A kerfuffle has broken out in Arizona over the start of baseball spring training next month, with officials from host cities requesting that the opening date be delayed, and also not actually requesting it, and — you know what, let’s begin at the beginning.
Spring training is set to start in less than three weeks, with pitchers and catchers reporting on February 15 and exhibition games starting on February 27. When those dates were first set last fall, it wasn’t thought to be an issue — teams were already playing games in their home cities across the nation, with frequent testing (more or less) making it possible to do this without massive virus outbreaks. But coronavirus rates are roughly a squillion times higher now than they were then, with Arizona at the top of the list for cases per capita. Plus, as noted on Friday, Arizona city officials started realizing that nobody was going to come to those games and stay at their hotels and stuff, and while that’s not actually a huge economic benefit, it’s all they get.
Soooo, a whole bunch of Cactus League mayors and city managers sent out this letter to MLB on Friday:
— Brahm Resnik (@brahmresnik) January 25, 2021
If that’s too small to squint at on your phone, the gist is:
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 the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which projects a sharp decline in infections in Arizona by mid-March (an estimated 9,712 daily infections on February 15 and 3,072 daily infections on March 15).
And if you look at Arizona’s infection-rate curve, that pretty much checks out:
Yesterday, however, Cactus League executive director Bridget Binsbacher quickly walked that back:
“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.”
The subtext here has to do with MLB’s need to consult with the players’ union on delaying the start of the season — or, more to the point, consult with the union on paying players less if the season is delayed. Players, needless to say, despite any concerns about reporting for duty in the nation’s Covid capital, are also not crazy about MLB keeping them safe by furloughing them without pay, and have turned down any delay in the start of the season without pay. MLB owners, for their part, have no interest in not playing games if they have to pay players anyway. So everyone is just sort of moving ahead by pretending that all this will be safe enough, probably:
In a statement, the MLBPA said: “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.”
The league, in a statement, said: “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.”
And, you know, it might work out okay! There are very likely to be outbreaks at spring training camps, and some players might get seriously sick (hopefully Eduardo Rodriguez is doing better now), especially given all the airports that players will be shlepping through to get to Florida and Arizona. But there are plenty of players at spring training if you need substitutes, and for that matter it’s easy enough to cancel spring training games if needed since they don’t count for anything. So maybe if by late March coronavirus rates are down to more reasonable levels, and there isn’t a second (fourth? I’ve lost count) wave thanks to new mutated variants, then by April everyone will be ready to start the season on time with at least some practice in. Maybe. It’s no dumber than what the NBA is doing, certainly!
Still, it’s important to note that whether MLB gets this right or not will be almost entirely down to dumb luck, since everyone concerned — owners, players, mayors — is looking at this from a money standpoint first, and a public health standpoint at most second. Is it too late for all sports to take a gap year?