- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

I’m feeling nostalgic about heading to Viera, Florida for the Washington Nationals’ last spring training in the manufactured community.

I guess that shows you that it’s the people — not the place — that create the memories.

The Nationals will be moving to a new spring training facility next year in West Palm Beach — a move that I certainly applaud, since it is much closer to the Palm Beach Kennel Club.

Leaving Viera is not exactly closing down Dodgertown. It has grown from a complex in the middle of a nowhere to a complex in the middle of every possible retail store chain you can imagine. But, it’s had its moments — most of them in the early, Wild West days of the Nationals — like the first preseason game they played at Space Coast Stadium.



Most of those fond and bizarre memories, I have to say, are about former general manager and franchise gravedigger Jim Bowden.

He was a clown, but at times an entertaining one, riding around the practice fields with his “official” Nationals Segway.

That first preseason game in March 2005, Bowden sprung a surprise on everyone by introducing a song called “We are the Washington Nationals” as the team took the field. People were bouncing off the walls, laughing in part because they finally couldn’t believe Washington baseball was about to become official now, and also because of the song — which lasted exactly one game. Team president Tony Tavares wasn’t a fan.

Endy Chavez was the leadoff hitter, and he failed to reach base in four at bats. I wrote, “If Endy Chavez keeps doing that, the only song he is going to hear is “We are the New Orleans Zephyrs,” referring to the Nationals’ then-Triple-A affiliate.

In those early days, players would show up out of nowhere in camp. One day in the spring of 2007, we saw a homeless-looking guy hanging around the batting cages. He turned out to be Dmitri Young.

That was also the year that the Nationals ran a tryout camp for pitchers, with 38 of them invited. You couldn’t move in the clubhouse because there were so many lockers. “I’ve never gone into a spring training where I didn’t know who the first three starters were going to be,” Bowden told reporters.

Remarkably, with that roster of rejects and reprobates, the Nationals, who everyone doubted could win more than 40 games that season, wound up with 73 wins. I remember the following spring, sitting in Bowden’s office talking about the optimism for 2008, and writing that Bowden may have finally conquered the demons that had made him so self-destructive in the past.

When that column came out, his fiancee walked up to me in camp and thanked me for it, telling me how proud Bowden was of it. Later, I learned he had sent a copy to his mother.

I felt like an idiot.

One year later, there was the Smiley Gonzalez scandal that hit Viera — Bowden’s final self-destruction in baseball, and he resigned. Mike Rizzo took over, professionalism became the new norm for the Nationals, and Viera got a little more boring.

There were daily entertaining dramas in those early days, like the time in 2006 when they announced that Brian Lawrence, the pitcher who they traded for during the winter from the San Diego Padres and who was set to make $3.5 million, was shut down after just nine pitches in camp and was diagnosed with a torn labrum and rotator cuff — injuries that had apparently occurred before the trade.

“Did we give him an MRI? We did not. That’s our bad,” manager Frank Robinson told reporters. “We chose not to give him an MRI. The physicals should include everything.”

Bowden defended the club. “It’s expensive to do MRIs on every single transaction,” he said.

There was always something going on between the tension-riddled trio of Bowden, Robinson and Tavares that would often spill out during spring training. That same spring, Robinson complained to me that he wasn’t even able to have a say in picking the backup catcher on the roster, and I wrote a column about it.

The next day as I walked into the complex, the security guard who checked us in every day said to me, “How do you guys come up with stories every day to write about?” I told him what most people believe, “Well, sometimes, we just make it up.”

About an hour later, as I was leaving the building to go over the practice fields, Bowden comes storming out, stops me and, with his face beet red and veins bulging, screams at me for the column, claiming that Robinson had never said what I wrote. I let him have his say and then went back into the building to make a call. The security guard had witnessed the entire incident, and he was stunned. “See, that’s what happens when you make it up,” I told him.

That night, after Bowden learned what I had written was accurate, he called me to apologize. Then it was on to the next sideshow — the Alfonso Soriano hostage situation, when the $10 million second baseman they traded for refused to take the field in left field and left camp. That earned the circus national attention.

There are so many other memories, like watching Lastings Milledge, Wily Mo Pena and Elijah Dukes drive one batting practice home run after another off the metal roof of the distant batting cages, and Bowden cackling with delight. When Dukes arrived in spring training in a press conference that felt like a parole hearing, he told reporters he was “a fun-loving guy.”

There was the time that I brought the wrestler, George “The Animal” Steele, to a Nationals game in the spring of 2008. He lives in Cocoa Beach, and I brought him into the clubhouse to meet the players, who were like little kids. “I used to watch you all the time,” Young said. “You are one of the all-time greats. … I used to love watching you eat those turnbuckles, and your tongue would be all green.”

I think that may be the biggest celebrity visit to Nationals spring training — certainly trumping Adam LaRoche’s buddy from “Duck Dynasty.”

The best times were when Jose Rijo and I would smoke cigars in the cigar bar near the facility, and he would tell stories about his days with the Cincinnati Reds. There was one particular night, though — the final night, as it turned out — when he was under fire for his role in the Smiley Gonzalez scandal. Rijo was as much fun as anybody I’ve been around in baseball, but he was worried that night, and asked me what he should do. I told him he should just keep his mouth shut and don’t talk to anyone about it.

By the end of the night, after several bottles of wine and cigars, he had me on the phone with the alleged “buscone” in the Dominican Republic who set up the Gonzalez deal, professing Rijo’s innocence as I was taking illegible notes on cocktail napkins.

Those were the glory days of Viera. Goodbye, area code 321.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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