Na­tion­als’ first vic­tory this sea­son comes against the clock

Con­struc­tion of the team’s new spring train­ing fa­cil­ity faced a tight dead­line, but the sta­dium should be ready in time for Tues­day’s opener

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY CHELSEA JANES chelsea.janes@wash­post.com

west palm beach, fla. — Be­fore one of the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als’ first spring train­ing work­outs this month, re­liever Shawn Kel­ley am­bled through the new, ex­pan­sive club­house, un­der a 24-foot-wide curly W flash­ing over­head, and to­ward the door that leads to six shiny new prac­tice fields be­hind the sta­dium.

He pulled out a rec­tan­gu­lar dig­i­tal clock, the ba­sic kind with the big red num­bers, and set it to the time, 8:55 a.m. Then he placed it on top of a nearby re­frig­er­a­tor where nearly all of his team­mates could see it. Now the Na­tion­als’ club­house, with its 10 tele­vi­sions and dozen red leather chairs and speak­ers in the ceil­ing, felt com­plete.

That clock might as well be an LED sign read­ing “irony,” be­cause time — or lack thereof — has de­fined the evolution of the Ball­park of the Palm Beaches, from its ground­break­ing fewer than 16 months ago to its fi­nal stages. The Na­tion­als and Hous­ton Astros needed a new home for spring 2017, and some­what re­mark­ably, they have it — a few kinks aside.

When the Na­tion­als and Astros play each other Tues­day in the first game at the new fa­cil­ity, the sta­dium will be ready. Con­ces­sion carts with names such as Lone Star Cantina and Snow Birds will be in place. Pepsi and other ad­ver­tis­ing signs will hang on the con­course walls, and stream­lined speak­ers will blast mu­sic from be­hind sup­port beams.

Ex­actly nine months ago Sun­day, those con­courses were still mounds of dirt with con­crete slabs around them. A flag­pole stood in the mid­dle of un­du­lat­ing dirt, cov­ered in tire treads, to mark the place where home plate would be.

“There were times when we were wor­ried about it get­ting done on time,” Na­tion­als Gen­eral Man­ager Mike Rizzo said. “The big­gest nightmare I had was the play­ers not be­ing able to pre­pare fully.”

Over bud­get

The Na­tion­als have not con­firmed the fi­nal cost of the project, though an Astros rep­re­sen­ta­tive told the Palm Beach Post the to­tal cost is likely to climb past $150 mil­lion, $15 mil­lion more than the fig­ure orig­i­nally agreed to by the teams, Palm Beach County and the city of West Palm Beach. Some of that over­run came early in the process, when clear­ing the land­fill of its in­dus­trial de­bris proved more com­pli­cated than an­tic­i­pated. Ac­cord­ing to the terms of the deal, those and other cost over­runs will be paid by the teams.

“My family is in the devel­op­ment and con­struc­tion busi­ness,” said Mark D. Lerner, Na­tion­als vice chair­man and prin­ci­pal owner, in a state­ment about those over­run costs. “So we went into this project with our eyes wide open, and knew what it would take to meet the very aggressive time­line we were faced with.”

Lerner and Rizzo toured sev­eral spring train­ing sites in Ari­zona, from which they built a wish list. HKS ar­chi­tect Mo Stein, who de­signed Salt River Fields and Camel­back Fields in Ari­zona, in­cor­po­rated those pref­er­ences — such as a pool for re­hab­bing play­ers — into the Na­tion­als’ side of the fa­cil­ity.

That pool, lo­cated out­side the club­house, is empty. When it be­came clear that work on the fa­cil­ity would have to con­tinue deep into Fe­bru­ary, Rizzo and his staff put a list to­gether of what had to get done. The pool did not make the short­list. Nei­ther did Rizzo’s of­fice, which came fur­nished with a card ta­ble but no WiFi.

In­stead, work­ers fo­cused on the fields and club­house fa­cil­i­ties, which came to­gether just in time. Adam Ea­ton, Sammy So­lis and oth­ers who ar­rived to spring train­ing early could not get into the club­house.

Work­ers laid car­pet and tore down scaf­fold­ing a day or so be­fore pitch­ers and catchers ar­rived Feb. 14. The kitchen was ready to feed all 60-plus ma­jor lea­guers and Na­tion­als staff, progress over the catered lunches from Moe’s bur­ri­tos that sprawled on plas­tic ta­bles in Space Coast Sta­dium, the team’s for­mer home in Viera, Fla. — more than an hour to the north.

