In an announcement that could start to spell the end of spring training on Florida's east coast, the Washington Nationals have begun negotiations with the city of Fort Myers to leave Viera's Space Coast Stadium and take over the recently-vacated City of Palms Park in the city's downtown core.
According to the Naples Daily News, the Washington Nationals are in-talks with both the city of Fort Myers and Lee County to move into the old park as soon as the 2014 spring session. This would put increased baseball competition in the area, as the former tenants of City of Palms Park, the Boston Red Sox, and long-time cross-county spring rivals, the Minnesota Twins are already within 15 minutes of both each other and the venerable park in downtown Fort Myers. Washington has claimed that they are located too far from their Grapefruit League rivals, pointing out the closest is 55 miles away in Kissimmee.
Spring baseball's great exodus from Florida's Atlantic Coast began in 1996, when the New York Yankees moved from Fort Lauderdale to their current spring home in Tampa. Though the Orioles took the place of the Yankees at Fort Lauderdale, the damage had already been done. Since the peak of seven "east coast" teams in 1998 (Cardinals, Dodgers, Expos, Marlins, Mets, Orioles, and Royals, out of 20 teams in the Grapefruit League that year), that number has since dwindled to just four: the Marlins & Cardinals, both in Jupiter; Mets in Port St. Lucie; and these Nationals. Clearly, if the Nats do leave for the Gulf Coast, it's likely to force the remaining three teams to increase their travel expenditures greatly, as the closest team outside themselves would then end up being the Astros in Kissimmee - 103 miles away for the Mets and 135 for the Marlins/Cardinals. If I were the city leaders in Port St. Lucie and Jupiter, I would band together with Brevard County (home of Space Coast Stadium) as quickly as possible and either beg the Nationals to stay in Viera or try and attract a disgruntled team or two back from Arizona (maybe the Royals and Rangers, or just the Cubs, who already have their High-A team in Daytona Beach), or risk losing their teams to either Gulf Coast suitors, or even worse - Arizona.
The problem with this is finding a replacement tenant for Space Coast Stadium. As posted in the review, we believe it to be as great of a place to watch spring baseball as it is for a "Beltway Insider" to escape the hubbub and brouhaha of everyday life, if only for a few days. Florida's Gulf Coast, while still the "newer" part of Florida and less developed than the Atlantic Coast, is still very urban in spots and can have traffic issues akin to the Anacostia Freeway, something Washingtonians don't want to be reminded of on their pilgrimage. More importantly, though, is the fact that this beautiful park, while still housing the Brevard County Manatees High-A club (affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers, another potential team to draw back to Florida), would no longer be part of the Grapefruit League rotation, and with it will go all the tourism dollars in a region already hit hard by the suspension of the manned spaceflight program.
While this might be a good move for the Nationals, and by proximity the Red Sox, Twins, and Lee County, this will prove disastrous to the Atlantic Coast as a whole, especially communities like Viera and Jupiter who rely on the free publicity granted to them in the springtime by loyal worshipers of the teams. Unless a new team can fill the gaping hole that will be left in the Nats' wake, it'll only be a matter-of-time before the Cardinals and Mets shift westward, leaving the Marlins as the sole standard-barer in the east; this would be accomplished due to the fact that we believe Roger Dean Stadium isn't a good long-term facility and, without renovations, will leave the Marlins no choice but to move to Digital Domain Park, a park that's much more capable of handling spring ball, and the Mets and Cardinals returning to Al Lang Stadium (should much-needed renovations occur first), a stadium each team vacated in 1987 and 1997, respectively.
Of course, all of this is hypothetical. None of this becomes reality tomorrow, but the writing's on the wall: Florida, unlike Arizona, has its spring training facilities so spread out that, because of travel time and logistics, not all the teams play each other anymore. This is the reason the Dodgers, Indians, Rangers, Reds, and Royals all left for the Cactus League in the last decade, and this is the reason the Nationals, despite having a very modern and well-equipped facility, are looking to move into a soon-to-be renovated park that has no space on-site for a full set of training fields. Once that happens, unless a team or two fills Space Coast Stadium quickly, Cardinals and Mets fans will grow tired of travelling 1,000 miles just to see their teams playing each other and the Marlins for most of March and head west.
Though I'm a person that hates apocalyptic hyperbole, I have to admit the situation becomes that dire for Atlantic Coast baseball if the Nationals move. Sadly, it looks like the Nationals are about to once again make another heartbreaking move from a region that can ill-afford it.
All of a sudden, it's like 2004 all over again.
(Photo courtesy of BallparkReviews.com)