with Davey Martinez, though that schedule can change based on the various meetings that are held each spring. They’ll then disperse among the six practice fields and large bullpen area for stretching, throwing, fielding, batting, baserunning and pitching drills.

Don’t show up too late, especially during those first six days when only the pitchers and catchers are there. Those workouts typically wrap up before lunch. They’ll extend a bit longer when the position players join them, with live batting practice between pitchers and hitters the highlight of those sessions.

Though a short fence separates fans from players, you can still get awfully close to the guys to watch the workouts, and there are several prime locations where you can camp out and ask for autographs as they come and go.

Things change somewhat when the games begin, but not as much as you might think. The Nationals actually keep holding those same workouts on the practice fields outside the stadium at the same time in the morning before a 1:05 p.m. game. (The workouts before a 6:05 p.m. game probably start around 2 p.m.)

Two key things to remember: They take batting practice on those workout fields, not inside the stadium, so there’s little reason to enter the actual ballpark until closer to game time. And even when they’re playing a road game in nearly Jupiter or Port St. Lucie, they still hold their morning workout in West Palm Beach before getting on the bus. (That won’t be true for their road games that are farther away, against the Red Sox or Twins in Fort Myers.)

And if you’re coming later in March, you’ll also get a chance to see the minor leaguers work out on those practice fields in the late-morning, if you’re interested in catching a glimpse of the future.

As for the official Grapefruit League games, they’re very low-key. The first week or two of games will see the regulars play only a few innings at a time, often every other day. Starting pitchers will only go two or three innings. Top relievers may not even begin pitching until March. But if you want to see some of the kids before they get sent to minor-league camp, they should get significant playing time early.

If you’re coming during the second half of March, you’ll see the regulars taking three or four plate appearances, starting pitchers reaching the fifth or sixth inning and top relievers appearing on a regular schedule.

Road games can be fun, too, and there’s usually a decent turnout of visiting fans at the various ballparks. Given how close the Nats, Astros, Marlins, Cardinals and Mets train to each other, it’s easy to get from complex to complex.

If you’ve done it before, you know how much fun spring training is. If you haven’t done it before, you don’t know what you’re missing!

But don’t just take my word for it. If you have your own thoughts or advice for fellow fans, please feel free to share them. And if you’re a novice with questions for more experienced folks, please go ahead and ask them.

Then check back Tuesday for Part 2 of the series, with my advice on how to get to West Palm Beach, where to stay, where to eat and what to do when you’re not at the ballpark.

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