File photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Spring training in Viera offers fans plenty of up-close interaction.
One request several readers had (and something I'd been planning to do anyway) was to post a fan's guide to spring training and Viera. There are plenty of angles to cover on this, so I figured I'd break it up into two parts. Today, we'll look at what you should know about Space Coast Stadium and the adjacent minor-league complex. Tomorrow, I'll tell you what you should know about the town away from the facility.
Viera gets disparaged a lot, and not without merit. It's probably the most-remote outpost in the Grapefruit League, with no other facility within 55 miles. A still-unincorporated, planned community along Interstate 95, it's lacking in charm but doesn't lack strip malls or chain restaurants.
That said, there may not be a better site in Florida to watch spring training up close. I've been to nearly every facility in the state over the years, and the only one I can remember offering more fan access to players was Dodgertown in Vero Beach, which was abandoned two years ago.
So if you're more interested in standing about 10 feet away from Stephen Strasburg as he throws off a bullpen mound than dining at a five-star restaurant, Viera is the place for you.
Nationals camp can really be broken down into two parts: The two-week period before the exhibition games start, and then the Grapefruit League schedule. During those first two weeks, the team holds daily workouts at the minor-league facility right down the street from Space Coast Stadium. Stretching generally begins around 9 a.m., and everything generally wraps up around lunchtime. The workouts are shorter during the first few days before position players report, though even on days when only pitchers and catchers are formally working out, several early-reporting position players trickle out to take batting practice around noon.
The minor-league facility includes four fields arranged in a cloverleaf pattern, along with a half-field used for baserunning and infield drills and a giant bullpen with 10 mounds side-by-side. Different drills are conducted simultaneously on each field, such as pitchers' fielding practice (better known as PFP), pickoff moves, bunting, baserunning, defensive positioning, etc. Players rotate from field to field over the course of an hour, hitting each station.
Pitchers throw off a mound every other day, for about 7-10 minutes. After a week or so, they move out of the giant bullpen and onto the practice fields to throw "live BP" to hitters, one of my favorite spring drills.
My other favorite drills are when the entire team gathers on one field to work on defensive fundamentals and game situations. You'll have 50 players on one field at the same time (the pitchers are off in foul territory, taking turns trotting out to the mound to field their position) as well as the full coaching staff, someone hitting fungoes to every corner of the field as everyone springs into motion, including baserunners. Makes for some comical moments, especially if a rundown is involved.
The best part of all of this is that fans can watch for free from right behind the fence. You're allowed to wander between the four cloverleaf fields, wander right up to the bullpen area, interact with players as they walk into the facility in the morning, walk between fields during the workout and walk out of the facility in the afternoon.
On a typical weekday, there may not be more than 100 fans in attendance. Even on a weekend, that number probably doesn't surpass 300. Point is, you get fantastic access to everything, and it doesn't cost a dime.
(One weather-related warning if you're planning to attend: Bring layers. It can be surprisingly cold in Viera in late-February, with morning temperatures in the 40s. And it's always windy. Always.)
The spring routine changes once the Grapefruit League schedule begins. Instead of holding workouts at the minor-league facility, the Nationals conduct a lengthy pregame workout inside Space Coast Stadium before home games. Those workouts begin at 9 a.m. for a 1 p.m. game, but fans aren't allowed in until (I believe) 11 a.m., at which point batting practice is in full-swing. The team does sometimes hold parts of BP or other workouts on a field directly behind the stadium, and fans can walk right up to that field and watch.
As for the games themselves, they're very relaxed. You won't see the same kind of intensity as you'd see in the regular season. You also won't see much attention paid to the score. Players are each working on individual things, and the coaching staff is evaluating guys on an individual basis, not on a team basis. A ninth-inning rally may bring fans to their feat, but in the dugout and clubhouse, you'll hear nothing but groans from players who just want to leave for the day.
All that said, the games do offer fans a great chance to watch big-leaguers perform from up close. I remember watching Strasburg's first inning against the Tigers last March from the third row behind the plate, seeing the dramatic movement of that breaking ball from an incredible vantage point. And don't forget the Nats do play a few high-profile teams in Viera, including the Cardinals, Braves, Mets and Yankees (though don't expect too many Yankee players of consequence to make the 3-hour trip from Tampa).
Important dates to know
Pitchers and catchers report: Feb. 15
First pitchers and catchers workout: Feb. 17
Position players report: Feb. 20
First full-squad workout: Feb. 22
First Grapefruit League game: Feb. 28 at Mets
First home game: March 1 vs. Mets
Last Grapefruit League game: March 29 vs. Mets
You can see the entire Grapefruit League schedule here.
So there's the lowdown on the baseball side of spring training. Tomorrow, we'll move to Viera and the surrounding Space Coast, with thoughts on hotels, restaurants and other activities.
UPDATE AT 10:45 A.M. -- I forgot to mention this: Minor-league camp begins in mid-March. Those players all work out at the minor-league facility after the big-leaguers vacate it to start the Grapefruit League schedule. There are morning workouts and intrasquad games around 11 a.m. most days, with minor-leaguers from other clubs coming in to play games against them later in March. Big-leaguers who need extra at-bats or innings (especially guys coming off injuries) frequently appear in these "B" games.