WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) Bryce Harper drove in the first run, the rain stayed away and a festive crowd saw a game-ending homer. All in all, a nice start on opening day for The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
Shared by the Houston Astros and Washington, the teams met Tuesday in the first spring training game at the new $150 million complex. The Nationals won 4-3 on Michael Taylor’s drive with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
The biggest draw for many of the 5,987 fans seemed to be the racing president mascots, who made the trip south from Nationals Park. Instead of Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, the opener featured William Taft, Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge.
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”I miss Teddy, George and Jeff,” said David Blackwood, who made the trip across Florida from Sarasota for the game. ”These are like the spring training presidents. They haven’t made the squad yet.”
There are still more permanent fixtures that need work at the park that holds over 7,000 – some concession stands won’t open for a few more games, not all bathrooms had hot water. But what was accomplished in 15 months since the ballpark’s approval is being lauded by players, coaches, fans and Commissioner Rob Manfred, who was in attendance.
”The stadium bowl itself is absolutely first rate, but I think the back fields and practice areas are amazing, as well,” Manfred said.
The Astros and Nationals each have one back field that mimics the dimensions of their home ballpark, plus five other full-sized practice fields apiece.
Along with clubhouses that rival most of those at major league ballparks in both size and number of televisions, the Nationals’ side of the facility also features a training pool, which began to be filled on Monday.
”A diving board would have been nice – maybe a slide,” joked Jeremy Guthrie, who threw the first pitch of the game after morning rain cleared out.
For the record, Daniel Murphy got the first hit and Carlos Beltran launched the first homer. Harper doubled home the first run.
Players raved about field conditions, which offered dimensions of 335, 406 and 336 feet from left to right. The bullpens are down the lines behind the outfield wall, with a green berm where fans can stretch out and watch the game.
Beyond the left field berm resides the Houston executive offices, which Derek Norris hit on one bounce for a home run. From the upper level seats fans can glimpse several of the back fields.
Taylor’s homer over the left field foul pole marked the first spring training game in West Palm Beach since 1997. The Nationals’ franchise once called West Palm Beach home, back when they were the Montreal Expos. The Braves and Expos shared a complex in town for years.
The Nationals explored options on both coasts of Florida as a replacement for their previous spring training complex in Viera, two hours north of their new residence. The Astros moved from Kissimmee, more than two hours away.
About 15 minutes from the new ballpark in Jupiter is Roger Dean Stadium, shared by the Cardinals and Marlins.
”I love the idea of spring training baseball in southeastern Florida,” said Manfred, who has an apartment close to West Palm Beach. ”I actually think it’s not just personal, it’s good for the game to have two centers of baseball in the state of Florida. It allows teams to keep their travel time down, but you do need a certain number of teams to make it all work.”
While in Viera, bus rides of two and three hours were the norm for the Nationals. This spring 27 of their 34 games will be played in Palm Beach County. Three more will be played two counties north at the Mets’ facility in Port St. Lucie, less than an hour away.
”Riding on the bus for four hours is not that fun so having fewer trips like that is definitely better,” said Taylor, who set up his winning homer by throwing out a runner at the plate to end the top of the ninth.
There is one potential pothole that Nationals manager Dusty Baker didn’t face when the club camped in Viera. In West Palm Beach and the surrounding area, there are plenty of attractions to occupy a player’s time away from the ballpark – and some of those places remain open until 5 a.m.
”We were in Viera, there wasn’t anybody staying open,” Baker said. ”It was nice, but, you know, it was easy to get your rest.”