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Cactus League asks MLB to delay spring training, but players want a full season

Fans at Camelback Ranch watch a spring training baseball game between the White Sox and Angels in 2016.
Fans watch a 2016 spring training game between the Angels and Chicago White Sox at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

In 23 days, your defending World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers are set to report to spring training in Glendale, Ariz.

The mayor of Glendale would prefer they did not.

He signed a Cactus League letter asking Major League Baseball to delay the start of spring training, citing the high rate of coronavirus cases in Arizona. Nothing against the Dodgers, of course.

Mayors, city managers and tribal leaders in the eight other Arizona jurisdictions that combine to host 15 major league teams each spring also signed the letter, which was sent to the league Friday and released Monday.

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The message was simple, according to Cactus League executive director Bridget Binsbacher.

“If there was any opportunity for us to be able to delay spring training, we would all support that,” Binsbacher said. “To be able to get all of the city leaders together and express that opinion was really important.”

By Monday afternoon the public agencies that have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into lavish spring training complexes — almost always at no cost to the teams — appeared to be cast as unfortunate pawns in the ongoing cold war between major league owners and the players’ union.

Arizona officials hope MLB delays spring training to allow holiday-related coronavirus surges to subside and vaccinations to become more readily available.

And, although MLB issued a noncommittal public statement, Binsbacher said the Cactus League had not yet heard back from the league. Exhibition games are scheduled to begin Feb. 27.

“If spring training ends up being on the 27th, as the schedule currently shows, we’ll be ready for that,” she said. “We feel we can host spring training in a safe way.”

The league would love to push back spring training by a month. More players would be vaccinated by then, and so would more fans, and the post-holiday virus surges presumably would have subsided.

The union is not opposed to the concept. But, when the league floated that idea, the union asked that the season either be extended by a month or that the players be paid for any games that might be cut from the schedule. The league declined, citing in part the preference of its television partners that the postseason be concluded in October. That, the union worried, would put one month of the season at risk, and with it a collective salary loss of $650 million.

The union also is not opposed to retention of the designated hitter in both leagues. The owners consider that a win for players, and in return they would like approval for expanded playoffs. But the DH rule turns 50 in 2023, and it long has evolved from a well-paying job for aging sluggers into a flexible part of a versatile roster. Only two players were full-time designated hitters last season: Nelson Cruz of the Minnesota Twins and Franmil Reyes of the Cleveland Indians.

None of these issues appear unresolvable, given a good-faith negotiation. At the moment, no negotiations are underway between the league and the union.

A judge dismissed a lawsuit against the Angels and MLB brought by Bubba Harkins, who was fired by the team for providing sticky substances to pitchers.

In that environment, Binsbacher had to field the question of whether MLB had asked the Cactus League to issue the letter. She said no. In fact, The Los Angeles Times reported two weeks ago about the Cactus League concerns.

“We are grateful to MLB for its partnership and unified in our commitment to provide a safe, secure environment; to that end, the task force has worked to ensure that ballparks are able to meet COVID-19 protocols such as pod seating, social distancing and contactless transactions,” the Cactus League letter reads.

“But in view of the current state of the pandemic in Maricopa County — with one of the nation’s highest infection rates — we believe it is wise to delay the start of spring training to allow for the COVID-19 situation to improve here.”

Arizona currently has the highest per-capita rate of infection of any state in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In California, fans are banned from professional sporting events under current statewide policy. In Arizona, while public events of more than 50 people are restricted under statewide guidance, local authorities can approve such events upon submission of a health and safety protocol.

“The economics of this have not been part of any of these discussions,” Binsbacher said. “It’s all been public health and safety.”

Out-of-state Cactus League fans spent an average of $336 per day last year and stayed a median of four days, according to an Arizona State University study. Even in the pandemic-shortened spring, the study estimated that out-of-state visitors spent a total of $168 million during their Cactus League trips.

Kiké Hernández, a fan favorite who helped the Dodgers win the 2020 World Series, has agreed to terms on a two-year contract with the Boston Red Sox.

“It’s really the fans that built the business case for why you would want to spend $200 million on a spring training complex,” Glendale city manager Kevin Phelps told The Times earlier this month. “Without those fans staying in your hotel rooms and eating in your restaurants and shopping in your stores, spring training quickly becomes one of the worst business decisions you can make.”

In Glendale, the city has approved the health and safety protocol for the NHL‘s Arizona Coyotes to fill their arena to 25% of capacity. Although Glendale’s mayor signed the letter appealing to MLB to delay spring training because of the high rate of the virus, city spokeswoman Sue Breding said the city is not considering whether to ban fans from the Coyotes’ arena.

“Glendale and the NHL approved a COVID operations plan that keeps the teams, staff and fans in a safe environment,” Breding said. “The vast majority of those fans are local residents. Spring training is for tourists.”

If the virus rates are so high that Cactus League members are urging MLB to push back spring training for a month, are there any cities that would consider exhibition games unsafe and ban fans from attending?

“No city,” Binsbacher said, “has communicated that to me.”


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