Nightengale's Notebook: MLB lockout could cost fans yet another spring training

·12 min read

PHOENIX — We’re not supposed to care about spring training, right?

If the lockout drags on, and spring training starts late, it’s no big deal as long as the regular season starts on time, we’re told.

Besides, spring training games are completely meaningless, we’re reminded. It’s impossible to judge a team by its spring training performance, or else the San Francisco Giants’ 107-victory season wouldn’t have been such as a shock.

Teams already know who they plan to keep, send to the minors, or try to trade before they even arrive at camp.

But if spring training is so irrelevant, why does it mean so much to the fans, and all of the spring-training cities in Arizona and Florida?

The players will tell you they’re in the best shape of their lives and are anticipating the best season of their career, and we believe them.

Every single team feels they’ll be in the postseason if things break just right, and we agree.

Fans love spring training, flocking to Arizona and Florida to escape the cold and snow, getting a close and personal look at their heroes, working on their tans, mixing in some golf and nightlife, and vowing one day to retire in the land of sunshine.

A fan takes a photo on their phone of general view of game action between the Cincinnati Reds and the Los Angeles Angels during the second inning of a spring training game at Goodyear Ballpark.
A fan takes a photo on their phone of general view of game action between the Cincinnati Reds and the Los Angeles Angels during the second inning of a spring training game at Goodyear Ballpark.

There’s a reason why one of every 10 Phoenix-area residents is from Chicago where the Cubs and White Sox have their spring-training camps.

The price of spring-training tickets is outrageous and you can go to regular-season games cheaper at home, but the opportunity to be out in the sun, drink cold beer, and stuff your face with nachos, it’s priceless.

Spring training, which once featured 60-cent tickets where you could sit in sections by yourself, has become big business. Spring training used to be a financial drain on clubs. Now, it’s a valuable revenue stream with free marketing.

The Cactus League schedule, which features about 240 games in the 10 different ballparks, brings in $644 million in revenue, according to an Arizona economic study. Restaurants and bars owners say that spring training accounts for nearly 60% of their annual business.

But here we are three weeks from when pitchers and catchers traditionally report, and no one knows when spring training will start, how many games can be played, or whether we will have another truncated schedule.

COVID-19 screwed up the past two years of spring training.

The labor war between the owners and players union, with only their second meeting in 54 days scheduled Monday, may be responsible for the three-peat.

The drop-dead deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement to assure a 162-game season is about March 1.

The deadline for the start of spring training on time, with players needing at least a week to 10 days to arrive with visas and COVID protocols, is about Feb. 6.

An abbreviated Cactus League and Grapefruit League schedule would be brutal to the local economies.

"It would be devastating," says Don Carson, former owner of Don & Charlie’s in Scottsdale. "We’ve had interruptions before, and it is devastating for anybody that lives in the state of Arizona. Everybody looks forward to seeing baseball, but more importantly, it’s for the economic survival of many businesses.

"It would be like taking away Christmas and Thanksgiving from the retail business."

Carson, 77, has long been everyone’s favorite Cactus League luminary where his restaurant was the mecca for spring training. His restaurant was responsible for the press room dining at every San Francisco Giants’ home game. If someone had a press conference and wanted a buffet, they’d call Carson.

You wanted to see Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, George Brett, Robin Yount, Mark Grace, Will Clark, Rick Sutcliffe or any of your other favorite players, you had dinner and drinks at Don and Charlie's.

You wanted to give Bud Selig some advice when he was commissioner, you stopped in the corner booth at Don and Charlie's.

You wanted to laugh and hear stories from Milwaukee Brewers iconic broadcaster Bob Uecker, you stopped by just to say hello.

Places like Don and Charlie's, which opened in 1981 in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale, and closed on April 10, 2019, represented everything wonderful about spring training.

You walked in, and you’d see old friends and meet new ones. You’d see the 4,000 pieces of sports memorabilia lining the walls and ceilings. Visitors might have come in for the food, but they left with lifelong memories.

There’s nothing like the six weeks of spring training, particularly in Phoenix, where 15 teams are located in the Valley.

