WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Three weeks from when the first game will be played here between the Nationals and the Astros, you don't see a massive construction site, as a small army of workers works day and night to get The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches ready for the two teams that will share this place. You only see baseball on Haverhill Road. In front of your eyes, you see them in this wonderful rush to finish building a baseball spring.
Football is over now and so here come pitchers and catchers, as they always do after the Super Bowl. Here comes baseball, something that feels as old as the state of Florida at this time of the year, to this new place on Haverhill, the Nationals' fields on the south side of the complex and the Astros' fields on the north side, and finally Spring Training inside the ballpark between them, where soon there won't be the roar of construction machinery, just the crack of the bat.
Once in Palm Beach, there was Spring Training at old Municipal Stadium, and the Braves and the Expos shared that place. But the last game between them there was 20 years ago. The Expos became the Nationals in 2005, and baseball was back in Washington, D.C., and now they are here and Spring Training is here.
It still takes some work to fully imagine what the ballpark will look like when it is finished, because there is still much work to be done. But not much imagination to see people coming over the pedestrian bridges on both sides of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, and see the blue seats full, and baseballs being hit toward the "Waste Management" and "Enterprise" and "Pepsi" and "Tire Kingdom" signs in the outfield.
The Astros' bullpen is behind the left-field fence. The Nationals' bullpen is behind the right-field fence. At three in the afternoon, a single groundskeeper is working a spot in the outfield grass behind second base with a shovel. Wide concourses that will be filled with people in three weeks are filled on this afternoon -- what looks and feels like a baseball afternoon -- with workers in their white helmets and yellow vests. But there is a very cool energy here, on a hot day, as Spring Training comes rushing up with a roar of its own to this new bright point on the baseball map.
"Everybody here," one of the workers says, "feels like we're a part of something."
In so many ways, the Nationals and Astros being here solidifies the sport's viability on the east coast of Florida. The Marlins and the Cardinals are just up the road in Jupiter and the Mets are an hour away in Port St. Lucie. Once the Nationals were in Viera and the Astros were in Kissimmee, somewhere between the Mets and Orlando, where the Braves still are, before they head over to their own new place in Sarasota, on the other coast of Florida. Now, you have five teams and three ballparks between The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and the Mets. It is a good baseball thing. Or maybe a great thing.
There are 160 acres in all here, and someday there will be a public park between baseball and Haverhill Road. There is already a natural lake between Haverhill and the Nationals' side of the ballpark and a man-made lake on the Astros' side and eventually there will be a walking trail that will go around the whole place, around all the games that will begin on Feb. 28 with the two home teams playing each other and then continue all the way to Opening Day.
On this day, the wind is blowing in from right field, a good, hard wind. A young man in a white helmet smiles and says, "It'd be a tough day for lefty hitters." Then he points out that usually the angle between home plate and third base is 90 degrees north, but they have adjusted it just slightly here, 10 degrees west of north, so there will be even more shade in the ballpark. They have waited a long time for baseball to come back to West Palm Beach. They want everything to be perfect.
You walk outside, to the top of the stairs that lead to the third-base side of the park, and see where ticket booths will be behind windows already in place to your right and the team's store will be on the left. You walk back inside, underneath the party deck, toward home plate, and then you are back outside, and stand looking down at the turf field with the "Nationals" logo and the lap pool still being built right next to it. Beyond that is one of the practice fields, built to the same dimensions as Nationals Park. It is the same with the Astros over on the north side, with the dimensions in their practice fields the same as Minute Maid Park.
There is a dark green wall up behind center field to fit hitters' eyes, and places cut out of it for television cameras. There will eventually be more signs on the outfield fences. You have to imagine that, too, for now, and all the activity that will go on all day behind the fences, and palm trees, and high netting behind them, on the cloverleaf of Minor League fields, where kids will dream their dreams.
But there is no need to imagine the green of the outfield grass right in front of you. Soon Bryce Harper will be out there, and Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve will be making plays in the infield where groundskeepers are spreading dirt on this day. And Daniel Murphy will be trying to hit balls through the wind coming in from right. Max Scherzer will be on the mound. Baseball here. Three weeks.
There will be a 30-foot Astros logo outside their side of the ballpark. There will be a 30-foot Nationals logo on their side. There will be just six suites in all once the place is complete, three on the Nationals' side and three on the Astros' side. But one of the workers says, "We hear that Mr. Lerner [Ted, the Nationals owner] likes to sit in the stands."
It is just 15 months from when they broke ground. But now they are closing in on the completion of what is the real project here: The building of a brand-new baseball spring. There was a lot of talk in this area, over a lot of years, about other possible sites in the area. It turned out to be just talk. Not anymore. The last football game of the season was played on Sunday night in Houston, first Sunday night in February. The Astros and the Nationals will play baseball on Haverhill Road on the last day of February.
New ballpark, becoming a part of such a fine old Florida ritual. Not finished yet. Still work to be done, day and night. Lot of noise here on this day. White helmets everywhere, and yellow vests, and golf carts and machinery and men and women trying to finish the job. But there will be a different sound here soon, and fans in the blue seats. Bryce Harper will be here. Correa. Altuve. Young guys and an old Astro named Beltran. You didn't even have to close your eyes. Baseball. Yeah.