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Batter up! Baseball is back with new collective bargaining agreement but casualties remain

Reports of a new collective bargaining agreement have left baseball fans giddy, but the lengthy haggling hasn’t been without casualties.

Out-of-state fans who already had booked travel turned to golf or lamented their unfortunate fate. Valley workers who counted on Cactus League competition had to find other means of income. Players lost valuable workout time and opted to create their own spring training in Mesa. 

“Think of all those jobs impacted across all the facilities. People really depend on spring training to keep their revenue going,” said Erin Schneiderman, a clinical assistant professor in Arizona State’s School of Community Resources and Development. “It’s definitely impacting a large number of people within our state.”

On Thursday players voted to accept MLB’s latest offer for a new labor deal, paving the way to end a 99-day lockout and salvage a 162-game regular season. 

Spring camps will open Friday with a voluntary report date of Sunday, and games will begin March 17. Free agency will start up as soon as the Collective Bargaining Agreement is ratified 

During the negotiations, players turned to the Valley for help. Mesa’s Bell Bank Ballpark, the new, sprawling state-of-the-art facility, attracted dozens of MLB players who gathered to stage their own version of spring training as they awaited resolution to the work stoppage.

Players worked out on fields sporting black T-shirts with the MLBPA logo. “Brotherhood” is etched on the back, written in different languages, to signify the group’s camaraderie. Cody Bellinger, Kiké Hernández and Trevor Bauer were among the several dozen shagging fly balls, fielding grounders and tossing bullpens.

“Huge kudos to the PA and the players for putting this on and having this type of facility for us to come down,” said Cubs third baseman and 2021 Rookie of the Year candidate Patrick Wisdom. “You get to know (players on other teams) on a personal level instead of (just) number so-and-so on the other team.”

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The facility is high-end, with perks including cryotherapy, a nutrition room and a catering service.

Former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Anthony Banda, now with the Pirates, said the makeshift gathering provided a brotherhood atmosphere that made it feel like the real thing.

“It’s been like normal big league spring training, really,” he said. “It’s always fun to see guys out here that I really didn’t (know).”

Slater said a deal was needed because “over the last 10 years, industry revenues have grown by close to 70%. Meanwhile, in the last four years, player salaries have stayed stagnant,” adding, “It’s unfortunate that the fans are the innocent bystanders in all of this and the game of baseball has to suffer.”

So do those attached and attracted to the game. 

“People want events,” Schneiderman said. “For the third year in a row, spring training is disrupted, and it’s making a big impact on tourism. The stadium workers, the umpires, think about all the people affected job-wise. It’s really hurting our state.”

Schneiderman, who is a former vice president of events for the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee, referenced a past study by the L. William Seidman Research Institute at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business that revealed $644.2 million in economic impact from the 2018 Cactus League campaign. That same study in 2020 showed that 3,202 jobs were created before COVID-19 shutdown spring training on March 12, paying $128.3 million in total to those workers.

The lockout sparked discussions on how those same employees will be paid during negotiations. In 2020, the fallout of the pandemic saw thousands of stadium operations workers laid off by MLB and its teams. 

An initial $1 million relief fund – announced on Tuesday by MLB – for spring training employees will help soften the blow.

Before Thursday’s news, many fans visits ballparks in the hope of seeing minor league players, anything. 

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On a recent Tuesday morning outside of American Family Fields of Phoenix – the spring training home of the Milwaukee Brewers – Paul Mueller sauntered outside the locked gates of the unusually quiet complex. 

His trip had been planned for months, one that he hoped would include getting to watch his beloved Brewers prepare for the season ahead as so many other fans do this time of year.

“There’s a lot of people to blame and it’s out of our control and it kind of makes you lose interest a little bit,” Mueller said. “It’s frustrating, no doubt about it.” 

The native of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, has made the trip each of the last three years to Phoenix but has been turned away by the pandemic, limited tickets and now a lockout.

“I understand how it can ruin others’ outlook on the game, because it did back in (1994),” Cubs fan Chuck Dreixler said. “It will never be ruined for me. It’s upsetting not to see anybody on the field, but we were going to come out here no matter what.”

Stephanie Klein, a Brewers fan from Dubuque, Iowa, tried to make the best of the situation. The way she sees it, watching minor leaguers train from afar is still baseball.

The Kleins decided to improvise and attend an Arizona State baseball game as well, watching the Sun Devils play No. 4 Oklahoma State at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

“My husband and my son have been huge baseball fans their whole life so in that sense we’ll always like baseball,” Klein said. “We’ll probably try and go to some more minor league games to kind of get our baseball fix another way.

“At the end of the day it’s still a game and it’s still baseball. It’s never going to go away. We’ll do whatever we need to just to experience baseball.”

Prior to the start of the pandemic, 912,956 fans attended Cactus League games according to the ASU study. Those numbers took a dip in 2021 with Covid-19 restrictions on attendance, limiting ticket sales, but coming into 2022 it seemed that those figures were primed for an uptick.

They’ll be better. But in the Valley, at least, damage was done.  

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Wesley Johnson/Cronkite News

Sloan Park in Mesa sat empty during the last few weeks during what was supposed to be spring training. Negotiations related to Major League Baseball’s finally reached a happy conclusion.

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