WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- There was snow on this day from the Florida Panhandle all the way to Maine, just not here in the late morning, where the ballpark on Haverhill Road got a day closer to baseball. This was The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, which the Astros and Nationals now call their Florida home. The ticket windows were open for business, and more than a month before the Astros and Nationals would play their first game here against each other, the people waited patiently to buy tickets to Spring Training, and baseball.
The place opened for business a year ago, 15 months after ground had first been broken off Haverhill. It means that everything that happened for the Astros last season began to happen here.
"You have to say we did pretty good," Brady Ballard, the general manager for the ballpark was saying. "Two division champs, World Series champs, Cy Young Award winner, MVP."
Ballard looked around his ballpark from the third-base side, with the grass in front of him looking wonderfully and impossibly green and said, "It's the same every year, though, isn't it? You can't believe baseball is back."
The first public workouts for the Astros and Nationals won't happen for another month. That first game between them is Feb. 23. But the place looked ready enough for a game on Wednesday morning, even with the smell of paint all around you and work still being done on the windows for the team store and on the observation decks.
"You can always tell," Ballard said, "that we're getting close when you start to see the fancy cars in the parking lot."
Behind him, there are signs near the ticket windows listing the various prices for games. At the first window now are Tony and Pamela Poleo, down here from Beverly, Mass., self-described snowbirds, Pamela completely organized, checking the big day planner she has brought with her as she and her husband prepare to buy tickets for that first Astros-Nationals game, and then a Red Sox game on March 3, and then one with the Cardinals coming down from Jupiter on the 14th.
She talks to the young woman behind the window about sun and shade and whether she and her husband will be happier in Section 104 than 105.
"As you can see," Pamela, wearing a red Red Sox T-shirt, says, "we're ready for baseball."
Her husband says they jumped on the chance to come down from Deerfield Beach to see their Red Sox play, but then Pamela points out that they will make one trip over to Fort Myers, where the Red Sox play their home games at JetBlue Park, because her school, UMass, is having an event there.
"We're diehards," she says.
"Not just about the Sox," her husband says.
"The New Year in baseball starts right here," Pamela Poleo adds. "We'll probably catch a few games up at Roger Dean, too."
Roger Dean Stadium is where the Cardinals and Marlins train. And just over an hour from here are the Mets up in Port St. Lucie. These teams all have each other now, and a reason why The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches did so much to save Spring Training baseball on the east coast of Florida.
And in a month, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa will be on this field, in front of all the signs on the outfield walls, "Waste Management" in left-center and "Tire Kingdom" in right-center and all the ones in between. George Springer, one of the home run heroes of the World Series, will be on this field, and so will Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr., who combined to win a couple of Game 7s last October, against the Yankees and Dodgers. And Justin Verlander will come to The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches this spring, and Dallas Keuchel and now Gerrit Cole.
"The Astros will have people here in a few days," Ballard says, "trying to decide how they want to display some of their World Series elements."
There have been amateur baseball events at this site since the Astros and Nationals left last spring to go play the season, and car shows, and a Josh Turner concert. But the business of this place, of all the clean-slate places in Florida and Arizona, is baseball. They sell baseball here. They sell the magic and the possibilities of spring. The other sports have preseasons. Nothing like this. Nothing like pitchers and catchers and baseball being so close to you in these small parks that you feel as if you can reach out and touch it.
It is not just Altuve and Correa and Springer and Verlander. Bryce Harper will be in this ballpark soon, and Daniel Murphy, and Max Scherzer, who did win that National League Cy Young Award, and Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals will come at this from their side of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, from the NL, and believe they can do what the Astros just did; they believe in their own possibilities, and their shot at the kind of magic the Astros found in October and into November.
There was just excitement in Spring Training a year ago, because of the way the '16 season had ended, because of the World Series that the Cubs and Indians gave us, all the way to the 10th inning of Game 7 at Progressive Field on the night when the Cubs ended all the waiting. There will be even more excitement this time, not just because of the World Series that the Astros and Dodgers gave us, but because of the season baseball gave us, one dominated by home runs and by more young talent than the game has ever known.
"You think to yourself, 'Really? It's already here?'" Ballard said.
We walked around from the third-base side and behind home plate and to a place where you could look out over the Nationals' practice fields, with a swimming pool to your right and a turf field right below you and pitching and batting cages off to your left. From somewhere, far off to our left from those cages, came the crack of a bat, like a brief, cracking overture of everything to come, from here until Opening Day.
They moved up on a different kind of Opening Day at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Wednesday. The snowbirds kept walking up to the ticket windows. Inside, the ballpark was just beginning to stir, as if baseball was around every corner of the place. Somewhere snow was falling. Somewhere up north it was still football season. Just not here.