“[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,” said the letter, the existence of which was first reported Monday by Phoenix television station KPNX.
The letter cited data from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which projects an estimated 9,712 daily infections for the county on Feb. 15 but only 3,072 on March 15. The letter was signed by the mayors of Glendale, Goodyear, Mesa, Peoria, Scottsdale and Surprise; the city managers of Phoenix and Tempe; the executive director of the Cactus League; and the president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
Earlier this month, MLB instructed its 30 teams — including the 15 that train in Arizona — to prepare for spring training camps to open on time in mid-February, with the understanding that an alteration to the timetable could become necessary depending on the trajectory of the virus. Most teams open their camps between Feb. 15 and Feb. 17 and play their first exhibition games Feb. 27.
“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,” MLB said in a statement Monday.
Arizona’s rolling, seven-day infection rate of 95.1 per 100,000 residents was the highest in the country as of Sunday, according to data on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. While Florida’s is somewhat better, at 52 cases per 100,000 residents as of Sunday, the state on Friday tied its single-day record for deaths from covid-19 with 277.
Any alteration to the spring training schedule, with its downstream disruption to the 2021 regular season, would require an agreement between MLB and the players’ union, and there are no indications the sides have actively explored such a delay in recent weeks, let alone reached agreement on one.
“We understand that any decision to delay spring training cannot be made unilaterally by MLB,” the letter from the Arizona officials said. “As leaders charged with protecting public health, and as committed, longtime partners in the spring training industry, we want you to know that we stand united on this point.”
In December, the union quickly rejected an initial suggestion from MLB that the sides discuss a delay. MLB, coming off a fan-free 2020 season, would like to have fans in the stands for as much of the 2021 season as possible, even if that means delaying the start of the regular season for perhaps a month in hopes of a decline in infection rates and an increase in vaccine availability.
The union, however, is wary of MLB’s suggestions of a delay, viewing that as the precursor to an ownership ploy to reduce players’ salaries in 2021. Players received about 37 percent of their full salaries for the 60-game 2020 season.
“While we, of course, share the goals of a safe Spring Training and regular season,” the MLBPA said in a statement Monday, “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.”
Some on the players’ side point to the 2020 season as proof that MLB can pull off a successful season in the midst of a pandemic. However, that season was reduced by more than half, with a regionalized schedule, at a time when the infection rates were significantly lower than they are now.
Theoretically, a one-month delay to the opening of the regular season could be made up by extending the regular season into October and the postseason into November, but MLB believes its television network partners would balk at that suggestion.