If it weren’t for the Cactus League, which nearly became extinct in the 1980s, Don and Charlie's never opens, Carson says.

"The first year was miserable, I was striking out a lot," Carson says. "Then, Frank Robinson started coming. So did Harry (Caray) and Uecker. Then, one day, we had baseball royalty, Roger Angell, Chub Feeney and Bill Rigney came in together, and I told my wife, 'We’re on our way.' "

The rest is history, and Carson’s restaurant was an integral part of what made spring training so wonderful, a baseball reality version of Cheers.

Those days are gone, and considering what has happened with spring training the last couple of years, who knows what will be the new norm?

We were supposed to find out in February, but at this negotiating pace, the charm of spring training may have to wait another year.

"It was just an enjoyable, relaxing time that went on for almost 40 years," Carson said. "It was just fun. It was a time for old friends to get together and make new friends. That’s what I miss the most, the people.

"I’d sure love to see it happen again."

Oh, man, wouldn’t we all?

Rays' dual-nationality dream is dead

It was a crazy idea to start with, and it was even crazier that it dragged on for 2 ½ years until MLB mercifully put a stop to it.

The Tampa Bay Rays were never going to be permitted to split their season between St. Petersburg, Florida, and Montreal, and now the zany concept is kaput.

If the two cities could get the funding for two brand new ballparks, why in the world would they share an 81-game home schedule?

And does anyone actually think the Major League Players Association would approve the idea of having their players and their families spending the first half of the season in Florida, get completely uprooted into another country, and be OK with it?

You’d spend the year living out of boxes and suitcases.

Oh, and how about the fans?

"The split-city concept was always a terrible plan, akin to your spouse telling you they wanted to be married to someone else on weekends," Rays fan Michael Stein, 46, told the Tampa Bay Times, "while expecting you to be happy to be a second spouse on Monday-Friday. Who would stay in that relationship? A divorce would be preferable, so even the team leaving, which I definitely don’t want, was better than a split-city plan."

A general view of Tropicana Field prior to opening day against the Houston Astros in 2019.
A general view of Tropicana Field prior to opening day against the Houston Astros in 2019.

Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg is convinced it will work, and one day will be part of the sports landscape. Sure, maybe if you’re the Minnesota Twins and spend half of the year in Minneapolis and the other in St. Paul, or the Rays dividing time between Tampa and Orlando.

But for two cities located 1,516 miles away to split their major-league season is ludicrous.

"I have no doubt that what we try to accomplish with our sister-city plan will become accepted in all major leagues and professional sports," Sternberg said. "Major League Baseball simply isn’t prepared to cross that threshold right now."

Hopefully, not ever.

If the Rays can’t find a new home in the Tampa Bay area after years of trying, with an average attendance of just 9,500 last season, it’s time to move.

MLB still is holding out hope the Rays can find a resolution in the Tampa Bay area before their lease expires after the 2027 season, just like the Oakland A’s in the East Bay.

Once those situations are resolved, it’s expansion time.

The expansion franchises would bring in about $3 billion to the owners, introduce massive realignment, and ease the scheduling nightmare with 32 teams.

MLB’s preferred sites are Nashville and Montreal.

It’s inevitable those cities will have franchises providing they will have new ballparks.

The sooner the better for everyone.

Fighting the virus

Who knows exactly when spring training will start, or what the CBA will exactly look like, but rest assured, there will be extensive health and safety protocols once again when players report with COVID-19 and the Omicron variant continuing to wreak havoc.

"The virus," said renowned chemist Dr. Lawrence Rocks, "is here to stay. It’s been almost two years now. The virus isn’t going away. We all face a health issue. As this virus continues to mutate, we need a new vaccine. We’re chasing a moving target."

Fewer than 70% of Major League Baseball players are vaccinated, causing consternation and trepidation.

There are at least two veteran major league coaches who were are unable to find big-league jobs this winter because of their refusal to become vaccinated.

There are free agents who are not vaccinated with several privately worried that being unvaccinated will hurt them in the market.

