With his father’s blessing, Samson O’Neill skipped first period Friday at Independence Middle School.
O’Neill, 14, wasn’t about to miss out on his annual ritual of greeting Miami Marlins pitchers and catchers on the first day of spring training, even if it meant missing science class and standing outside in 37-degree temperatures.
“He’ll go to school in a bit, and when school lets out, he and his friends will all pile down back here to get more autographs from players as they leave,’’ said Abacoa resident Bill O’Neill, Samson’s father.
Fans like the O’Neills arrived at Roger Dean Stadium talking about the new players added over the winter by the Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals.
The chatter was also about the off-season strides made by local government leaders to preserve spring training in the area.
If all goes as planned, the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros will open a new $135 million stadium just south of 45th Street — about 15 minutes down Interstate 95 from Jupiter — in time for the 2017 spring.
“Just knowing they are starting to build up the teams is great,’’ said Daniel Cavalieri of Jupiter, who brought his 4-year-old son Joseph to get Marlins autographs.
The move is still contingent on state lawmakers approving a land-use change next month, but the heavy lifting has been done.
In October, Palm Beach County earmarked $108 million in bed-tax money for the new stadium and in January brokered a deal with West Palm Beach for a 160-acre site for the complex.
Without approval of the money and land, the Nationals and Astros might be looking at Florida’s west coast or Arizona for a new spring home.
“Without those two teams, it would have been goodbye baseball on the east coast. We don’t need that,’’ Richard Nestro of Tequesta said as he waited for Marlins pitchers to sign autographs.
Nestro wasn’t exaggerating. If the county and city hadn’t played ball this off-season with the Astros and Nationals, the Marlins and Cardinals would be giving serious consideration to breaking their lease at Roger Dean Stadium.
“I’m glad it never came to that,’’ said Mike Hill, the Marlins’ president of baseball operations.
The Marlins share Roger Dean Stadium with the Cardinals under lease extensions that expires in 2027. But the extensions, signed in 2011, give both teams an out clause that allows them to leave earlier if the New York Mets left Port St. Lucie or if the Nationals left Viera for sites on the west coast of Florida.
The teams insisted on the out clause because the Baltimore Orioles left Fort Lauderdale for Sarasota in 2009, leaving the Marlins and Cardinals as the southernmost teams on Florida’s east coast.
“We didn’t delve into any worst-case scenarios but it was definitely something that was on the backs of our minds,’’ Hill said of a potential Marlins move out of Jupiter.
Teams prefer to be closer together during spring training so they can spend more time preparing for the season and less time on travel to play exhibition games.
For example, the Marlins on March 6 – in just their second Grapefruit League game — will travel across the state to Fort Myers to play the Boston Red Sox.
Spending most of the off-season in Jupiter, Marlins pitcher Tom Koehler said he was encouraged to read about the county’s efforts to lure the Astros and Nationals to West Palm Beach.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “Spring training is such a different schedule than the regular season. You hardly ever get on a bus and go two hours to play a game in the regular season and that’s what we have to do during spring. Just having some sort of normalcy makes it better.”
Traveling across the state can also cost thousands of dollars to charter buses. But that’s not the case in Arizona, where most of the 15 Cactus League teams are clustered within 20 minutes of each other.
“There was a lot to be concerned about,’’ said Dave Van Horne, a Palm Beach Gardens resident who works as the Marlins’ radio broadcaster.
“Once you lose something, it’s difficult to get it back. We’ve seen that in some major league cities and we’ve seen it happen in spring training areas like Fort Lauderdale and Vero Beach, so it was a little scary. You’d hate to see the east coast, or any area, get down to the point where they don’t have any teams here.’’
On the Cardinals’ side of the complex, Kevin Warren of St. Louis wasn’t getting many autographs but he was just happy to be basking in the sun, even if he was sitting in the cold.
“There was 5, 6 inches of snow Sunday when we left St. Louis. In Memphis we ran into ice. This is wonderful,’’’ Warren said.
Mike Bauer, general manager of Roger Dean Stadium, said fans will appreciate having two more teams close by in West Palm Beach.
“I don’t think fans realized what we were up against,” he said.