Catcher Jose Lo­ba­ton spent a por­tion of his Saturday morn­ing point­ing re­mote con­trols at three dif­fer­ent TVs. To his ob­vi­ous dis­may, none of them re­sponded. Some less es­sen­tial player ameni­ties are a work in progress.

As of Fri­day, the sta­dium was a work in progress, too. Work­ers in­stalled the sign above the main en­trance and dec­o­ra­tive fin­ishes around the out­side of the sta­dium. Drills roared and dead­bolts clat­tered to the ground, mak­ing the whole thing a hard­hats-only zone.

Above the bus­tle, a large score­board with a bright new videoboard lit up be­yond the out­field fence with line­ups of the Detroit Tigers and Bal­ti­more Ori­oles, for rea­sons un­known. Dur­ing the first week of work­outs, that board showed a count­down to the “fi­nal cleanup” of the sta­dium, hov­er­ing above the dozens of busy work­ers as a re­minder of ur­gency.

“The whole idea when we knew we were on a tight time­line was, it’s not go­ing to af­fect the fan ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Brady Bal­lard, the park’s gen­eral man­ager, who over­saw its con­struc­tion from start to fin­ish and worked to se­cure ad­ver­tis­ers such as Banana Boat, which will spon­sor the grassy berm that runs around the out­field.

That berm will re­main largely un­shaded, but Stein ran sim­u­la­tions to max­i­mize the num­ber of navy blue fan seats that would be in the shade. Day­light sav­ing time com­pli­cates the process, as it sends clocks ahead an hour right in the mid­dle of the spring train­ing sched­ule.

Stein said ball­park ar­chi­tects nor­mally like to have the line from home plate to third base run due north, but his sun stud­ies showed the West Palm Beach site would be bet­ter served by a slight ad­just­ment. He piv­oted the park just un­der 10 de­grees west of north. In Ari­zona, he piv­oted parks slightly east to ac­count for mi­nor ge­o­graphic dif­fer­ences. As it stands now, he said, all but a few rows on the first base side of the field will be in the shade by 2:30 p.m. each day.

Punch list nearly com­plete

But ev­ery time those shad­ows crept across the navy blue seats this winter, they acted as a sun­dial stop­watch, mark­ing the end of an­other day of prepa­ra­tion, sig­nal­ing the ar­rival of the rock-hard Feb. 28 dead­line.

Bolts and paint chips and other de­bris cov­ered the ground in those first rows Fri­day. Work­ers spent the week­end clean­ing each sec­tion of the park to make it fan-ready. Fork­lifts car­ried boxes around the con­courses. Fur­ni­ture was still on its way to Na­tion­als of­fices be­hind home plate and the Astros’ of­fices in left field. None of the 32 taps ex­pected at the bar in left field were there. Nei­ther were any bar stools, nor a full coat of paint.

Work­ers planned to in­stall fin­ish­ing touches such as those and other key sig­nage Sun­day night, about 36 hours be­fore the sta­dium opened to fans for the first time. Club­house staff is slowly be­com­ing ac­cus­tomed to the new sound sys­tem, mean­ing left-han­der Gio Gon­za­lez will not have to use his por­ta­ble speaker to play mu­sic much longer. The pool will soon have wa­ter. The grounds crew will soon have tarps, which were con­spic­u­ously ab­sent dur­ing a heavy rain last week. The Na­tion­als had to push back their in­trasquad game Thurs­day to al­low the fields to dry.

Is­sues such as those felt in­evitable with a project as rushed as this one. The Astros and Na­tion­als broke ground on a for­mer land­fill on Nov. 9, 2015. On Tues­day, they will open a sta­teof-the-art Grape­fruit League fa­cil­ity to the pub­lic. Paint might still be wet. The press box might not be done. But thanks to nearly 16 months of nav­i­gat­ing pit­falls seen and un­fore­seen, dodging storms and duck­ing dead­bolts, the Astros and Na­tion­als beat the clock.

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Con­struc­tion work­ers are still putting the fin­ish­ing touches on the Ball­park of the Palm Beaches, which will host its first game Tues­day.

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