Houston Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch took a glance Wednesday around his team’s new spring training facility in West Palm Beach and declared it immense.
Well, sure, but that’s not the half of it when you’re talking about the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
“We still haven’t seen the (Washington) Nationals, this place is so big,” Hinch said in reference to the second franchise just settling in on the opposite end of the complex. “We won’t even see the Nationals until we play them.”
On Saturday, fans of the teams and followers of baseball in general will be allowed onto the property to take their own measure of the place. Bring sturdy walking shoes if all 12 practice fields are on our agenda, and a stiff dose of patience.
There are more than a couple of major league teams under construction here this spring. The main stadium itself is still being bolted together, with orange plastic fences to keep the public out of areas where they might accidentally get painted or wet-vacuumed into a corner in the rush to put everything in its place for the exhibition opener on Feb. 28.
It was the same kind of frenzy to get Roger Dean Stadium completed in Jupiter in 1998. That project, built originally for the St. Louis Cardinals and the old Montreal Expos, was just 12 months from groundbreaking to completion, and it was a similarly close call.
Perhaps the most stunning visuals this time around are the impossibly tall nylon nets designed to keep balls from landing on Military Trail or in the apartment complexes to the north. Looks like they were built to contain a towering Jurassic Park monster, but no, it’s just Bryce Harper and the boys.
Wednesday was the first workout for Houston’s pitchers and catchers and they only used a third of the team’s available practice fields. Nothing wrong with the others. They’re all dreamy green and mowed and rolled to perfection. It’s just a lot to take in at first, and a long way to go to the most distant diamond without packing a lunch, or at least an extra bucket of sunflower seeds.
“We’ve got a lot of acreage here to investigate,” said Hinch, who as he spoke was standing on a large rectangular patch of artificial turf, a luxury add-on meant for agility drills and running and such.
Next door at the Nationals complex there’s an outdoor training pool. Supposedly heated, but why bother? It was 86 degrees out there Wednesday with a Saharan wind blowing waves of sand across the grass parking lots. This is Florida, folks, and these teams already know it well from their previous training sites, Kissimmee for the Astros and Viera, or the Melbourne area, for the Nats.
Washington manager Dusty Baker calls his pitchers and catchers together Thursday for their opening workout. Back in 1968, he was a teenager reporting to his first spring training in West Palm Beach, only then the Atlanta Braves were here, and so was Municipal Stadium, a shiny new facility that nobody could have guessed would eventually be abandoned and demolished after 35 years of service.
We move on, and rapidly.
Brad Peacock, for instance, was a third baseman at Palm Beach Central High School not that long ago. Then he tried pitching at Palm Beach State College and built a pro baseball career for himself, first with the Nationals and now with the Astros. Peacock and his wife, Stephanie, high school sweethearts, live west of Lake Worth, about 15 miles from the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, which all of a sudden is his new spring training home. Oh, and in June they’re expecting a baby boy.
That’s a lot to fit into one paragraph, but that’s baseball, a sport full of surprises. Like this one.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t think I ever went to a spring-training game when I was little at all,” Peacock said. “I just didn’t even think about it.”
Well, it’s front and center now, with Peacock’s Houston teammates sure to hit him up for local knowledge on the best fishing and golf spots. He frequents Okeeheelee and Park Ridge, a couple of county golf courses, but major-leaguers always get a few perks, too, like the round Peacock was able to play just this week on PGA National’s Champion course, site of the Honda Classic.
“Everything that you could possibly want is right here,” said Astros catcher Brian McCann, taking both the area and the new training facility into account. “We’re all spoiled. This is amazing.”
Seven times an all-star, the veteran McCann has plenty of credibility when it comes to reviewing the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, but even more so because of the two places where he previously trained — ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex, built for the Braves with the full Disney treatment, and Tampa’s George M. Steinbrenner Field, home of the full New York Yankees treatment.
So it’s finally happening. West Palm Beach is stepping back up to the plate as a spring-training headquarters and the crowd undoubtedly will go wild once everybody’s actually allowed on the property.
Until then, we’ll let the Nationals and Astros do all the cheering, and with no coaxing at all.