Monday, I wrote here about Cactus League officials and mayors of cities hosting Spring Training writing to Commissioner Rob Manfred asking for a delay in the start of spring games.
That wasn’t, as you might have guessed, the end of the story. Cactus League Executive Director Bridget Binsbacher told ESPN’s Jeff Passan that Arizona facilities will be ready to go no matter what date is set by MLB to start:
“If it is determined that spring training is going to start on Feb. 27, we’re prepared for that,” Binsbacher told ESPN in an interview. “Our focus is having a safe, secure experience for all involved. We believe we can do that on the 27th. We believe we can do that a month from the 27th.”
Some view this as “backtracking.” I don’t. This statement is quite similar to MLB’s note sent to managers in December asking them to prepare for an on-time start.
Being “prepared” isn’t the same thing as noting circumstances that might prevent things from starting on time.
I will tell you this. In “normal” baseball seasons — what we had before the COVID-19 pandemic upended baseball and the rest of life last March — MLB would have sent out a press release announcing team report dates, dates for “Photo Day” and official game times by now. Like, well before now — last year’s was sent on January 15. The Cubs had previously announced 2020 reporting dates January 9. The fact that nothing like that has happened in 2021 might mean something, or nothing. It’s really impossible to tell.
The MLB Players Association issued a statement Monday after the report of the Cactus League letter:
Statement from the Major League Baseball Players Association regarding the Cactus League letter: pic.twitter.com/5j0vGewKC7— MLBPA Communications (@MLBPA_News) January 25, 2021
MLB also issued a statement, quoted in Passan’s article:
“As we have previously said publicly, we will continue to consult with public health authorities, medical experts and the players association whether any schedule modifications to the announced start of spring training and the championship season should be made in light of the current COVID-19 environment to ensure the safety of the players, coaches, umpires, MLB employees and other gameday personnel in a sport that plays every day.”
Passan’s article notes that other sports are being played in the Phoenix area:
The concern from officials expressed in it goes against the actions taken by sports franchises and others in the Phoenix area. The Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks are playing regular-season NHL games in Glendale, the Phoenix Suns are having regular-season NBA games downtown, and high schools across the area are participating in all sports.
The San Jose Sharks note interested me. The Sharks aren’t currently being permitted to play in their home arena, as Santa Clara County in California has an ongoing ban on contact sports — the San Francisco 49ers also had to play some “home” games in Arizona. The Sharks will play at least their first two home games in Glendale, Arizona — but unlike the Coyotes, who are selling a small number of tickets to their home games, no tickets will be sold for Sharks “home” games in Glendale. Back to baseball:
One issue with baseball, Binsbacher said, is the influx of tourists — six in 10 who attend spring training games are from out of state, she said — and the packed schedule teams play. “The big difference here,” she said, “is we’ve got 32 to 36 days straight of spring training.”
In the end, I don’t think the request by Cactus League officials was wrong. We are, hopefully, seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic. People are beginning to be vaccinated. As noted in the original letter, cases are expected to drop in Arizona by mid-March; it would likely be much safer to begin spring training then than it would be just three weeks from now, which would be around the time pitchers and catchers typically report to spring camps. Of course, that would create this issue, noted by Passan:
Any spring training delay could theoretically have an effect on the regular season — something the MLBPA is treating as a nonstarter and MLB understands would cause regular-season games to move into October and postseason games to November.
I’ve written previously that I think pushing everything back a month, yes, including having postseason games in November (likely in a bubble for weather reasons) would be a good idea. More fans could likely attend October games than April games. It seems likely MLB might have COVID postponements early on, and adding that to likely April weather postponements could create a scheduling nightmare.
The Cactus League folks had the right idea in their letter, in my view. Sure, it’s fine for MLB, teams, coaches, players to prepare for an on-time start; if it happens that way, they can say they’re prepared. But it is my opinion that a month’s delay would be best for everyone involved, including baseball fans.
As always, we await developments.