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