The situation surrounding the start time of spring training for the 2021 baseball season has seemed tenuous at best and impossible at worst.
With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to their respective teams Feb. 16-17 and the position players to follow five days later, and COVID-19 raging in Arizona, the premise of maintaining safety for the players and staff has been fairly questioned.
Monday, the Cactus League and the mayors of the respective Arizona municipalities where teams have spring training facilities sent a letter to Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, asking for the start of spring training to be delayed due to Arizona’s struggles with controlling the spread of COVID.
Multiple news outlets published copies of the letter on social media.
Written and sent by Bridget Binsbacher, the executive director of the Cactus League, and signed by the mayors of Mesa, Scottsdale, Tempe, Glendale, Surprise, Goodyear and Peoria, where the Mariners’ facility is located, the president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the Phoenix city manager, the letter reads:
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Cactus League has formed a task force to ensure that our 10 spring training facilities are prepared to host the 2021 spring training season in a manner that is safe for all involved. We stand ready to work with you on the final preparation and outcome to begin the season.
Last week, leaders of all eight Cactus League cities and the tribal community had the opportunity to meet with Major League Baseball representatives and provide an update on our efforts as the February reporting date for Major League Baseball players approaches.
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. 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. This position is based on the public data from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which projects a sharp declining in infections in Arizona by mid-March (an estimated 9,712 daily infections on February 15 and 3,072 daily infections on March 15).
We understand that any decisions to delay spring training cannot be made unilaterally by MLB. As leaders charged with protecting public health, and as committed, longtime partners in the spring training industry, we want to you to know that we stand united on this point.
We appreciate the opportunity to offer input and thank MLB for its collaboration in assisting our facilities as they prepare for the 2021 spring training season. We welcome further discussions as needed.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database, Arizona has the highest rate of weekly rate of infection among the 50 states at 95.1 cases per 100,000 people. The state reported 5,321 new cases Monday with 3,763 coming in Maricopa County.
Yet even with the continued spread and the limited access to vaccines, Major League Baseball has maintained that spring training will start on time. Manfred issued a memo to teams a week ago, telling them to plan on spring training starting on the planned dates. Multiple MLB sources indicate that hasn’t changed and likely will not change even with the release of this letter.
The Cactus League and this task force has no actual power or control over Major League Baseball and its teams. Per those league sources, if MLB wants to continue to have teams report on the normal dates, it can and will. There is some debate as to whether the Cactus League might have some control over the spring training games being played because most cities like Peoria own their stadiums. Even if the Cactus League decided to delay or postpone those official games, teams would simply play intrasquad games or other teams at their own respective complexes.
MLB owners have been rumored to prefer a delayed start to spring training and the regular season in hopes that increased vaccine distribution in the coming weeks might allow for fans to attend spring training and regular-season games. However, Manfred cannot unilaterally change the schedule of spring training or the regular season based on the current collective bargaining agreement with the MLB Players Association.
The MLBPA must approve any proposed changes to the schedule. It has maintained that it wants a normal schedule for spring training and regular season, believing that a delayed start to spring training would also mean a delayed start to the regular season with fewer games played. After players received pro-rated salaries for 60 games in 2020, the MLBPA is adamant that players must be paid for the full 162 games in 2021.
The MLBPA, which is in the midst of negotiations for rules for the 2021 season, seemed to take exception to the letter, noting that it came after the Cactus League and mayors met with MLB reps without any union representation. It tweeted out the following statement responding to news of the letter:
Although we have not received any communication directly, the MLBPA is aware of a letter that has been distributed today by the Cactus League Association.
The letter states that after meeting with Major League Baseball, the Cactus League Association ‘believes it is wise’ to delay the start of Spring Training in Arizona. The letter correctly notes that MLB does not have the ability to unilaterally make this decision.
While we, of course, share the goals of a safe Spring Training and regular season, MLB has repeatedly assured us that it has instructed its teams to be prepared for an on time start to Spring Training and the Regular Season and we continue to devote all our efforts to making sure that that takes place as safely as possible.
Much of the concerns in the Cactus League letter focuses on the proposed protocols that would allow fans to attend to games and not player safety. Spring training is a multi-million dollar tourism industry for Maricopa County and also a revenue stream for teams. The Arizona Republic reported that Cactus League and spring training brought in roughly $644 million to the state of Arizona in 2018.
There are obviously differing agendas and priorities for MLB and its owners, the MLBPA, the Cactus League and the local municipalities. While all parties involved have a desire for fans to return to games, the focus for the MLBPA, which ultimately decides the situations, would be on players being properly prepared for an expected full season of games in a safe environment. For the MLBPA, spring training games without fans, which would mean lost revenues for the owners and local businesses, would still be an acceptable solution to ensure an on-time start to the season regular season and players receiving full salaries.