VIERA, Fla. -- This was the winter we longed for Viera. Someday soon, we'd get to Viera. We could see Viera, spend a few days in Viera, absorb Viera, inhale Viera.
Categorize the Grapefruit League sites of Florida just to organize the addled brain, and you have the Sarasota-and-below bunch on the west (Orioles, Rays, Red Sox, Twins), the Tampa Bay bunch (Yankees, Phillies, Pirates, Blue Jays), the getting-toward-South Florida bunch (Mets, Cardinals, Marlins), the central-inland bunch (Tigers, Astros, Braves) and then you have Viera.
Viera stands alone both in its nearness to Cape Canaveral and in its coolness in 2013, for suddenly it hosts probably the most alluring team in the Florida half, the Washington Nationals, although you could make the case for the Toronto Blue Jays, and definitely the case for Washington vs. Toronto in a potential World Series of utmost coolness. For their first seven Washington seasons the Nationals barely mattered but suddenly, boom, they're all larded up with appeal, and that can make you curious for Viera.
You find Viera just off Interstate 95 and beginning right around the Publix and some big churches, which hardly narrows it down. They broke ground for Viera on August 4, 1989, so I confess I have at least one pair of jeans older than Viera.
On a Sunday morning, friendly Viera (population about 17,000, all told) braced itself against the cold, churlish winds of Florida. (No, really. Strange front.) The hard, hard people of Florida joked about their toughened skin. The fans began to gather for the midday exhibition between the Nationals and the rude St. Louis Cardinals who shortened the Nationals' season last October. They walked past the giant statue of an unknown, mustachioed baseball player who must have ingested a lot of supplements, and the smaller replica of the Space Shuttle. They lined up to get in, and they provided the season's first glimpses of the red "That's A Clown Question, Bro" T-shirts.
After five fifth-place finishes in seven years, plus a fourth and a third, the Nationals suddenly dwell near an apex of allure. They're at that ripe moment when they're still fresh enough to be fresh but not too fresh that their fans become unbelievably annoying. Not only did their MLB-best 98-64 season in 2012 end much too abruptly with that galling four-run St. Louis rally in the ninth inning of Game 5 of a National League Division Series, heaping more intrigue upon 2013, but they have the game's most thrilling young pitcher (Stephen Strasburg) plus arguably the game's most thrilling young position player (Bryce Harper, still not 21), plus a whole lot of else. They have Rafael Soriano in the fold to bolster the bullpen, a gaudy lineup with Adam LaRoche at cleanup, a starting rotation so good it manages to half-cloak somebody as good as Jordan Zimmermann and the 70-year-old reigning National League manager of the year (Davey Johnson).
In a way, they also sort of teach us about the human brain.
Just 50 miles to the west, the Atlanta Braves get going again with their pitchers and their Uptons and their own dashes of youth. They're in the thick of both Orlando and forecasted contention. They look like they're going to battle Washington and probably Philadelphia in one doozy of a division. Atlanta also had a heady season (94-68) stalled by St. Louis, a recovery from its September agony of 2011. Its starting rotation of Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, et al, and maybe Brandon Beachy at some point, looks plenty formidable, if not so much as Washington's rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Strasburg, Zimmermann et al (including the incoming Dan Haren).
In the previous 22 seasons, the Braves have amassed 100 or more wins six times, 90 or more wins 15 times and 85 or more wins 18 times for 16 playoff appearances and one of the most astounding runs ever, anywhere, any sport. At whatever juncture this long binge would trump the relative lack of World Series wins (one) within it, the Braves certainly have surpassed that juncture. They are, by any rational measure, an amazing organization, and it's something else to think they could be coming into a second long, strong incarnation after their four dreary years (2006-09) during which they still went 321-327 (.495). The fatigue over their October shortcomings (no World Series appearances since 1999) can make you paraphrase the late author John R. Tunis: Losing is the great American sin, even when it comes after a whole bunch of winning.
Yet is the human brain more eager to visit that marvel of stability or the new wonder of the Nationals with their one year of prowess on the books?
It likes the new stuff. It wants to hang out a bit in Viera.