The Cactus League will come back to Scottsdale and the rest of Arizona on time in two weeks – but fans will hardly recognize it.
Don’t expect the usual capacity crowd of 12,000 fans at Scottsdale Stadium or parents and children jockeying for space on the crowded left field lawn.
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 less than 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.
In Scottsdale, the city is still finalizing its safety plans with the San Francisco Giants and the Scottsdale Charros, the local civic organization that has hosted Cactus League play since the 1960s.
“We submitted a plan to the Giants, and the Giants are submitting a plan to MLB for capacity to safely have the few number of fans we can have in the safest manner possible, so we’re waiting on that,” Charros Executive Director Dennis Robbins said.
On Feb. 10, the Giants confirmed that MLB and the city approved allowing 750 to 1,000 fans per game at the 12,000-seat Scottsdale Stadium, well below the 20-25 percent capacity the Charros had hoped for.
A spokesperson for Salt River Fields, which hosts the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies on the Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community near Scottsdale, said attendance and the 11,000-seat ballpark will be limited to 16 percent. Season ticket holders will get priority to but tickets.
The situation will be much the same in other Cactus League cities as well.
“I think the public and everyone 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. 27 after the Major League Baseball Players Association rejected the proposal.
Justin Piper, general manager of Mesa’s Sloan Park, said 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.
“We feel pretty confident in our plan and have received city and state approval,’’ Piper said. “It’s going to be a different experience than what people saw in the past. We want to make sure we provide a fun, exciting day in a safe way.’’
Salt River Fields has also released its safety protocols for fans, which include requiring face masks and prohibiting spitting of any kind, including with sunflower seeds.
The field will also operate as a cashless facility – including in parking lots – and players will not be available to sign autographs.
The City of Scottsdale, which owns the Scottsdale Stadium and must approve all gatherings over 50 people, did not provide further information on its safety plans for Giants games.
“At this point we know that the Giants are still finalizing their requested plan to submit for MLB approval,” city spokesman Kelly Corsette said.
The Giants said tickets will be sold for two- or four-seat pods in socially-distanced areas throughout the stadium for a maximum crowd of about 2,400 fans.
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 2021 season will kick off on Feb. 27, when the World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers play the Cubs in the first game at Sloan Park, followed by a matchup between the Los Angeles Angels and San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale that afternoon.
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.
Although the league never demanded a certain length of delay, East Valley officials and numerous media reports said the ideal scenario would have been to wait about a month.
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. Players worried that more double-headers during the shortened season would result in more injuries and said the offer came too late, after they had rented homes in Arizona and Florida for spring training, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported.
“We will be ready for any opportunity that presents itself,’’ Binsbacher said. “We’re concerned about health. It’s at the forefront of everything.’’
She said the league would work cooperatively with MLB on using the best safety protocols possible whenever the season begins.
In a prepared statement, Binsbacher said, “Each of the Cactus League’s eight host municipalities and the tribal community participated in a task force to ensure that our 10 spring training facilities will provide a safe environment for all involved.
"Operating procedures are forthcoming and will depend entirely on health guidelines. 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.”
Teams appeared headed toward putting single-game tickets on sale soon.
“All of us are studying what everyone has done to have fans and how it works,’’ said Jerry Hall, manager of Diablo Stadium. “That might be a bonus, if we have fans. I think if people come to the games, they will follow the rules.’’
He 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.
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.
But Steve Adams, president of the HoHoKams, said smaller crowds are bound to curtail his organization’s fundraising efforts for local charities, which include a lucrative 50-50 raffle, along with fees paid by the teams for the services of volunteers who work the games.
During good years, such as 2019 before COVID-19, a long schedule capped by a rare Cactus League appearance by the then World Champion Boston Red Sox allowed the HoHoKams to exceed a $500,000 goal for funds contributed to youth sports.
Robbins said the Scottsdale Charros is also expecting to take a significant fundraising hit.
“It will definitely have an impact with less fans and less ability to sell advertising and sponsorships,” Robbins said. “It’s probably going to be a down year for us, so we’ll have less money from baseball to give to local charities and education, but we’re trying to find other ways to raise money to replace that.”
The Charros canceled their annual education banquet last April due to the pandemic but will resume the tradition virtually this year and could include a fundraiser as part of the event.
Robbins said the Charros are also developing a golf tournament called the Charro Invitational to be held on May 7 at Grayhawk Golf Club.
“So that’s one of the ways you can distance yourself and be safe and yet still have an enjoyable time and raise money to support charity,” Robbins said.