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Baseball Spring Training Returns To Arizona, But Not Without COVID-19 Worries

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Spring training is now underway in Arizona and Florida. This beloved baseball ritual is a huge economic driver, but the pandemic has local leaders worried about health and safety. Phil Latzman from member station KJZZ reports on how teams in the Cactus League are handling this balancing act.

PHIL LATZMAN, BYLINE: John Giles is the mayor of Mesa, Ariz., a city that invested $100 million on a replica of Chicago's Wrigley Field.

JOHN GILES: We refer to March in Mesa as Christmas in March. We like to say that Chicago is, you know, the summer home of the Mesa Cubs.

LATZMAN: The ballpark keeps the Cubs coming back every year. The Oakland Athletics train here, too, so it was especially hard for Giles to join other local mayors in signing a letter in January asking Major League Baseball to postpone spring training until they had a better handle on the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, Arizona had one of the highest spread rates in the country.

GILES: Delaying the season would have been helpful to us just because it would have allowed for the vaccine to do its work, you know, for another month or so and probably would have allowed us to allow more people to watch the games.

LATZMAN: In neighboring Scottsdale, Mayor David Ortega estimates his city generates as much as $2 million a game when the San Francisco Giants play preseason games there. But he signed the letter, too.

DAVID ORTEGA: It was a important call. It was actually easy for me to make. You've got to be sensible, and we were. And actually, there has been a subsidence in the numbers, but we're still following all the protocol. So health will always supersede money.

LATZMAN: Major League Baseball denied the mayor's request. But they worked with host cities and the 10 stadiums for the 15 Cactus League teams in the Phoenix area, and they will limit ticket sales to only a small fraction of their capacity, with fans socially distanced in separate pods. Mayor Ortega says, for now, that'll have to do.

ORTEGA: We're going to celebrate what we got. I don't want to just have one of those cut-out pop-outs of my head sitting in the stadium, right? And eventually, we all want to be there. It's going to be a blip.

LATZMAN: But it's a big blip. Cactus League executive director Bridget Binsbacher.

BRIDGET BINSBACHER: A shutdown, you know, costs the state close to $300 million in economic impact. Obviously, we hate to see that happen again, but we're in a situation right now where public health and safety is absolutely the top priority. And that's what we're focusing on.

LATZMAN: Binsbacher says she's not sure what will happen this spring, but she feels baseball is doing the best it can to keep the teams, the fans and the communities around them happy. David Estrada was at the Cubs facility in Mesa, the one that looks like Wrigley Field in the desert. He drove from Los Angeles with his wife and young daughter. He wanted to come and see the rookies and to be closer to the players.

DAVID ESTRADA: We came to Arizona. We're going to the Grand Canyon. And we decided to go and check out all the spring training facilities. And this is our fourth one so far.

LATZMAN: For now, though, he'll be on the outside looking in. He's disappointed that his family won't be able to have the experience they wanted - actually going inside the stadiums to watch exhibition games.

ESTRADA: Spring training is just around the corner, but we can't do that. We can't just request tickets, you know? And hopefully next year, it'll be a different story.

LATZMAN: So for now, there's still spring training baseball in Arizona, only without the usual crowds, fanfare or revenue that usually brings Christmas in March to the state. For NPR News, I'm Phil Latzman in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHET ATKINS' "CENTIPEDE BOOGIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.