- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — The Miami City Commission approved a financing plan for a $420million ballpark for the Florida Marlins yesterday. That news should be welcomed in Viera, where the Florida Marlins Baseball Club owns and operates a spring training baseball facility where the Washington Nationals are training.

Confused? Don’t stop there. The company leasing Space Coast Stadium — identified as the Florida Marlins Baseball Club II — is owned by John Henry, the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox. Henry also owns the Florida State League minor league team that plays at Space Coast Stadium.

That team — the Brevard County Manatees — is an affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers.

By the way, the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League team plays at the Carl Barger Baseball Complex, the training facility next door to Space Coast Stadium. The Red Sox’s owner has that as well.

Conflicts? A sports law course for an entire semester could be based on the bizarre three-way franchise deal that occurred three years ago. Major League Baseball purchased the Montreal Expos from Jeffrey Loria for $120million, which in turn allowed Loria to buy the Marlins from Henry for $158million. That freed up Henry to join an ownership group with Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner to purchase the Boston Red Sox for an estimated $700million.

Perhaps nothing illustrates all the questions that deal raised better than Space Coast Stadium and the Carl Barger Baseball Complex (named for the first president of the Marlins, who collapsed and died at the baseball winter meetings in 1992) — the Nationals’ spring training home, at least for this year. It is unclear what sort of commitment whoever winds up owning the Nationals will have to Viera.

There could be other options. The Cactus League in Arizona, where 12 of the 30 major league clubs train, is attempting to entice more teams to leave Florida. Two years ago, the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers left Florida for a new spring training facility in Arizona. Although it is unlikely any new Nats owner would want the franchise to train in Arizona, other teams in Florida could move, leaving vacancies at existing spring training facilities.

The team’s lease with Brevard County for Space Coast Stadium — originally built for the Florida Marlins and opened in 1994 — runs until 2016. But it is Henry and not the Nationals who possesses that lease, and part of any deal to sell the Nats likely will involve some sort of compensation from Major League Baseball for Henry (which will only add to the price tag of the Nats purchase).

Andy Dunn, the Nationals’ vice president of ballpark operations who ran the complex for both the Expos and the Marlins, said he doesn’t know what the Nats’ obligation is to the Viera facility beyond this spring.

“I have not seen the agreement or the language in it, so what actually ties new ownership to this facility is something I don’t know,” Dunn said. “John Henry owns Carl Barger and has the lease with the county for the stadium. The lease is still as Florida Marlins.

“The whole situation that we have been through since the 2002 season has been new ground for a lot of people. But I am real proud that everyone who has been involved here, at least locally, whether it was the folks at Major League Baseball or the people here from the county, has tried to make it easy for everyone.”

There is nothing wrong with the place. It is only 11 years old and functional, baseball-wise. Players work out at Carl Barger on a four-diamond quad about a half-mile from where they dress and play exhibition games at Space Coast Stadium. It’s not Jupiter, although until recent development around the ballpark, the landscape did seem as barren as Mars.

Jupiter? Did the Expos-Marlins-Red Sox deal include an interplanetary property as well? No. The former Expos used to train in perhaps the finest facility in Florida — Roger Dean Stadium, located about an hour south of Viera in Jupiter. When Loria made the deal to dump the Expos and buy the Marlins, he insisted he keep the Jupiter site — opened in 1998 and shared with the St. Louis Cardinals — for his new team, which forced the Expos to move up to the Marlins’ complex in Viera in 2003.

“It was disappointing to leave Jupiter,” said Nats manager Frank Robinson, who was there in his first year with the Expos in 2002. “It is a very fine complex. It has some of the modern things that this complex doesn’t have. We were very comfortable there, and it was very disappointing. But the people here have gone out of their way to give us whatever we have needed here and they have cooperated with us very well.”

Then again, as far as some in Viera are concerned, none of this ever happened. On the local tourism television network, it’s 1998, and the World Series champion Florida Marlins are right down the road: “During the entire month of March, the major league stars are here in Brevard County. At a Florida Marlins spring training game, you’ll see Ryan Dempster, Cliff Floyd, Preston Wilson or All-Star catcher Charles Johnson work their magic on the diamond. Who knows? You could be fortunate and get an autograph or two.”

No wonder they call this the Space Coast.

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