All photos (c) Cheryl Nichols 2009. Photos used by permission.
So you are planning a trip to Viera, Florida to see the Washington Nationals at spring training, are you?
Well, hearty fan, good for you.
Spring training is a great place to see major league baseball up close, maybe get an autograph, work on your tan, and generally avoid your real life for a weekend—or, if you are lucky, a whole week.
The following spring training guide will give you some ideas and suggestions on what to do, where to go and things you should not miss on your trip.
The best advice I can give you, though, is to purchase a guidebook to help you on your way. I use two: Florida Spring Training by Alan Byrd and Spring Training Handbook by Joshua Pahigian. They are both very valuable resources as you trek across the "Sunshine State".
LOCATION AND HISTORY
The Washington Nationals train at Space Coast Stadium in sunny Viera, Florida.
Viera is a planned community that was built on a former celery farm, cattle farms and scrub forest land. As such, there is not much there, but it does grow every time we visit. There's a shopping mall, high school, regional park, and the ballpark, along with the planned communities.
Viera is 49 miles from Orlando International Airport and it is just minutes off of I-95, so it is very easy to find. Space Coast Stadium was built in 1993 and serves as the regular season home for the Brevard County Manatees of the Florida State League.
Space Coast Stadium was named for the region where it is located, just a few miles from Florida's historic "Space Coast" of Cocoa Beach and Cape Cnaveral. Honoring NASA's achievements and the space theme is evident both in and outside the park.
The Nationals have trained at Space Coast Stadium and the minor league complex associated with it—named after the first Florida Marlins President Carl Barger—since their inaugural season in 2005.
The Florida Marlins trained at Space Coast Stadium from its inception until 2002. As part of an agreement involving the sale of the Montreal Expos by Jeffrey Loria, the Marlins swapped training sites with the Expos, who had been training in Jupiter, Florida.
The Expos held two seasons of training at Space Coast in 2003-04 before the franchise moved to Washington, and the Nationals have been using the complex ever since.
Before the 2008 spring training, the stadium went through many upgrades, including substituting the teal and black of the Marlins for red, white and blue of the Nationals. The foul pole memorials to the Space Shuttles Columbia and Challenger tragedies are another example of the space theme and a very nice and respectful touch.
Game lineups are available on the concourse on a dry erase board.
Overall, it's a large minor league stadium (capacity 8,100), so the best suggestion when you get tickets is to get box seats or the reserved seats down the baselines. You should not have much trouble getting tickets though, as the Nationals are a lukewarm draw and the Yankees and Red Sox don't travel to the Space Coast.
MAKING SPRING TRAINING MEMORABLE
I have been attending spring training games in Florida since college, and that has been more years now than I care to admit. My wife and I have been seven years in a row together and we are preparing for this year's upcoming trip. We spend the week driving up and down I-95 every year watching the Nats play, not just at Space Coast Stadium, but all over central and eastern Florida.
If you're going to spring training to really watch baseball, the best advice is to plan ahead.
Take a good hard look at the schedule, and not just at your favorite team's schedule but the other teams that train near them. The nice thing about where the Nats train is that it is fairly centrally located, so road trips are easily manageable.
The long drive is to Fort Lauderdale to see the local-rival Baltimore Orioles (about 2.5 hours). All the others (Detroit in Lakeland, Atlanta in Orlando, Houston in Kissimmee, New York Mets in Port St. Lucie and St. Louis and Florida in Jupiter) are closer still, all within two hours.
Some of our favorite moments from spring training involve double-headers in two different stadiums. Since the Cardinals and Marlins share a facility in Jupiter (Roger Dean Stadium), there is a game there every day, making that goal easier to accomplish.
And we take our spring training vacation seriously, spending as much time at and around the ballpark and training facilities as we would at our day jobs. You would be amazed at the people you can meet if you are at the park three hours before or two hours after a spring training game.
