PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Twenty Major League seasons have passed since the 2000 campaign began, and during that time the New York Mets have missed the playoffs 16 times. Thirteen times in those two decades they have finished no higher than third in the National League East. Eleven times in those two decades they’ve lost more games than they’ve won. For eight straight years they sat out the playoffs, from 2007 to 2014. They’ve watched October baseball from home the last three seasons. But hey, at least they have Tim Tebow!
Of course it makes sense, then, that the Mets’ ownership spent $57 million this offseason to spruce up First Data Field, the team’s spring home here in Port St. Lucie, where they’ve trained since 1988. (Before that the Mets wintered in St. Petersburg, starting way back in the team’s 1962 expansion birth with Casey Stengel.) Easy it would be to explain, ad nauseam, the oddity of spending that much money on a team that exemplifies disappointment and failed expectations, but that would also miss out on this salient point.
The Mets now play in one of the best spring training parks in Florida.
Newness abounds: First Data Field is now Clover Park. Only one team trains here, so the entire compound is lathered in the Mets’ shades of blue and orange, so much so that there can’t be a can of blue or orange paint remaining on Florida’s east coast. Banners outside the stadium honor Mets’ World Series winners — 1969, 1986 — and Mets signage is so ubiquitous, especially inside the park’s wide concourses, that it’s surprising appealing, even if your allegiance lies elsewhere. A hefty portion of the park’s seats is covered by a large concrete sunscreen — essentially, every seat, dugout to dugout — and down both foul lines and in the outfield are covered picnic areas with names like the “Suncoast Sun Deck” and “The Jim Beam Bourbon Bar” and the “Budweiser Terrace.” As much as I hate to admit it, with age I have assigned heightened value to the option of watching baseball games in person, instead of on TV, while not roasting myself like a peanut or coffee bean or without slathering my body in sunscreen.
For much of the Cardinals’ lackluster 4-1 loss Wednesday to the Mets I thought of how my team’s spring home — Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter — squares with Clover Park. It’s a shaky comparison. Perhaps unfair. Clover Park bleeds blue and orange. Roger Dean, which also houses the Marlins, is a nice shade of light brown, as if it were built with adobe bricks in the Southwest. Clover Park prioritizes fan comfort. Roger Dean tries, but in truth it is a smaller version of Hoover Metropolitan Stadium south of Birmingham, Ala., a soul-less concrete park formerly used by the White Sox’s AA team. Roger Dean’s only victory in this park-vs.-park competition is its location. Clover Park is surrounded a grassy parking lot. Roger Dean sits amid Abacoa, a ritzy (and much criticized) planned community in Jupiter that gives Cardinals fans a bevy of pregame and postgame options for food and drink. Put Clover Park in Abacoa, or surround Clover Park with Abacoa’s amenities, and you’d have spring heaven. I might never leave.
It’s a shame that the fiscal and physical realities of spring training baseball are more palatable for teams that share parks with other squads. Unlike the condensed map of the Cactus League, the Grapefruit League is spread out across Florida in essentially three disparate regions: Around Tampa, around Fort Myers and around the trio of West Palm Beach, Jupiter and Port St. Lucie. When teams share parks, travel is minimized; scheduling is easier; park expenses are shared.
Those realities aren’t trivial. Plus, in brutal honesty, I’m not the CEO paying the bills for those things. But I can’t lie. I wish my team played in a park themed in Cardinals red, decorated in Cardinals banners, steeped in Cardinals traditions and reconfigured to keep fans alive during Florida’s March heat. There is no argument to be made about the modern Mets’ results. But their spring home is all Mets, all blue and orange, with so many images of that oddball Mr. Met that it’s a wonderful place to spend a sweaty afternoon. Even for a Cardinals fan.