Major League Baseball is scheduled to open spring training camps in Arizona and Florida in less than a month's time. Yet on Monday, a Cactus League task force comprising the league's executive director and a number of Arizona government officials sent a letter to commissioner Rob Manfred requesting that spring training be delayed in response to the area's COVID-19 situation, which is one of the worst in the nation.
The letter, originally shared on Twitter by KPNX TV's Brahm Resnik, reads as follows:
Dear Commissioner Manfred:
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Cactus League has formed a task force to ensure that our 10 spring training facilities are prepared to host the 2021 spring training season in a manner that is safe for all involved. We stand ready to work with you on the final preparation and outcome to begin the season.
Last week, leaders of all eight Cactus League cities and the tribal community had the opportunity to meet with Major League Baseball representatives and provide an update on our efforts as the February reporting date for Major League Baseball players approaches.
We are grateful to MLB for its partnership and unified in our commitment to provide a safe, secure environment; to that end, the task force has worked to ensure the ballparks are able to meet COVID-19 protocols such as pod seating, social distancing and contactless transactions. But in view of the current state of the pandemic in Maricopa County -- with one of the nation's highest infection rates -- we believe it 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).
We understand that any decision to delay spring training cannot be made unilaterally by MLB. 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.
We appreciate the opportunity to offer input and thank MLB for its collaboration in assisting our facilities as they prepare for the 2021 spring training season. We welcome further discussions as needed.
MLB has since issued a statement to the Associated Press that says it "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 game day personnel in a sport that plays every day."
The players' association also responded to the letter:
Although we have not received any communication directly, the MLBPA is aware of a letter that has been distributed today by the Cactus League Association.
The letter states that after meeting with Major League Baseball, the Cactus League Association "believes it is wise" to delay the start of Spring Training in Arizona. The letter correctly notes that MLB does not have the ability to unilaterally make this decision.
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.
The AP notes that MLB asked the union about moving the season back a month in November. MLB refused to compensate the players for the games that would be missed, and also rejected moving the postseason back an equal distance to allow for the games to be made up.
The Cactus League letter is signed by Bridget Binsbacher, the executive director of the Cactus League, as well as the mayors of Goodyear, Mesa, Surprise, Peoria, Scottsdale, Glendale; the Phoenix and Tempe city managers; and Martin Harvier, the president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
On Tuesday, The Athletic's Alex Coffey reported an MLB representative encouraged Cactus League members to write a letter to commissioner Manfred voicing their desire to delay spring training. MLB issued a statement denying the report:
"It is categorically untrue that MLB requested the letter from the Cactus League. The author of the letter will confirm this fact. And, there was no need for such a request because officials from the Cactus League had publicly stated their desire for a delay prior to the meeting. In the meeting, MLB officials, consistent with our prior public statements, expressed a willingness to reevaluate our plan to open camps on time in light of the public health situation. Also consistent with our prior public statements, we acknowledged the need to work with the MLBPA which has opposed any delay."
MLB is not believed to have the power to unilaterally delay the season, meaning the league would likely have to reach an agreement with the union. Some within the game have told CBS Sports that the wise approach would be to delay the season until mid-May, as a means of allowing more time for the vaccination process to ramp up, thereby making it safer for everyone and increasing the likelihood of having fans in the stands throughout the regular season.
Half of MLB's 30 teams -- mostly from the west coast -- make up the Cactus League and hold training in Arizona. The other 15 teams are part of Florida's Grapefruit League. And while things are uncertain at the moment in Arizona, two teams who conduct their spring training in Florida (the Marlins and Cardinals) announced Monday that they were selling tickets for 2021 spring training games.