AUTOGRAPHS AT SPACE COAST STADIUM
Most players are much more relaxed during spring training than once the real games start, so autograph collecting is much easier. You still have to work a little bit though. Space Coast Stadium is not the greatest place in Florida to get autographs, but it is not bad either. At most spring training sites in Florida, the player's parking lot is the best pace to go.
Usually it is just a chain link fence separating you from the players. Space Coast is no different, but access to the Nats lot is difficult since it's so far away from the stadium and the fans' lots. However, all the players have to walk around the right field bullpen to get from the lot to the clubhouse, so most folks pre-and post-game gather at the fence there.
Some players walk the gauntlet with their heads down or talking on their cellphones, but most will come over to say "hi" and sign. The Nats have a lack of "household names" though, so most of the players are willing to come over to sign. There's a small, but fiercely loyal, fan base in Washington and many make the trip to Viera, so when the players recognize friendly faces from DC they are more than happy to give some time.
The visitor's bus pulls right up to the front of the stadium, and nothing separates the visiting players from the fans but a guide rope. The small area is usually crowded, but many players do stop going in or out of the stadium.
Once the gates open, there are areas between the dugout and bullpens down each foul line where you can line up and wait for autographs. Most of the position players don't come out that far, but you'll probably have good luck getting bullpen pitchers and catchers.
The best advice about getting autographs at spring training though is simple: Know the player's names. "Mister", "sir", and "hey you" don't get you very far. The players are people just like you and me, and everyone likes to be recognized.
If you aren't familiar with the players, take five minutes to sit with your kid (or by yourself) on the internet before coming and look up the team on MLB.com and take a minute to look at the head shots. Or, if you want to be really prepared, print off a cheat sheet so you can identify the players as they approach.
WHAT/WHERE TO EAT
At the park, there's the standard minor league fare. But unlike their home stadium, Nationals Park in Washington, DC, the friendly folks at Space Coast Stadium actually grill food over open flame at Space Coast Stadium. The sausages and burgers are both good quality. They also serve whole turkey legs, but I've never been brave enough to try one. Plenty of other folks have though.
Ice cream in a helmet is very popular with the little ones.
Outside the stadium, there are several chain restaurants and fast food joints, plus a couple of steakhouses, but not much in the way of fine dining or nightlife. There is one sports bar in Viera, called Mulligan's, and a couple others on Merritt Island, just a quick drive. If you really want to go out on the town, go into Orlando or out to one of the beaches.
WHAT TO DO BEFORE/AFTER THE GAME
Cocoa Beach and Melbourne Beach are just a few minutes away, and Kennedy Space Center is a must for first-time visitors. And it's Florida, which means there are plenty of golf courses and fishing boats in the area too. Also, cruise and casino boats sail out of Port Canaveral if you're looking for that type of excitement.
Visit http://www.space-coast.com/ for the Office of Tourism for a host of ideas about non-baseball ideas.
And of course, Viera is just an hour from the Happiest Place on Earth. That's right, Disney World is in Orlando, a short drive from Florida's Space Coast. If the Nats are on a road trip, and the kids don't want to sit on the beach and you've already visited Kennedy Space Center, pack up the mini-van and visit the Mouse House.
Usually Disney World is a destination, not an "other activity", but since we're talking about spring training, that's right where it goes.
WHERE TO STAY
There are half a dozen hotels right off the highway around Melbourne or near the mall in Viera, but usually we stay out at one of the beaches. To be truthful, we often never even see the ocean when we go down to spring training, but it's nice to know we have the option should we choose.
Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island, Satellite Beach and Melbourne Beach are all a short drive from the ballpark, and since they aren't really tourist beaches per se, the accommodations are fairly reasonable.
March is spring break time though, and while you probably will not run into a pack of partying frat boys on the Space Coast, you should make your reservations early if you want to stay near the beach.
If more traditional lodging is your preference, every exit off of I-95 has a Travelodge or Best Western available.
A FINAL THOUGHT
This spring training guide is not, by any means, comprehensive. Part of what makes spring training great is the adventure aspect to it. So buy a guide book (or two), be open to visiting multiple stadiums, and just have fun.
And please, do NOT forget your sunscreen!