The prospect of the major league baseball season beginning later than planned grew Monday, when the Cactus League of Arizona asked MLB “to delay the start of spring training to allow for the COVID-19 situation to improve here.”
A similar request has not come from the Grapefruit League in Florida, where the other half of the 30 teams train, including the Red Sox, but a delay in Arizona’s exhibition slate would likely force a delay there as well. MLB would not want to have half its teams begin training for the season while the other half sit at home.
Altering the baseball calendar is not a simple procedure. Unless there is a national emergency in which baseball is deemed unplayable, the players must sign off on any change. They have stated that they want to play a full 162-game slate.
With Monday also bringing news that owners and players remain at a standoff on key issues that may further complicate their strained labor relationship, the message from Arizona prompted a quick and pointed reply from the Players Association, which was not cc’d on the matter.
“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,” read the MLBPA statement.
On Jan. 12, commissioner Rob Manfred notified the 30 clubs to prepare for an on-time start to the season, with spring training games set to start Feb. 27 and the regular season April 1.
But most of the 30 clubs have not yet announced a reporting date for the players, spring training game times have not been set, and tickets for spring games have not gone on sale.
The letter from a task force of public officials in the cities where Cactus League games are played cited a surge of COVID-19 cases in Maricopa County, where University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects 9,712 daily infections on Feb. 15 to drop to 3,072 by March 15.
MLB said in a statement, “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.”
The Grapefruit League does not have a comparable organizational set-up as the Cactus League. The closest structure it has is under the Florida Sports Foundation, which operates in a promotional tourism capacity for the state.
Nick Gandy, a communications consultant with the foundation, said in a phone call that the 15 Florida teams have been preparing for a modified spring training setting, with limited seating, social distancing, and restricted access to the back fields.
“I can’t imagine they would allow teams in Florida to play if they delay spring training in Arizona, but right now, we’re going to be ready to start spring training on Feb. 27,” said Gandy, who noted that all three NFL teams in the state opened their stadiums to limited capacity this season and that Tampa will be hosting the Super Bowl with limited capacity in two weeks.
Also on Monday, MLB notified its clubs that there has been no agreement with the players about adopting a DH in the National League or having an expanded postseason. That will only further stymie National League teams trying to gauge whether they should fill a roster spot with a dedicated DH.
Over the winter, the sides have been unable to make progress on those two issues, with the players of the belief that agreeing to expanded playoffs is a bigger “concession” than the clubs agreeing to a universal DH.
The players also do not feel compelled to reopen the collective bargaining agreement, which is set to expire in December.