Hidden along Florida's Space Coast, an area of the Atlantic coastline which originally became famous during the 1950s and still is through today for being the epicenter of our modern day heroes mounted on mammoth rockets headed for the heavens, in a sleepy bedroom community is a very unsuspecting ballpark. In fact, if it weren't for the signs leading up to the Viera complex letting me know the Washington Nationals called it their spring home, I probably would have thought it belonged to a local college or something. Though, it's not like you could miss it, either, as its presence in an empty field across the street from a Catholic church can be perceived more than two miles away.
However, this isolation works in the stadium's favor, as this is the epitome of "purpose-built". Built in 1994, a couple years before the Yankees' new spring home and Florida State League affiliate's home in Tampa, Legends Field, opened and caused a new wave of purpose-built parks across Florida, Space Coast Stadium became the blueprint for how to build a spacious park far from the central business core and be successful; this was all done to maximize the fan experience both in-the-park and their ingress/egress.
The park was opened in-time for the then-Florida Marlins' second spring training, who used it as their March base of operations until the Montreal Expos moved in in 2003, when the Marlins switched with the Expos and moved to Jupiter's Roger Dean Stadium. By the Expos' relocation to the nation's capital in 2005, the Nationals inherited the rights to the park from its Canadian predecessor. Also located at the park are the Milwaukee Brewers' High-A team, the Brevard County Manatees, making for the only instance where a spring training team shares a ballpark with an unaffiliated minor league team (the Nationals' High-A team is located in Woodbridge, Virginia).
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
While there are numerous permanent locations built into the walls of the concourse to buy food, most of them serve the same things: the ballpark basics, "baskets" (any of those basics with fries), and one of their specialties, the "Strasburger", a BBQ bacon cheddar burger. Carts along the outside add a little variety, with the majority of them offering just hot dogs and sausage & peppers, though their specialty is the "Monumental Dog", an over-a-footlong hot dog (though I don't know how large it was) that comes with unlimited toppings of your choice. Prices are reasonable as nothing is over $6, except alcohol, the baskets, and the two specialties.
I was about to give up hope of something truly exotic to baseball when I came across two unique offerings I didn't see anywhere in the park. Toward the end of the concourse along the first-base side was a cart serving brews from the Kona Brewing Company, serving different styles of craft beer from Hawaii. And just when I thought it couldn't any more tropical than watching a baseball game in Florida with the breeze coming in off the ocean and drinking a Longboard Lager, I discovered a permanent stand that serves seafood baskets; I got the fried shrimp one that, for $8, came with 6 big fried shrimp, 3 hush puppies, and fries, but blackened mahi and fish & chips is also available for those allergic to shellfish. And believe it or not, it really was pretty good for fried shrimp at a stadium. I just wish they had cocktail sauce, but otherwise, I was quite content.
Though the stadium was opened in 1994, various renovations between 2005-2010 have kept the park up with the best of them, and it shows throughout. The seats aren't worn, the sound is really good, and though it's really small and attached to the top of the scoreboard, Space Coast Stadium boasts a video-screen, something newer parks have neglected.
My only major concern, which I will go in greater detail in "Final Thoughts", is the fact it's isolated from both the major center of population along the Space Coast and the rest of the Grapefruit League, meaning the Nationals play less-than-half of the Grapefruit League teams 90% of the time. The only teams they played in 2012 beside the closest six (Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Marlins, Mets, and Tigers, all of which played three or more games against the Nats) were twice against the Yankees, once at the Red Sox, and once at their normal cross-region rivals, the Orioles. I'm not sure why more teams don't play them, seeing - as I'll explain in "Access" - that it's easy to get to from most parts of the state, but it's really a pity a divisional rival like the Phillies or a team as popular in Florida as the Rays don't add another dimension to the experience of this park.
Another concern I have is the lack of shading in most places except in the concourse behind home plate and along the top five-or-so rows near first- and third-bases. Not even the seating behind home plate gets any shade, which is definitely surprising.
If you're a Catholic that likes Publix, you'll love the area. Right across from a large Catholic church, the stadium is in the middle-of-nowhere. Nearby is a Publix, but you need to go about 4 miles north if you want to find chain casual dining places.
I admit, in all my reviews of spring training, I've given all the fans a 5, no matter the team. I chalk this up to people, like the mother and son I was sitting next to before the game started from Arlington, VA, who travel from all corners of the continent to see their favorite team play meaningless games in the middle of both spring break and the most-beautiful weather period in Florida year-after-year. Unless they flew thousands of miles to boo their favorite team, I'm not going to go any less than a 5. Frankly, this is the beauty of spring here in Florida, and it's no exception in Viera.
Remember how I said it's in the middle-of-nowhere with nothing much around it? This is precisely why they built it like this: traffic, even with a near-sellout like I went to, was non-existent, thanks to both nothing within proximity and near-perfect traffic control.