MLB and the players association won't require players to receive the vaccine, but if they aren't, the protocols can be restrictive, particularly while traveling.

Meanwhile, spring training still is scheduled to start in a month, and if Omicron has its way, it could create a spring training nightmare, sidelining not only players who test positive, but those in close contact.

"Baseball did all they could with social distancing and encouraging vaccination," Rocks said, "but what’s bad is the virus keeps mutating and science can’t keep up with it."

Around the basepaths

– It should be a financial boon to the players union with the designated hitter coming to the National League in the new CBA, particularly with teams recognizing the value of having a full-time, power-hitting DH.

The five teams with the most productive DHs last year with an .800 OPS or higher were the Los Angeles Angels (.972), Boston Red Sox (.906), Minnesota Twins (.812), New York Yankees (.810) and Cleveland Guardians (.800).

The common thread: They all had a star DH.

Angels: Shohei Ohtani.

Red Sox: J.D. Martinez

Twins: Nelson Cruz (traded midseason)

Yankees: Giancarlo Stanton.

Guardians: Franmil Reyes.

Their average salary: $13 million.

– No one has ascended a club’s corporate ladder quicker than Brandon Gomes, 37, who was promoted last week to be the Dodgers’ first GM since 2018.

Gomes retired after the 2016 season from the Tampa Bay Rays.

He was hired in 2017 to become the Dodgers’ minor-league pitching coordinator.

2018: Promoted to director of player development.

2018: Promoted to vice president and assistant GM.

2022: GM.

"He’s had such an incredible impact on everything he’s touched," said Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations. "He’s moved pretty quickly, but you could argue that he could’ve moved even quicker."

– Congratulations to former MLB outfielder Chris Young, who signed professionally out of high school in 2001 with the Chicago White Sox, played 13 years in the big leagues, and just graduated from Arizona State University at the age of 38.

"I truly believe education is important," said Young, who has two young daughters. "I want to set an example."

– Carlos Beltran, who was a candidate to join Buck Showalter’s coaching staff with the New York Mets before it was vetoed from atop, could join the YES network as a game analyst, according to the New York Post.

Beltran, who was part of the Houston Astros’ 2017 cheating scandal, deserves to be back in the game.

If managers A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora are back, how is it fair for Beltran to be left out?

Hopefully, he’s in the broadcast booth this year and on a major-league coaching staff in 2023.

– Carlos Correa, who dumped the WME agency and went with Scott Boras, would love to eclipse the $341 million deal that Francisco Lindor landed with the New York Mets last year.

His optimism, those close to him say, lies in the fact that several of the biggest markets still have holes: The Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and Astros.

– Remember Robinson Cano?

Well, after being suspended all last season for PED use, the 39-year-old is helping Estrellas Orientales’ bid to win their fourth title in the Dominican Republic winter league.

Cano is hitting .281 with 21 RBI in 26 regular-season and postseason games.

He will be back in the Mets’ camp this spring with two years, $48 million left on his contract.

– The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t been a playoff contender since 2015, losing 101 games last year, but there’s a glimmer of hope with six prospects on Baseball America’s Top 100 lists.

The only other team with six prospects are the Arizona Diamondbacks, who lost a major-league worst 110 games, but still are light years away from contending.

– The Nationals, who are forced to retool after winning the 2019 World Series, may have made the largest improvement to their minor-league development staff than any organization in baseball under new farm director De Jon Watson.

They had the smallest player development staff in baseball with 46 full-time employees and increased it by 16 people. They added a developmental coach at every level, additional hitting and pitching coordinators, a nutritionist, mental skills coach and director of player development technology and strategy.

The hires included former MLB players such as Bill Mueller, Joel Hanrahan, Coco Crisp, Delwyn Young and Billy McMillon.

– Congratulations to Vern Followell, 64, who retired from the Twins as their pro scouting coordinator after 32 years in the organization.

– The Philadelphia Phillies made a shrewd hire in veteran Dave Holliday, the uncle of former All-Star Matt Holliday, who will be in their pro scouting department.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB lockout could cost baseball fans yet another spring training