After an absence of nearly 20 years, spring training baseball returned to West Palm Beach on Tuesday with some bloops and a dramatic blast.
The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches experienced a few opening-day jitters — mainly complaints about concessions and an announced attendance of 5,987 that fell well short of a sellout of 7,500 for the much-hyped $150 million facility’s inaugural game.
But it was mostly a day of celebrations — from government leaders relieved that the complex opened on time to William Howard Taft winning the first Racing Presidents sprint to Washington Nationals outfielder Michael Taylor ending the game in the bottom of the ninth inning with a two-out home run.
“Who would have thought they could take a landfill and make it into something so beautiful,” Bill White of West Palm Beach said as he stood on the home plate concourse that up until fall 2015 was part of an abandoned 160-acre trash dump.
The festivities kicked in around 10:30 a.m. when season-ticket holder Tony Maturo of Portsmouth, Va., became the first fan to enter the shiny new stadium, which is shared by the Nationals and Houston Astros.
“We were there when they opened Nationals Park in D.C. and we wanted to be here when they opened this one,’’ said Maturo, wearing a red Nationals shirt.
A few minutes later, Nationals manager Dusty Baker sat in the dugout chatting with reporters as the grounds crew laid chalk in the batter’s box.
“It’s a beautiful yard. It’s like I’m moving into a new house,’’ said Baker, who played as an outfielder for the Atlanta Braves in the city’s previous spring training complex — West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium, which hosted its final game in March 1997.
Baker went out of his way to compliment the construction crews he has gotten to know in the two weeks since his team arrived.
“I still see people working but I’ve got to give these guys super props because they been working around the clock,” he said. “These are the guys I see when I get here at 6 in the morning, and when I leave at 6 at night they’re still here.”
Many of those workers were part of crews that worked 20-hour days since September to make sure the place got done in time.
“It is an amazing feat to build a complex this extensive in 15 months,” said Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, who was back at the site for the first time since the ground-breaking ceremony on Nov. 9, 2015.
“I know along the way I’m sure there were some nervous people in terms of making sure it got delivered,’’ he said, “but here we are. We are open and we are up and running.”
Not everything was up and running. The Hickory Sausage Shack in the left field concourse was one of several concession stands that lost power, causing long lines at other stands.
“I can’t wait to tell everybody how I went to the first game when they weren’t ready,’’ Chuck Harris laughed to his friends after they walked away from a closed beer stand.
But even Harris acknowledged he’d be back. So will Marty and Diane Sullivan, who were shocked to see so many empty blue seats.
“We got here early because we thought there’d be no tickets,’’ Diane, 83, said as she stood in the center field berm with her husband, Marty, 87.
“There are some glitches and hiccups but that’s what happens on opening day,’’ she said.
Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, an adviser for the Houston Astros, watched the game from Texas and offered his own observations in several phone calls to his son.
“I was just talking to him,’’ said Astros President Reid Ryan. “He’s watching on TV, asking me questions: ‘Hey, can fly balls from that (adjacent practice) field land in the stadium?’ I said, ‘No, there’s plenty of room.’ ”
Reid Ryan wasn’t too concerned about the lack of a sellout, pointing out how the game was on a Tuesday.
“I think this ballpark is going to grow on folks in time and they’re going to realize how many unique experiences they can have,” he said.
Debbie Wang of Palm Beach Gardens had a unique experience. Not long after Jeremy Guthrie delivered the first pitch at the new ballpark — a ball away at 1:07 p.m. to Houston’s Marwin Gonzalez — she became the first fan to snag a foul ball.
It bounced off her husband Keith’s hand and landed in her purse, which was at her feet about 10 rows up from the Astros’ dugout.
Drew Gregg of Davie was thrilled to celebrate his birthday at the ballpark’s first game.
“How many times do you get to go to an inaugural game — and on your birthday? That’s pretty cool,” he said.
Former Congressman Mark Foley, on his way to the Nationals suite, marveled at the ballpark. It was Foley who first showed the old landfill site to Nationals owner Mark Lerner in November 2013.
As he stood on the grass berm in center field, Foley recalled how he and Lerner then went to a Cracker Barrel restaurant and, over coffee, discussed the idea of building the ballpark.
“At that moment, everything is just kind of a pipe dream,” he said. ” In this particular mission it just came together seamlessly.”
Among those who attended Tuesday’s game was Rob Rabenecker, who was general manager of old West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium when it closed in 1997.
“This is night and day. It’s beautiful,” he said.