PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — One former Newsday writer once dubbed it “Port St. Lonesome.”
This year, the spring training home of the Mets is anything but. Mets fans have jammed the ballpark, hotels and area restaurants in a way that has the town of more than 170,000 residents bursting at the seams.
If you’ve watched a game on SNY, you’ve no doubt heard Keith Hernandez talk about how hard it is to get his car out of the parking lot after a game. More than once.
“We’re filling it up,” Hernandez sighed the other day. “And it takes an hour and a half to get out of here.”
Hernandez and the streets around Tradition Field will get a break this week as the Mets play three games on the road. But excited fans still are coming to the complex on days without a game to watch workouts, take pictures and get autographs.
There’s nothing like the intimacy of spring training. Want to run into Steven Matz at the gas station? See John Franco and Frank Viola dining together in a local restaurant? Watch Yoenis Cespedes drive one of his flashy cars into a Walmart parking lot?
OK, that last one probably won’t happen. But the other two have for some folks, including the lucky fan who asked for an autograph from Franco and Viola and ended up sitting down at the table for 10 minutes.
“I definitely think that I’ve seen more Mets hats and more T-shirts than in previous years,” David Wright said. “There’s no question about that. You go out to eat, and it seems like every other table, they’re coming from a game, going to a game, just wearing the gear. That’s cool. That’s very cool.”
The first full workout on Feb. 19 drew more than 1,500 fans, the most since the team moved to Port St. Lucie in 1988.
When the Mets got here, “all they had was a Wendy’s and a Gulf station,” public relations executive Jay Horwitz said.
“There was nothing to do,” Hernandez said. “There was no developments around here. We heard that they were coming.”
They have arrived. The population of Port St. Lucie at the time of the 1990 census was 55,866. The state of Florida estimated it at 171,016 in 2013.
“It’s like night and day,” said Franco, who trained here from 1990 to 2004. “Now there’s two lanes out there. When I played, there was one lane. No stores, nothing. All this was woods. We used to go out and run along the road here.”
Apparently, if you build it (a town around the ballpark and a very good team), fans will come.
The Mets’ spring training attendance has increased from an average of 5,767 in 2014 to 6,089 in 2015 to 6,960 for six 2016 home dates so far. That includes four sellouts, including a standing-room-only crowd of 7,558 when a Yankees team featuring very few actual Yankees came to town Wednesday.
“I’m fairly certain there’s a correlation between last year’s success and the people that make it down here,” Wright said. “There’s just a certain buzz, a certain excitement this year that with the outside expectations being as high as they are, there’s a nice little buzz. It’s fun going out there and running around with all the people yelling and screaming. It seems like every day it’s sold out. It pumps you up as a player.”
But it can bum you out as a driver if you get stuck in non-moving traffic after games. Right?
“I don’t know what Keith expects,” Wright said, smiling. “It’s traffic. It’s not New York traffic. This is, ‘You’re stuck for 10 minutes.’ That’s hardly traffic.”