Is a Grapefruit vs. Cactus League Preview Being Played Out Now?

If Major League Baseball is able to play an abbreviated 2020 schedule under the Arizona-Florida plan, which would base all teams in their spring training homes, the season finale would be a World Series between the Cactus and Grapefruit League champions.

The dates of this one-time-only set could be as late as December, depending on your favorite schedule length theory.

However, one may not have to wait to view such a scrimmage. If actions being taken this week are any indication, the battle between those on top in Arizona and Florida may be going on in real time.

Just as the two states have jockeyed for years to incent MLB teams to locate their spring training base in one locale over the other, there could be a similar competition currently brewing for the site(s) of the 2020 MLB season – if it is eventually allowed to be played.

For their part, both states are sending clear signals that they are open for business.

Cases are stated

This Tuesday, April 14, World Wrestling Entertainment was relabeled by the governor of Florida as an essential business, with the mayor of Orange County calling it “critical to Florida’s economy,” per an ESPN report.

After lobbying efforts, the original Florida shelter-in-place order was changed to exempt certain sports and entertainment entities.

The additions to the list of “essential services” in the state include “employees at a professional sports and media production with a national audience — including any athletes, entertainers, production team, executive team, media team and any others necessary to facilitate including services supporting such production — only if the location is closed to the general public.”

The decision allows the WWE to restart its shows from an empty studio in Orlando and a nearby university.

The change is not specific to wrestling, and opens the door for the potential for other sports to resume in the state, as well.

Later that same day, Arizona’s governor held a news conference stating his case.

“I have had discussions with the commissioner of Major League Baseball,” Governor Rob Ducey said. “While I want to hold the content of those discussions in confidence, I just want everyone to know that Arizona, at the right time, is very open-minded to hosting whatever Major League Baseball would like from the state, at the time that it would be appropriate for public health if Arizona were in a position to reopen.

“We have the facilities that are here. We have the hotel space that is here. We want to make sure that the metrics and data are proper before we are able to go forward,” Ducey concluded. (Arizona Republic article)

Pros and cons by state

Each location has its advantages, but some industry sources indicate the scale may tip in Arizona’s direction.

Arizona would be the most feasible location to bring 30 teams into one place because all 15 clubs which have their spring training camps there are located in the Phoenix area. Tightest management of the virus threat would seem to have its best shot with all baseball personnel in relative proximity.

Cactus League 2020 (ColoradoAvidGolfer.com)

A limitation to Arizona, however, is less schedule flexibility. This is due to the desert heat, which would likely require games to be played at night, or in the one domed baseball facility, Chase Field, located in downtown Phoenix. This could severely restrict the scheduling of doubleheaders, rumored to be a key component of MLB’s hopes to play as many games as possible in the limited days remaining.

The rookie-level Arizona League plays its summer games at spring training complexes in the evening, but it can be extremely unpleasant even then.  A recent check of average Phoenix temperatures on July 15 indicates that more often than not, temperatures reach the “sweltering level”, which is 95 degrees and above, by 10:30 a.m. and remain that way well after sunset.

Because Arizona does not participate in Daylight Saving Time, evening games there would not start until at least 10:00 p.m. on the East Coast. That is hardly ideal to maximize viewership in the largest media markets – and television revenue is the prime motivation for MLB to begin play as quickly as possible, even if in empty ballparks.

A benefit to Florida teams playing in Florida comes from player and team familiarity and comfort, being resident for months in their own facilities. Even if players are sequestered, families could still travel to the area and stay in their regular spring locales nearby. It would not be perfect, but might help convince some players who are uneasy with the long family separation and disruption associated with the Arizona Plan.

There are two domes in Florida, in Miami and St. Petersburg, and the weather, while at the mercy of rain at times, could allow more schedule flexibility simply because it is not as hot as in Arizona. Still, travel distances for non-division games could require overnight stays for road trips – another potential complication.

This required new division alignment has other potential warts. While it would be necessary for game scheduling to cluster teams due to greater geographic disbursement, the makeshift Florida divisions would not be feasible if teams could later return home to finish the season. For example, the other teams in St. Louis’ Grapefruit League division would be the Miami Marlins, New York Mets, Washington Nationals and Houston Astros. The 10 teams that are based on or nearer the Gulf Coast would also be split into two, five-team divisions.

Grapefruit League 2020 (Fort Myers Florida Weekly)

While these interim divisions may work while the teams are in Florida, they would fall apart due to excessive travel when teams are back in their regular-season locations. So would MLB tear up the schedule and create yet another one partway through the already-shortened season? Or would the Florida plan essentially lock teams into playing in the state for the entire schedule?

These concerns could be avoided under an all-Arizona plan by structuring divisions just as they are today. The relative importance of this sub-issue may hinge on how likely MLB thinks a return to its home cities in 2020 really could be.

And what kind of a return would it even be? What motivation to return home would owners have if their ballparks are required by local health officials to remain empty, anyway? How could MLB return to some home cities, but not others?

So many questions remain, but at this point, starting and finishing the 2020 season in the same location(s) seems the most likely occurrence.

Economic impact

Clearly. the economic benefit to either state would be lessened if no fans are allowed to attend MLB games. Still an influx of an estimated 3,000 people (between players and the necessary support personnel) with their lodging, meals, transportation, and yes, testing requirements, for as long as four or five months would provide a big financial boost to one or both states – states whose core tourism business has absorbed a huge hit in 2020.

No immediate long-term MLB spring training camp changes would arise from the Arizona-only plan. After all, most every team has a long term lease in its current location, but still, seeds could be planted as Florida teams gain first-hand familiarity with Arizona baseball and desert life.

Florida is certainly sensitive to the migration of MLB teams to Arizona.

The Grapefruit League had the clear head start, with the first on-going spring camps over 100 years ago, while the Cactus League’s origin was not until 1947. But the latter has made the most recent gains.

All but six of today’s 30 MLB teams trained in Florida at some point, but nine of the other 24 have since joined the other six in Arizona. By the end of the 1980’s, 17 of MLB’s 26 teams at the time trained in Florida, one in California, and just eight in Arizona.

That slow, but steady migration from Florida to Arizona continued in the 1990’s and 2000’s. The most recent teams to move west were the Dodgers and Indians in 2008 and the Reds in 2009. That set today’s Grapefruit and Cactus League team counts at 15 each.

Not too long ago, in 2012, the Cubs seemed close to reversing the tide. Chicago had a flirtation with Naples, Florida before deciding to remain in Mesa, Arizona. The trigger was the City of Mesa backing the $100 million cost of the new Sloan Park spring training facility through the sale of municipal bonds.

Public funding is common in The Sunshine State, as well. A number of MLB facilities in Florida have been partially paid for by bonds backed by state tourism taxes along with county and city lodging taxes. In fact, that is how a significant portion of the planned $100 million renovation to the Cardinals and Marlins Roger Dean Stadium complex will be funded.

Baseball’s benefit to a state’s economy can be considerable.

Per separate 2018 reports from Arizona State University’s Seidman Research Institute and the Florida Sports Foundation, the combined economic impact of spring training is over $1.33 billion. The Grapefruit League generates $687.1 million while the Cactus League delivers $644.2 million. And remember, that is primarily accrued over a six-week period.

So even though the decision of where MLB begins play in 2020 will not be in their hands, it seems each state wants to ensure their desires are known – to “Play Ball!”


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