- - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In one way, the opening of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches was a homecoming for the Washington Nationals.

When the franchise was known as the Montreal Expos, they trained in West Palm Beach, at the old West Palm Municipal Stadium, which they shared with the Atlanta Braves from the franchise’s origin in 1969 to 1997.

Now, 20 years later, the relocated Expos made their official return to West Palm Beach with the first game of the Nationals’ new spring training home — a home they will share with the Houston Astros.

The Nationals won their inaugural game 4-3 over their co-tenants at TBOTPB on a 79-degree South Florida afternoon in dramatic fashion, in a show put on by former top-prospect-fallen-out-of-favor Michael A. Taylor, who threw out the potential go-ahead run from right field in the top of the ninth and followed up with a two-out walk-off homer to left in the bottom of the inning for the walk-off win.

For the historical record, the first pitch at TBOTPB was thrown at 1:07 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, by Washington’s Jeremy Guthrie — the former Orioles pitcher battling for a job who threw two scoreless innings as the Nationals were the home team for this matchup with their roommate.

Daniel Murphy got the first hit at TBOTPB, a double in the bottom of the first inning, and scored the first run when he came home on a double by Bryce Harper.

Work crews were rushing to get the ballpark ready for the opener right up to the Opening Day ceremonies and ribbon cutting. Nationals manager Dusty Baker said he was impressed with the ballpark’s readiness.

“I thought it was great,” Baker said. “I didn’t know the prevailing winds were going to be blowing to left like that, but the wind can change from day to day. Other than that, the field was in outstanding condition. There were a few things we can tweak to make it better. The sight lines were good. Nobody complained about the backdrop seeing the ball.

“I have to commend the guys who worked around the clock to get this place ready for today,” Baker said. “I’m proud of the city of West Palm and the builders how they completed the job in time for us to play.”

The crowd for Opening Day was announced at 5,987, which officially was not a sellout. There were a surprising number of empty seats, given the attention this project has received locally and the money — estimated to be as high as $153 million when the final costs are tallied up. State and local governments are on the hook for $135 million of those costs. The Lerners are reportedly responsible for at least $15 million in cost overruns.

Commissioner Rob Manfred flew in via helicopter to lend his presence to the event and pronounced it an economic boon.

“We are fortunate that both the state of Arizona and the municipalities out there and the state of Florida have realized that spring training is a great economic force in terms of driving tourism,” Manfred said. “As a result both states and local entities have made a great partnership with Major League Baseball to make sure that spring training remains a special time of year.”

Manfred was here in November 2015, when they broke ground for the complex.

“It is an amazing feat to build a complex this extensive in 15 months,” he said. “I know that along the way there were some nervous people, but here we are, up and running and it’s great for everybody.”

I don’t know how “great” it is for everyone, or much of an economic benefit a $153 million spring training complex is for West Palm Beach. There seems to be no shortage of Mercedes and mansions down here, exhibition baseball or not.

And I’m not sure how much of a benefit it will be for Nationals fans, who now have to drive several hours further south and pay West Palm Beach prices for hotels — significantly higher than the costs of living at the team’s previous home, Space Coast Stadium in Viera, just outside of Cocoa Beach.

The team, though, seems to love it, and the amenities for training and working with young players from their minor league system is a benefit to the baseball operation. It also will help the Nationals with traveling for exhibition road games. As the spring training landscape has changed in Florida, there were less and less teams within close bus riding distance to the Nationals old home in Viera. Now they share the facility with the Astros, and have two more teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, just 15 minutes away, and further north, the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, about an hour away.

It’s not your father’s spring training home, that’s for sure. The business of spring training has changed dramatically since the Expos left West Palm Beach, and moved into a brand new shared facility just up the road in Jupiter, Fla. That move may have kicked off the race for the upscale new ballpark homes for baseball teams and the competition between Arizona and Florida to build those expensive new training complexes to lure teams away or convince them to stay.

In 1998, Roger Dean Stadium opened, the new home for the Cardinals and Expos (who were forced to move to Space Coast Stadium in Viera, the Marlins spring training home in 2002, when owner Jeffrey Loria bought the Marlins and sold the Expos to Major League Baseball). It was one of the first upscale training complexes — the other being the Expos‘ old co-tenant from West Palm Beach, the Braves, who moved into the Walt Disney World Resort ballpark that opened in 1997.

Spring training hasn’t been the same since — particularly the costs. Roger Dean Stadium cost $28 million when it opened 20 years ago.

“The spring training facilities just seem to get better and better,” Manfred said. “You see little features, for example, the great facilities that we have in Arizona that the Nationals have incorporated into the facility here. The stadium bowl itself is actually first rate. The back fields and practice areas are amazing as well.”

“This is an exciting time of year for baseball. I think the idea that baseball being back in and of itself is exciting enough, but spring training has a special feel,” he said. “You add to that you have a new facility, governments that have supported our game in the state of Florida, it makes for a really dramatic day.”

And a costly one.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

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