That magical date we've been counting down to for months is nearly upon us. Pitchers and catchers report for the start of spring training in a mere 12 days. And that means a lot of people are making their final preparations for the journey down to Viera, from players and support staff to media members to fans who want to see it all up close.
If you've been to Nationals camp before, you know the drill. But if you're a first-time visitor, you want to know what to expect.
With that in mind, it's time for the annual Nats Insider Spring Training Fan Guide. As I've done in previous years, I'll break this down into two parts over two days. Tomorrow, we'll talk about Viera and the surrounding community, where to stay and where to eat.
But first, let's talk some baseball. Here's what you'll find at Space Coast Stadium and the adjacent spring training complex...
Viera remains an enigma of sorts. It's still the most-remote stop in the Grapefruit League, 45 minutes east of Orlando near Melbourne and Cocoa Beach, an hour from the next-closest spring training sites (the Astros in Kissimmee and the Mets in Port St. Lucie). And for that reason, the Nationals continue to look for a new place to call home. (One such possibility is Fort Myers, which is attempting to step up its game and lure the Nats to City of Palms Park, which just lost the Red Sox to a new facility down the road.)
The Nationals desperately want to move to a location closer to other camps, either on the Gulf Coast, in Central Florida or perhaps even in Arizona. That won't happen until at least 2014, though, so you've still got two more springs to see the Nats in Viera.
Which actually is a good thing from the fan's perspective, because there may not be a better complex in all of baseball to watch spring training from up close. Space Coast Stadium is a cozy ballpark with nary a bad seat. And even better, the adjacent practice fields where the Nationals work out each morning offer fans the opportunity to see everyone and everything from point-blank range.
Spring training can really be broken down into two parts: The two-week period before the exhibition games start, and then the Grapefruit League schedule. During those first two weeks, the team holds daily workouts at that facility right down the street from the stadium. Stretching generally begins around 9 a.m., and everything wraps up around lunchtime. The workouts are shorter during the first few days before position players report, though even on days when only pitchers and catchers are formally working out, several early-reporting position players trickle out to take batting practice around noon.
The practice facility features four full-size fields arranged in a cloverleaf pattern, along with a half-field used for baserunning and infield drills and a large bullpen area with 10 mounds and plates aligned side-by-side. Different drills are conducted simultaneously on each field, such as pitchers' fielding practice (better known as PFP), pickoff moves, bunting, baserunning, defensive positioning, etc. Players rotate from field to field over the course of an hour, hitting each station.
Pitchers throw off a mound every other day, for about 7-10 minutes. After a week or so, they move out of the big, "10-pack" bullpen and onto the practice fields to throw "live BP" to hitters, always a highlight of the spring. (We can only hope this year to see Bryce Harper take some hacks against Stephen Strasburg.)
The best part of all of this is that fans can watch for free from right behind the fence. You're allowed to wander between the four cloverleaf fields, wander right up to the bullpen area, interact with players as they walk into the facility in the morning, walk between fields during the workout and walk out of the facility in the afternoon.
And you won't have to fight massive crowds. In the past, a typical weekday workout has drawn maybe 100 fans. Even on a weekend, that number probably doesn't surpass 300. Now, those numbers may go up this spring as the Nationals start to draw more attention. But you still can't beat the access. And you definitely can't beat the price.
(My annual weather warning: Bring layers. It can be surprisingly cold in Viera in late-February, with morning temperatures in the 40s. And it's always windy. Always.)
The spring routine changes once the Grapefruit League schedule begins in early-March. Instead of holding workouts at the practice facility, the Nationals conduct a lengthy pregame workout inside Space Coast Stadium before home games. Those workouts begin at 9 a.m. for a 1 p.m. game, but fans aren't allowed in until noon (season-ticket holders get in at 11 a.m.), at which point batting practice has nearly wrapped up. The team does, however, hold parts of BP or other workouts on a field directly behind the stadium, and fans can walk right up to that field, watch and get autographs.
As for the games themselves, they're very relaxed. You won't see the same kind of intensity as you'll see in the regular season. You also won't see much attention paid to the score. Players are each working on individual things, and the coaching staff is evaluating guys on an individual basis, not on a team basis. A ninth-inning rally may bring fans to their feet, but in the dugout and clubhouse, you'll hear nothing but groans from players who just want to leave for the day.
Another important warning: Space Coast Stadium was inexplicably built with a southern orientation (most ballparks are oriented to the North or Northeast). Which means almost every seat in the place is under direct sunlight during day games. Bring your SPF 45.
All that said, the games do offer fans a great chance to watch big-leaguers perform from up close. And, of course, you often get to see some big-name players from the visiting clubs. Though one final warning: Visiting teams don't send the entire roster on the road, only the guys scheduled to play that day. And the biggest names from the teams that have the farthest to travel to reach Viera (like the Yankees and Cardinals) rarely make the trip. If you're going to the March 15 game against the Yankees, prepare to see Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena, not Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
If you happen to be in town when the Nationals are on the road, you may still be able to catch a glimpse of some ballplayers in Viera. Whatever players don't make the trip work out every morning inside the stadium (that's closed to the public, though you may catch a few guys wandering out to the practice field). You can, however, see all of the organization's minor leaguers work out (and eventually play games) over at the adjacent complex. Given how few fans show up to those workouts, you'll really have your run of the place.
Important spring training dates
Pitchers and catchers report: Feb. 19
First pitchers and catchers workout: Feb. 21
Position players report: Feb. 23
First full-squad workout: Feb. 25
First exhibition game: March 2 vs. Georgetown
First Grapefruit League game: March 3 at Astros
First home Grapefruit League game: March 4 vs. Astros
Last home Grapefruit League game: March 31 vs. Cardinals
So there's the lowdown on the baseball side of spring training. If you've ever attended, please feel free to share your experiences and advice to the newbies. Tomorrow, we'll move to Viera and the surrounding Space Coast, with thoughts on hotels, restaurants and other activities.