Welcome To The Ballpark Of The Palm Beaches, The New Spring Training Home Of The Houston Astros And Washington Nationals
Since mid-February, the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals have been readying themselves for baseball season in West Palm Beach. From intrasquad games to workouts—synchronized jumping jacks, resistance band stretch routines, and base-running drills—the teams have already put their new practice fields at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches to good use.
But the real housewarming party came Tuesday on the ballpark’s opening day, when, for the first time, the stadium whirred with jersey-clad fans lining up for the first bites from H-Town Bar and Capitol Hill Grille; seasoned sports reporters still figuring out how to navigate the hidden pathways to the baseball diamond as if they were rookies; and team mascots, whose inanimate faces seemed to be smiling wider.
The top-notch, two-team facility in West Palm Beach designed by HKS Architects debuted in February as the new spring training home of the Astros and Nationals. Though the rest of the grounds opened to the public Feb. 18 for fans to watch team workouts, Tuesday's inaugural game at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches marked the stadium's big reveal.
An announced crowd of 5,987 showed up for the historic day (the stadium seats 6,500, plus another 1,000 on the lawn) to watch a February afternoon ball game under clear skies and 80-degree temps following an ominously rainy morning.
While waiting in line to purchase tickets to the game, Bob Meyers from Houston said he was eager to experience what the new ballpark had to offer—so much so that he already had tickets for the rest of the week.
"Us guys from Houston will probably miss going to Kissimmee up there north where Disney is and what have you, miss the grandchildren coming down, but my main purpose is to come here and enjoy some baseball," he said.
Keith Anderson, a Cubs fan from Chicago, was also vacationing in Palm Beach County as part of an annual spring training trip he's made for the last five years.
"We knew [the new ballpark] was opening, so I figured maybe I'd go to a couple of games—go to a couple here, a couple up in Jupiter," he said. "I'm a baseball fan. Squeeze in a little golf. It's all good."
By the time gates opened for fans at 11 a.m. (10:30 a.m. for season ticket holders), the baseball field was speckled with red as the Washington Nationals held batting practice.
Birthday boy Gage Balderson, 11, from Colorado was lucky enough to be among the handful of fans on the field for batting practice—a surprise his grandmother, who lives in Delray, helped arrange.
"It's the best birthday ever," he said.
Gage's mother, Jacqueline, said it was a happy coincidence that her son's birthday and the ballpark's opening fell on the same day.
"He wanted to see grandma for his birthday, and we ended up seeing that the stadium was opening on his birthday," she said. "Grandma made a big birthday present for him to bring him here and do it all."
Though the Nationals were out on the stadium field, Astros manager A.J. Hinch noted his team won't be taking batting practice within the stadium during spring training. Instead, they'll remain on the Astros' back fields until the game.
"This has been beautiful back here. We have everything we need. We haven't done anything on the main stadium, so we're going to be learning along the way," Hinch said ahead of the inaugural game.
As part of the Opening Day pregame festivities, the West Palm Beach Police Department Honor Guard presented the nation's colors—the American flag complementing the colors of the afternoon's clear blue sky and the baseball diamond's springtime green—and Palm Beach Opera singer Jessica Fishenfeld performed the national anthem, belting out the final lines to coincide with a booming U.S. Coast Guard flyover.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and other dignitaries also held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the occasion.
"These spring training facilities just seem to get better and better, and you see little features, for example, of great facilities we have in Arizona that the Astros and Nationals have incorporated into the facility here," Manfred said before the game. "The stadium bowl itself is absolutely first-rate, but I think the back fields and practice areas are amazing as well."
Some of these fan-friendly features, like the ballpark's open-air, wraparound concourse and its central positioning amidst the teams' practice fields and clubhouses, were modeled after Arizona spring training facilities like Camelback Ranch and Salt River Fields, which HKS also designed, creating a uniquely intimate and immersive environment. Ballpark of the Palm Beaches also offers unique spots like luxury suites and outdoor party decks or the Banana Boat lawn beyond outfield, which even has a few first-come, first-served patio chairs that couldn't be more Palm Beach.
As an unanticipated addition to the program, the ballpark held a moment of silence in honor of longtime Astros executive Jamie Hildreth, who passed away last Friday at age 72.
Still, Hinch said he and the Astros could feel the excitement of the historic day.
"There's a buzz to being the first to play in the new stadium," he said, "…and the ease of it for us to play a 'road game' and only have to walk out of our clubhouse onto our field is pretty unique."
The Nationals—considered the home team for the inaugural game—went on to beat the Astros 4-3 and, fittingly, capped off the celebration in memorable fashion, with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th.
See below for more spring training scenes from around the ballpark during its opening day: