The Cactus League will come back to Mesa and the rest of Arizona on time 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.
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 6 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 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.’’
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.
“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.’’
Pods at Sloan Park will be limited to a maximum six people sitting together and each pod will be at least 6 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.
“We are coming up with a full plan of social distancing,’’ he said. “We will be following CDC recommended social distancing in all areas of the ballpark.’’
Because the Cubs and other teams are limiting attendance to 25 percent of capacity to help achieve social distancing, 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 2021 season unveils on Feb. 27, when 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 Scottsdale.
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.
Although the league never demanded a certain length of delay, East Valley officials said the ideal scenario would have been about a month.
MLB eventually offered to pay players 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 also said the offer came too late. They had rented homes in Arizona and Florida for spring training, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported.
Binsbacher said, “We’re concerned about health. It’s at the forefront of everything.’’ She said the league would work with MLB on using the best safety protocols possible whenever the season begins.
“The Cactus League is prepared to open spring training camps as scheduled. 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, with the Diamondbacks offering subscribers to their newsletter a “pre-sale’’ opportunity.
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. Its capacity would shrink from 9,600 to about 2,000 or so.
“The fan experience will actually be quite nice. You can still sit with your family. You can still watch Major League Baseball,’’ Hall said.