The Ballpark at Palm Beaches is the envy of the league

By: Danny Gallagher

Canadian Baseball Network

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. --- Out of the trash came light.

Out of the garbage in a desolate area of a hardscrabble district in this south Florida city came The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Oh, how the Blue Jays would love to have this facility.

The latest jewel in baseball's spring training landscape emanated from a landfill site: a joint $150-million metropolis for the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros in the 5400 block of Haverhill Ave. just north of I-95 and just north of 45th St. bordering North Military Trail -- with Riviera Beach and Palm Springs not far away.

It's the first time this community has played host to spring training since old Municipal Stadium became vacant at the corner of Hank Aaron Drive off of Palm Beach Lakes Blvd. following the 1997 season. The Expos had trained in West Palm for decades but moved to a brand new site in Jupiter in unison with the Cardinals in time for the 1998 season.

The Expos' co-tenants at Municipal Stadium were the Braves and they shifted operations to Lake Buena Vista near Disneyworld in Orlando.

What transpired is a facility that would shame the Municipal Stadium site which boasted three fields each for the Expos and Braves. The huge fitness centres available for the Nationals and Astros alone would make most Expos and Braves players from bygone eras blush. 

But not everyone was ready to quash the old facility. Expos icon Tim Wallach told me he was just happy being in the big leagues and the lack of quality or lack of beauty at quaint, drab Municipal Stadium site was not a bone of contention for him.

What was inconvenient for the Expos for decades was that their minor-league operations were located about five miles away in nearby Lantana at Santaluces high school because there weren't sufficient fields at Municipal Stadium. 

The Nationals, as the successors to the Expos, had been training for years on the Space Coast in Viera, Fla. near Melbourne and the Astros had been stationed for a long time in Osceola County at another Florida site: Kissimmee. Both Viera and Kissimmee were outdated and past their Best Before date. The days of single-team training sites is becoming somewhat blasé.

"The Viera site was beautiful but weathered,'' said former Expos minor leaguer Rob Leary, who has lived in Melbourne for more than 20 years and is a scout for the Diamondbacks.

"What's great about this is that it's a dual facility,'' observed Red Sox manager John Farrell when a writer asked him about it. "Getting in and out of Viera and Kissimmee was difficult so this is ideal.''

For three months, construction crews raced to get this facility ready for the start of spring training in the middle of February. There were numerous challenges, starting in December. Of course, all-season beautiful weather sure helped. A year ago, all one saw on the flattened site were scrums of surveyors and construction trailers. What has happened since is pretty remarkable, making a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood much more presentable.

"The biggest challenge was time but we are a ballpark now, not a construction site,'' said Brady Ballard, the general manager of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. "We had 700 workers on the site, many of them working 20-hour days to try and meet that deadline. It was a pretty intense schedule. There were a lot of tradesman involved to make this come about. This was a two-year job done in a much less period of time.There were naysayers, absolutely.''

One of those workers putting in long days was Ballard himself. This project undoubtedly goes to the top of his résumé of projects he had worked on throughout the U.S. over the 14 years he has been in this industry. One of his postings was as vice-president of historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla.

Both the Nationals and Astros have six fields each and the outstanding strength and conditioning facilites include all the amenities to keep players on the field and healthy. The 6,500-seat stadium's dimensions are 335 feet down the lines and 406 to straightaway centre. And there's a beautiful grassy berm nicknamed Banana Boat Lawn. One eatery is aptly called Capitol Hill Grille.

"We have 13 fields all together with the stadium being the centrepiece,'' Ballard said.

What makes the main field at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches unique is that the field was slightly moved off kilter. The sun won't be a concern for most fans sitting behind home plate and for some space down both lines.

"We titled the field 10 degrees west of 90 degrees to allow for more shade,'' Ballard said.

"It's a huge complex and people are still getting used to it,'' said reporter Yoichiro Takahaski, who works for the Japanese public broadcaster NHK.    

"This is beautiful. I think it's even better than Jupiter,'' said pensioner Tom Morgan of St. Louis, who has been coming annually to south Florida to see the Cardinals in Jupiter, located about eight miles north of West Palm Beach. "I've been at every stadium in the U.S., including Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. Olympic Stadium in Montreal was not suited for baseball.

"I love coming to spring-training games and regular-season games. It's a great democratizer. We don't talk politics. We just talk baseball.''

As Farrell was conversing, he said he wasn't about to compare this facility to another one. The much ballyhooed Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the home of the Diamondbacks and Rockies in Scottsdale, Ariz. appears to be the cat's meow of all facilities but this one is no slouch.

Hats off to Ballard and the tradesmen for pulling off this miracle.

Danny Gallagher

Danny was born in Ted Lindsay's hometown of Renfrew, Ont. but his roots are in nearby Douglas. He played 27 consecutive seasons of top-level amateur baseball in the senior ranks in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec and thrived on organizing events himself, the major one being the highly successful 1983 Canadian senior men's tournament in Sudbury. He began covering the Montreal Expos in 1988 when he joined the Montreal Daily News. Later, he was the Expos beat writer for the Ottawa Sun and Associated Press. He has written four baseball books, including Remembering the Montreal Expos, which he co-authored with Bill Young of Hudson, Que. Gallagher and Young are currently working on a book about the ill-fated 1994 Expos squad. Gallagher can be reached here: dannogallagher@rogers.com