Cactus League starting on time – with far fewer fans SanTan Sun News

Cactus League starting on time – with far fewer fans

February 11th, 2021 Editorial Staff
Cactus League starting on time – with far fewer fans
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By Jim Walsh
Contributor

The Cactus League will come back in action in the Valley in two weeks – but fans will find it hardly recognizable.

Don’t expect the usual capacity crowd of more than 15,000 loyal Chicago Cubs fans at Mesa’s Sloan Park or kids clamoring for autographs as players take a leisurely stroll across the parking lot between the practice fields and Tempe Diablo Stadium when the season begins with a full slate of games Feb. 27.

These, and many other familiar scenes from Cactus League seasons past, will not be possible this year as officials try to strike a delicate balance between the return of spring training and preventing another disastrous spike in COVID-19.

With safety paramount on everyone’s minds, fans can expect to see seating limited at Cactus League Stadiums to about 25 percent of capacity, “pods’ of small groups of people sitting at least six feet apart from each other, a mask requirement throughout the league and a prohibition against collecting autographs or watching routine workouts.

“I think the public and everyone needs to needs to understand that public safety will not be compromised in the name of baseball,’’ Mesa Mayor John Giles said. “There will be baseball, but there will be strict protection.’’

“We built stadiums and relationships with the teams because we are in it for the long game,’’ Giles said. “We will look forward to wall-to-wall people next year.’’

The Cactus League, which supported Major League Baseball by requesting a delay in the season because of COVID-19, is now revving up for Opening Day Feb. 26 after the Major League Baseball Players Association rejected the proposal.

Justin Piper, general manager of Sloan Park, said the Cactus League parks will rely on MLB’s safety protocols that focus on masks and social distancing. He also said there will be small variations from park to park based upon their layouts.

“It’s going to be a different experience than what people saw in the past,” Piper said. “We want to make sure we provide a fun, exciting day in a safe way.’’

Pods at Sloan Park will be limited to a maximum six people sitting together and each pod will be at least six feet apart, making it easier for ushers to enforce social distancing, he said.

Every effort will be made to avoid bottlenecks and lines, with only mobile tickets sold so that fans can download them to their cell phones, phasing out the ticket booths at least for this season.

Concessions will be spread out, using Sloan’s wide concourse and plaza areas, he said.

While there will be no season tickets this year, season ticket holders will get the first priority to buy single game tickets on cubs.com or sloanpark.com.

Sloan’s maximum crowd is expected to drop from more than 15,000 to an estimated 3,500, Piper said.

Although the protocols represent a marked departure from the usual relaxed, intimate atmosphere at Cactus League games, at least fans who are willing to cooperate have an opportunity to watch live games in person for the first time since the 2020 Cactus League season was suddenly canceled about midway in March.

Pitchers and catchers are expected to arrive on Feb. 17.  The World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers will play the Cubs in the first game at Sloan Park on Feb. 27. The Los Angeles Angels will matchup that same afternoon against the San Francisco Giants in Scottdale.

Other early East Valley games include the Chicago White Sox vs. the Angels on Feb. 28 at Diablo’s home opener and the Seattle Mariners vs. the Oakland Athletics at Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium.

Bridget Binsbacher, the Cactus League’s executive director and a Peoria City Council member, said the league would have preferred to see the season’s debut delayed to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19, providing time for more fans to get vaccinated.

MLB eventually offered to pay players in for a 154-game regular season schedule, instead of the usual 162-game season, and using the designated hitter in both leagues, as was the case in last year’s abbreviated 60-game season.

But the powerful Major League Baseball Players Association quickly crushed that proposal out of the park like a typical batting practice fastball grooved straight down the middle.

Players worried that more double-headers during the shortened season would result in more injuries and also said the offer came too late, after they had rented homes in Arizona and Florida for spring training, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported.

In a prepared statement earlier this month, Binsbacher said, “Fans are advised to go to the Cactus League website at cactusleague.com/#navigation-locations for ticket details and protocols for attendees at individual ballparks.”

Jerry Hall, manager of Diablo Stadium said the Cactus League needs a uniform policy, so that the same rules are used in all stadiums and fans don’t insist they were allowed to not wear masks in another ballpark.

“All of us will have the same protocols. We will all be on the same page,’’ Hall said.

Diablo, the oldest and smallest of Cactus League stadiums, always has touted its intimate fan experience. In Diablo’s case, that would mean capacity would shrink from 9,600 to about 2,000 or so.

Despite the limitations, “the fan experience will actually be quite nice. You can still sit with your family. You can still watch Major League Baseball,’’ Hall said.

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