The Day Space Coast Baseball Fans Dreaded Has Arrived, Spring Training In Florida Returns
By Alan Zlotorzynski, Assistant Editor, Space Coast Daily // February 15, 2017
'Say it ain't so!'
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – Valentines Day week, a week when hearts have no holes in them, unless of course you’re a baseball fan here on the Space Coast of Florida.
Today is the day pitchers and catchers begin to report to spring training.
On this day, I would hop in the car and begin my two to three week ritual of driving six-miles to Viera to cover the Washington Nationals as they prepared for another season of Major League Baseball.
Each day was a new adventure. New drills, new players and the fans watching was always top notch. The first few days were devoted to watching the pitchers the Nats would send to the hill for the upcoming season.
And we were fortunate to see some good ones come through Viera, including Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez in recent years.
Within a week, the crack of bats could be heard as you pulled into Space Coast Stadium’s grass lots down by the practice fields.
We saw great players finishing off their careers like newly inducted baseball Hall of Famer, Ivan Rodriguez, who played for the Nationals in 2010 and 2011.
We also saw great players starting their careers like Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon.
I’ll never forget interviewing Ron Harper, Bryce’s father.
A steelworker who worked on many of the hotels and casinos along the Strip in Las Vegas when the family lived in Nevada, Harper attended camp every day to keep then 19-year-old Bryce focused on the task at hand during his first camp in 2012.
Harper was proud of his son, both of his sons, as he described the tireless work each devoted on hitting and throwing.
ABOVE VIDEO: In this 2011 Alan Zlotorzynski video, then Nationals coach Bo Porter teaches a young Bryce Harper the finer points of MLB base running. Harper has become a bonafide MLB star and Porter went on to become manager of the Houston Astros in 2013.
My favorite spring training story involves a day when the elder Harper couldn’t save his son during his rookie year.
Just days into his first big league camp, Bryce Harper was in left field shagging fly balls during batting practice. I was standing out in left field, just beyond the fence next to a young boy, no more than three or four years of age.
He kept trying to reach through the fence and pick up a ball that rolled to the base of the fence.
Obviously an impossible task, but at three years old pulling a round ball through the small quadrilateral openings in the fence is a task that keeps a child of that age busy long enough for his dad and mom chasing home run balls hit over that fence.
Harper noticed this and chuckled at the lad trying to pull the ball through.
Harper decided to do the admirable thing, he walked over said hello and picked up the ball. I assumed he would somehow hand it over to the youngster but at just 19 years of age, common sense lacks at times when it comes to things we naturally get better at in life, like parental instincts.
Harper did indeed toss the ball over the fence to the young fan.
What was lost on Harper, innocently enough, was that the child didn’t have a glove and hadn’t yet even learned how to catch a ball. As soon as Harper tossed the ball, the common sense that eluded him just seconds earlier suddenly reemerged.
Harper immediately tried to grab back what was gone from his hand and halfway over the fence. Everything for him must have been like watching a slow motion replay of an umpires review of a fair of foul ball.
The ball landed right on the top of young fans head and following a scream that could be heard in Titusville, Harper jumped over the fence, mumbled something about getting sued and picked up the boy to ensure he wasn’t badly hurt – of course he wasn’t.
He looked at me and apologized. I informed Harper that I wasn’t the child’s parent but before I could finish the sentence mom and dad appeared.
Harper apologized over and over and later when I asked him about it he said everything worked out and although the child went home with a lump on the top of his head, he also went home with a bat, hat and signed ball—the one that Harper tossed to him over the fence.
The last thing Harper said to me about what occurred with the young fan — and I’ll never forget it was, “I could catch a ball and hit one too at that age, couldn’t you?”
Every fan has a story, a memory or some keepsake from their time in Viera with one of the MLB teams that called the complex their spring home through the years.
Fans watched sluggers like Jason Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Adam Dunn and Mike Morse hit home run after home run producing souvenir after souvenir in batting practice.
I was excited to cover the team because even though I’m from Baltimore and a die hard Oriole fan, the Nationals had several members of the organization with ties to my Birds, not to mention they played just 30 minutes from where I lived.
Moving here from Baltimore in 2009, I was writing for the Bleacher Report and was fortunate to be able to meet and interview a few of my dad’s heroes from the days when the Orioles ruled the American League.
I met, sat with and interviewed Frank Robinson, who managed the Expos and Nationals from 2002-2006.
My 10 minutes with Frank Robinson was a great moment in my new career, as Robinson is considered one of the greatest Orioles of all time.
A living legend in Baltimore sports, Robinson managed the club for a time, was the general manager, and as a player was a major reason the Orioles won the World Series in 1966 and 1970.
I also met with and interviewed Nats manager Davey Johnson, not once but twice. My relationship with Davey was good, as we also shared the Orioles bond.
Johnson was the team’s second basemen throughout the Birds heyday from 1965 through 1972. Like Robinson, Johnson also successfully managed the Birds.
He did so in 1996 and 1997, taking the team to the postseason both years before essentially being forced to resign days after winning the American League Manager of the Year award in 1997.
While that is a story for another day, lets just say Davey Johnson and I also shared a dislike for Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
Johnson loved to talk baseball and was fond of his 1986 New York Mets World Series winning team.
Johnson once admitted to me that watching the ball roll between Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series was the most heartbreaking and exhilarating moment of his entire career — but not in that order.
“When Knight crossed home plate after Mookie’s dribbler down the line, I knew we were going to win Game 7 and win the whole damn thing,” said Johnson.
“It’s a shame how Boston treated a good man like Buckner for all those years.”
That’s what I will miss the most about going to Viera, stories like these and the players and coaches that tell them.
I’ll also miss the chance meetings you encounter when inevitably during a conversation with a stranger you just met the words, “it sure is a small world” are uttered at some point.
I’ll miss the retired snowbird security guards from all over the country that spend five hours every morning for one month telling people “no more autographs” and “get back behind the rope.” Their baseball stories were better than some of the players.
With their new state of the art facility they are sharing with the Houston Astros in West Palm Beach, the Nationals may as well be training in DC. They are gone from my life in a personal way forever.
I’ll be covering the Mets and possibly the Braves for a few days this spring. Atlanta is working out at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports and the Mets are down in Port St. Lucie.
These are the closest teams to the Space Coast for spring training.
Whatever the reason the Nationals moved, whether it be location to other teams, the need for a new facility, money, politics or a combination of them all, the fans are the ones that always suffer.
Mourning the loss of a franchise is not new to me, remember I’m from Baltimore.
And while the Baltimore Colts were far closer to my heart than the Nationals ever were, there is an emptiness that exists in me this week that likely will not subside until the team heads north at the end of March.
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ABOVE MAP: Locations in Florida for spring training sites. CLICK HERE for link for detailed map.