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Mesa faces another March without spring training as Major League Baseball's labor fight drags on

Oro Brewing Co. in downtown Mesa is located about halfway between the Cactus League homes of the Oakland Athletics and Chicago Cubs. 

The taproom and brewery opened in 2016. Owner David Valencia said some out-of-town baseball fans chose it as their regular spot.

“And hangout. They’d pregame, postgame, whatever. And we’d see them each year,” he said.  

But it’s been a while since Valencia saw some of those hard-earned loyal customers.

First came the pandemic. Now baseball has a labor fight. Valencia feels very disappointed. 

“Because you have economies, let’s say here (and) Florida, that are really dependent on the players showing up and the teams playing. It’ll be a major hit,” he said. 

With spring training limited, sales at Oro Brewing Company were down at least 40% in March the last two years, according to Valencia.

This spring could turn out worse for Valencia and other Arizonans who rely on money made from the six-week baseball marathon, if the owner-imposed lockout of players continues.

Right now the sides can’t agree on whether to use a federal mediator.

Spring training practices were originally scheduled to start in metro Phoenix in less than a week. Ten days later, paying fans were supposed to be able to watch Cactus League games. But now the entire exhibition season is in doubt due to Major League Baseball’s labor fight.

A cornerstone of Arizona’s economy faces another down year.

Birds chirped from palm trees in the parking lot outside the Cubs spring training venue.

“I wish we were fighting the crowds right now,” said the mayor of Mesa.

John Giles walked toward the home plate entrance to Sloan Park, which is city-owned just like where the A’s play. He describes the venues quality of life amenities justified by yearly spikes in local sales tax revenue rivaled only by the holidays.

“This stadium every year breaks its own record for most people that have ever watched a spring training game,” he said.

There’s room inside for around 15,000 Cubs fans — the most of all Cactus League venues. Giles has heard from locals whose livelihoods depend on those crowds. 

“There's a lot of anxious people in the business community particularly in the hospitality industry,” he said. 

The pandemic has been especially cruel to bars, restaurants and hotels. The virus also stole spring training money twice. Mesa’s mayor said this year has so far been more frustrating.

“And ironically, it has nothing to do with COVID. This is just labor relations and a lockout,” said Giles.

A junior college player hit an RBI single to left field at a recent game held Sloan Park as part of the Zinger Bat Invitational.

The company the tournament is named for makes bats in Chandler for use in Major League Baseball. But owner Scott Hanish said he does more business overseas. 

“We’ve gotten so big in Korea. We’re one of the largest bat companies in Korea now,” he said.

Hanish doesn’t pay famous players to use and endorse Zinger bats. Before the pandemic, Cactus League venues were his place to court new professional customers. 

“We would go to spring training. I would spend time with the player. Show them the product. Let them try it. We haven't had that for three years. So our numbers in the Major Leagues have gone way down just because there's no access,” said Hanish.

The labor fight in baseball means Hanish stays focused on international distribution.

“Pivot’s the word in COVID. And we've just had to pivot and try to figure it out. And it's disappointing. I mean, I understand the logistics from both sides,” he said.

The baseball owners and players were scheduled to hold internal meetings this week.

They’ve done little bargaining on key issues since the lockout started on Dec. 2, and it’s unclear when talks will continue.

Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.