To get there, there are three ways to do it. If you're like me, coming from Tampa Bay and the Gulf Coast, use Interstate 4 to Exit 72, State Road 528, the Beeline Expressway; it's tolled, but with a straight-shot across the state, you can avoid a LOT of the traffic that takes either I-4 to SR 50 and down I-95, or the ones that take U.S. Route 192 across the state and go north on I-95. I really DON'T suggest using SR 417, the eastern bypass of Orlando, to get to the Beeline because it adds a LOT of money to your journey. Unless traffic backed up on I-4 before Disney and traffic reports say it's a parking lot past the Convention Center, the time you save isn't worth the $4+ in tolls you pay one-way for that privilege of making an...umm, beeline...for the Beeline.
For those coming from the north, and once you get on I-95 from the Beeline, get off Exit 195 (SR 519), go south, and it's a bit up on the right; trust me, you cannot miss it. If you're coming from the south, take I-95 to Exit 191 (Wickham Rd) and make a left; make a right on Stadium Parkway and you'll see it on the left.
Parking is $7, which is reasonable, and there are WAY more-than-enough spaces to park. Once inside, the concourse is super-wide and easily maneuverable. There are plenty of bathrooms, all of which are generally clean and user-friendly.
Parking is cheap, food is cheap, and the tickets, which range from $12-$26, are also cheap. The Nationals are becoming a spoiler in the NL East, and when they are clicking on all cylinders, they are an exciting team to watch, so those prices are worth it. My only nit is the fact the berm, which is my favorite place to sit at any baby park, appears to be reserved for parties only and isn't for sale to the general public, at least not through the website.
This stadium has some of the most-unique extras of any park I've been to yet. When you first walk up from the main parking lot, two unique statues greet you: a scaled-model of the Space Shuttles and a statue of a ballplayer. It's kind of obvious why there's a Shuttle, but when I asked one of the ushers about the statue, he told me, since I couldn't figure out the distinctive "M" on his jersey, it's "Casey at the Bat". That's right, they have immortalized the Mighty Casey in bronze. According to one of the officials at the park, it was brought in by the Marlins for their first year of spring training from its home at then-Joe Robbie Stadium, and is thought to be one of only four such statues anywhere in the world. Why the Marlins even had it in the first place, however, remains a mystery; though I could postulate why, I'm choosing not to speculate and just enjoy its fantastic setting, which you can see in the pics above.
When you walk you the ramp to the main entrance, look to your left and see the practice fields of the Nationals. This is the first time I've seen practice fields so close and accessible by the public. Since they hold their batting practice there, crowds gather to watch, and the players do take a second to sign a quick autograph or two while walking into the players' entrance in the base of the park. With all these spring parks built to house both training and playing fields, more should allow this.
Once inside, do yourself a favor and turn around before entering the seating area behind home plate. This is probably the most-emotional tribute to anyone in any park, other than Steinbrenner Field's September 11, 2001, statue. Hung on each pillar are two portraits, one of SS Challenger and the other of SS Columbia, both of which departed terra firma and never returned. In total, 14 astronauts lost their lives in those two flights to further our never-ending endeavor into space, and while simple, these two portraits are very poignant and touching.
If you do make it out to the berm, there is a small tiki bar, along with the only other shade in the park in the form of trees. Plus, the berm is close enough to the visiting bullpen that having conversations - or harassing them, if you so choose - is a breeze.
By this point, you're thinking that this is a great stadium and one that should be visited, and it truly is, but the title of my review makes no visible sense - until now. Because of how good this park is, it has whetted the Nationals' appetite for something more, and it might doom the future of this park in the Grapefruit League. I go more into it ,a href="http://www.stadiumjourney.com/news/04-12-2012/46/washington-nationals-in-talks-to-move-spring-training-operations-to-fort-myers/">in this article, but the Nationals are in talks with the city of Fort Myers to move their base-of-operations to the recently-vacated City of Palms Park and accompanying, though removed from the park, training facility. They say the rationale behind it is to be closer to the main base of teams in Florida, and they do have a point. As I said in the "Atmosphere", a greater variety of teams is needed.
Though nothing has been finalized, nor even moved past the conjecture stages, this would be a big blow to this park and Nationals fans who love everything I've extolled above. Remember that mother-and-son duo I spoke to before? When I asked them, they bluntly told me they'd stop coming to Florida if they went to Fort Myers, saying the Gulf Coast is "too congested and horrible to drive in," and compared to sleepy Viera, as a resident of St. Petersburg, I'm inclined to agree.
So, I would suggest making the trip down for spring training to Viera soon. Your favorite team might not be playing, but that doesn't mean you won't have a great time. The stadium isn't going anywhere, as the Manatees have made no mention of going anywhere if the Nationals leave, but it would be truly a shame to leave this great park empty in spring. It would leave just the Mets, Cardinals, and Marlins as the sole March tenants of 300 miles of Atlantic coastline, and that really would make baseball too congested along the Gulf of Mexico. Evidently, though, even if you have a great park, it doesn't mean anything if you're not close enough for people to enjoy it.
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