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Cactus League urges MLB to delay spring training in Arizona

With coronavirus cases still high in the state, local officials suggest holding off for a month

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MLB: MAR 07 Spring Training - Athletics at Diamondbacks

Spring training is set to begin in three weeks, but the unknown future of the coronavirus pandemic has always made that plan feel more tentative than concrete. Now there is officially opposition to the idea.

The Cactus League sent a letter to Major League Baseball urging a delay to the beginning of spring training in Arizona, reported Monday by Brahm Resnik of KPNX in Phoenix. The letter, signed by leaders from every Cactus League city as well as the league’s executive director, reads in part:

“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 public data from University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which projects a sharp decline in infections in Arizona by Mid-March.”

However, the request also notes that the signees “understand that any decision to delay spring training cannot be made unilaterally by MLB,” as the players union would also need to agree to any schedule changes.

To that end, the players’ firm stance is that they won’t shorten the season in any way if it means losing any salary. Last year they accepted a pro-rated portion of their pay for the roughly 37% of the season that was played, despite the fact that their contracts are not otherwise based on the number of games in a campaign. They are currently opposed to repeating that model in 2021 and leaving any of their guaranteed money on the table.

The MLBPA responded to the latest news in a statement Monday:

“While we, of course, share the goals of a safe spring training and regular season, MLB has repeatedly assured us that is 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.”

One possible option could involve pushing everything back by a month, including spring training, Opening Day, and the postseason, suggests Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. That could give time for the latest spikes to subside, and for the vaccine to get distributed to a wider percentage of the population.

However, stretching the playoffs into November would require the cooperation of TV networks, and simply shortening the season by a month would require the cooperation of the players. Rosenthal doesn’t see either of those scenarios as likely, especially given the toxic state of the relationship between the owners and players.

“The commissioner’s office floated the idea [of delaying spring training and Opening Day] to the union in early December. The union asked if the league would be willing to lengthen the season by the same number of days it lost at the start and if not, pay players for any games missed. When the league answered no, the union indicated it did not want to discuss the matter further, maintaining that it wanted to play 162 games at full pay.”

Rosenthal points out that Arizona and Florida are two of the states currently being hit hardest by the virus, even though in general “cases are declining in all regions of the country.” Indeed, Arizona has the highest infection rate in the world this month, reports Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle, citing Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, here in California where the situation has recently improved, Governor Gavin Newsom lifted statewide stay-at-home orders Monday, moving back to a county-by-county basis that will allow some areas to being partially reopening.

Also of note: The NHL is still playing games in Arizona with some fans in attendance, specifically in Glendale, one of the cities whose mayor endorsed the Cactus League’s letter.

Right now, Oakland A’s pitchers and catchers are due to report to camp in Mesa on Feb. 17. Will spring training start on time, and with it the regular season? January is nearly over already, but we’ll have to wait a bit longer to find out.