Astros-Nats spring home to have great impact
By Richard Justice | MLB.com | November 9, 2015
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It's a first-rate ballpark and a world-class Spring Training facility that will have the latest bells and whistles for the Nationals and Astros when it opens in 2017.
Like a lot of the new generation of spring complexes, this one will have an open layout, making virtually all the training areas accessible to fans. In that way, fans will have a chance to connect with their teams in a way they couldn't before.
"This is going to be some incredible place," Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said.
Commissioner Rob Manfred headed a list of VIPs for Monday morning's groundbreaking at the site of the complex, and his presence emphasized the importance he places on the facility on several levels.
First, there's the geography.
"One of the things we particularly like about Spring Training in Florida is that we have a west coast branch and an east coast branch," Manfred said. "This project was really critical to maintaining that east coast branch. This project is going to be great for the Nationals and Astros, but it's also going to be great for all of baseball."
Once the Nationals and Astros move into the complex in February 2017, Florida's east coast will have five teams -- Mets, Marlins, Cardinals, Astros, Nationals -- a relatively short drive from one another.
(The Astros and Nationals will be about 20 miles from the Cardinals and Marlins in Jupiter. The Mets are located around 30 miles north of Jupiter in Port St. Lucie.)
"That's huge," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Where we are now, our shortest drive is 75 minutes. That's not the best use of time. That's also not how fans want to be spending their time."
As Astros owner Jim Crane said, "If you've got a two-hour bus ride to start the day, that's four hours your players aren't using to prepare for the season."
Apart from the baseball, the Nationals and Astros hope to leave an impact in other ways. The new complex will include a 12-acre park the two teams will maintain. Both the Astros and Nats have some experience in this area.
In four years of Crane's ownership, the Astros have built and maintained 21 city parks -- and baseball diamonds -- in Houston. Likewise, the Nationals are involved in an assortment of projects in Washington, including a Nationals Youth Baseball Academy that provides baseball and softball facilities for at-risk communities.
"I think it'll have a great impact on this neighborhood," Crane said. "We've done a little bit of that work in Houston with the 21 parks. It really activates the community. It keeps the kids busy. I think you're going to have that here. This neighborhood is going to get revitalized over the next few years, and we've got kids playing baseball. That's what we want."
When Crane bought the Astros four years ago, his lengthy to-do list included a new spring complex that would be more modern and also closer to other teams. In the Nationals, he found a willing dance partner.
The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches will have 6,400 seats, plus a berm area that can accommodate another 1,250 fans. Baseball staffs from both clubs were asked for input into the design. They were asked, in essence, "In a perfect world, how many diamonds, pitching mounds, weight rooms, offices, etc., would you need?"
"This is going to be a first-class facility," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said, "and it does matter when you're recruiting players, developing players, to have a facility that's at least on par with what else is available in baseball.
"We're going to have an advantage, because we're going to build it from the ground up. It's going to help develop our players the right way. It definitely gives us an advantage. It's important that we've been involved every step of the way in the design elements for the baseball players and staff and baseball community. At the end of the day, what we're doing is building a training facility."
But the larger impact is more than that. The Astros and Nationals are proud of that part of the deal, too.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.