Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training Tuesday at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, and they had plenty of company.
As pitcher Stephen Strasburg tried on pants in the Washington Nationals clubhouse, a construction worker atop a step ladder fiddled with wires on a blinking red curly “W” mounted on the ceiling.
Outside the Houston Astros clubhouse, sparks flew from a welder’s gun and dust spewed from a roaring concrete saw as pitchers Ken Giles and Mike Fiers played catch a few yards away.
West Palm Beach Fire Department inspectors brushed past first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and pitcher Gio Gonzalez on an inspection of the Nationals clubhouse.
Of course, no one was complaining on a day that marked the return of spring training to West Palm Beach for the first time since 1997.
“Oh, man, it’s hard not to love this place,’’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch said as he took in the view at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, a $150 million complex that broke ground Nov. 9, 2015, on an old trash dump south of 45th Street at Military Trial.
“Obviously there’s going to be some odds and ends we’ve got to finish, but you walk in, it’s gorgeous. It’s got everything you can think of. The fields are ready for us. It’s a wonderful new home.’’
The public, which helped pay for the complex through a hotel bed tax and a $50 million state contribution, gets to see the practice fields for the first time on Saturday. The first game in the main stadium is Feb. 28. But the 160-acre complex essentially opened for baseball Tuesday as players arrived for the first time.
“You can see it (coming down 45th Street) off the highway, the lights and the netting. It’s almost like an amusement park here,” said Astros pitcher Mike Fiers. “Once I pulled in, I saw all the construction workers and I was like, ‘Where do I go?’”
Turns out the clubhouses are hard to miss: The Astros, with a giant “H” and star outside, are north of the stadium. The Nationals, marked by a giant red curly “W” in the parking lot, are to the south.
“I won’t get lost here. I see a big “H” for us so I know which side to go on,” said Astros pitcher Ken Giles. “It’s a great facility. Everybody is doing a great job trying to finish up those small touches.”
In the Nationals clubhouse, a hard-hat worker crawled across the carpet in front of Bryce Harper’s locker, making sure the molding was perfect when the All Star right fielder arrives later this week. The chairs in the lobby were still covered in protective plastic.
“It looks incomplete,’’ Astros pitcher Luke Gregerson said about his first impressions.
“Obviously they have such a short timetable to put a massive facility together so there’s expected to be some delays and hiccups along the way. But the grass is green and the mounds look great. That’s pretty much our office.”
It’s certainly a vast improvement over the teams’ previous spring training homes, aging facilities in Viera (Nationals) and Kissimmee (Astros).
“There are a lot of guys in awe of this place, and that’s no knock against Kissimmee. It’s more pro-West Palm Beach,” Hinch said.
“I’m not trying to knock Viera but this is state-of-the-art, and the guys who have been with the Nationals since they were drafted have never seen anything like this before,’’ said Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark.
“It has the feel of a big league facility and we are lucky to have a place like this.”
The biggest improvement is the location — just a few exits on Interstate 95 from the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, and a 30-minute drive to the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie.
“Once we get to (playing) games, we will feel the real benefit of being in West Palm Beach and having five teams within 20 or 30 miles,” Hinch said.
Managers for both teams said the ongoing construction will not affect their usual spring drills.
“I love the facility,” said Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who spent spring training at the old West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium in the 1970s as a player for the Atlanta Braves.
“Sure, they’ve got some things that they still have to zero-in on but it’s outstanding. … They even have a swimming pool out there. That’s really state of the art.”