Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang have turned Viera into this spring's hot spot.
Over time, though, this little hamlet has grown into a legitimate destination. Homes, golf courses, shopping centers and government offices have sprung up and enticed residents and commerce alike to set up shop here. The cows have disappeared. The brush fires are no more. And the locals suddenly have to deal with the real result of population growth: traffic.
It's probably coincidence, but for the first time in its 17 years of existence, Viera also finds itself one of the state's hottest destinations for baseball fans, executives and reporters. All of a sudden, people want to come see the Nationals.
The hottest destination in Florida this spring isn't Panama City, Daytona Beach or Key West. It's Viera.
Viera? Believe it. Already, an unusually large number of fans have made their way out to the Nats' early spring workouts, wanting to catch a glimpse of a certain rookie right-hander. Today, a horde of international media converged on Space Coast Stadium to chronicle Chien-Ming Wang's every move in his first full day at camp.
And when Stephen Strasburg takes the mound shortly after 1 p.m. tomorrow for his spring training debut ... well, the spotlight will be shining on Viera like never before. A large crowd is expected (though tickets were still available earlier today). An overflow press corps also is expected, leaving the Nationals' PR staff scrambling to figure out where to seat everyone. And for those who aren't there in person, the game will be televised live on MASN in the D.C. area and simulcast on MLB Network for the rest of the country to see.
"I can't wait for 1:05 tomorrow," left-hander Scott Olsen said. "It's gonna be a circus."
At the center of it all will be this soft-spoken pitcher from San Diego, a reluctant superstar who's already earned more than $15 million before ever facing a professional batter. Up til now, it's been all hype. Now, we finally get to see Strasburg with a ball in his hand and a real, big-league lineup in the opposing dugout.
Perhaps in past years, the Tigers would have sent over a "B" team from Lakeland. Not tomorrow. Five members of Jim Leyland's projected Opening Day lineup will be on hand, including Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen. Right-hander Rick Porcello, himself a phenom former first-round draft pick who was handed gobs of money, will start for a Detroit club that doesn't intend to take a back seat to Strasburg.
"I'm going to swing the bat," Cabrera told the Detroit Free Press today. "I'm sure he throws hard. I'm going to be ready."
Will Strasburg be ready? It's hard to believe he won't. Despite all the hoopla surrounding him the last three weeks, the kid has remained remarkably focused on the task at hand.
While others may be looking for him to strike out all six batters he faces, hit triple digits on the radar gun and levitate above the pitcher's mound, Strasburg would be quite content to just get his work in and then move on to his next outing.
"I hope he doesn't come out and try to throw 800 miles an hour and do anything stupid," first baseman Adam Dunn said. "Just go. Just pitch. Just play. And I think he will. I haven't been around him very much, but just being around him and watching him and talking to him a little bit, I think he's probably one of our stronger dudes up top, if you know what I mean. I think he'll handle this fine."
(Who else besides Adam Dunn could utter the phrase "one of our stronger dudes up top" and not sound like a total bumpkin?)
So no one's particularly worried with how Strasburg will handle all this attention. The more appropriate question might be: How are the Nationals going to handle all this attention suddenly being thrust upon them?
Once baseball's remote outpost -- the equivalent of Viera -- Washington is now the talk of the majors. Ridiculed or pitied by the rest of the baseball world for the last four years, the Nats are now basking in the spotlight, thanks to a series of roster additions. Strasburg, of course, tops the list. But Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Marquis and Wang have contributed to the party.
Wang, in particular, has brought an entirely new fan base with him to Washington. The baseball-mad island of Taiwan (and by extension, mainland China) is fast becoming familiar with the Nationals. And if you doubt that, ask me sometime how many hits this site is suddenly getting from the San-Ch'Ung district of Taipai City.
Wang had at least a dozen Taiwanese media members following his every move today. If he comes back from his shoulder surgery as expected, Nationals Park will turn into San-Ch'Ung West every five days this summer.
And if Strasburg is the real deal and starts every fifth day for this club? Better buy your tickets now. It's going to become a major event.
Don't think the Nationals' front office doesn't know this. These two pitchers weren't added solely for their ability to help the franchise win. They were added in part to help put more butts in the seats and perhaps offset the natural attendance decline you'd expect from a club that has lost 100-plus games each of the last two seasons.
Some front-office execs have even gone so far as to extrapolate when the appropriate date for Strasburg's major-league debut might be. Let's see, if he pitches every fifth day from here on out ... how does June 8 against the Pirates sound? Think that might turn an otherwise pedestrian Tuesday night on South Capitol Street into something a tad more significant?
But first things first. Strasburg needs to pitch two innings tomorrow against the Tigers in Viera. Emerge from that test in one piece and then we can start making plans for June.
For now, enjoy this rare moment in the sun. The baseball world has come to Viera. And if the hosts play their cards right, everyone may just decide to stick around for a while.