When 58 players and eight staffers tested positive for COVID-19 as spring training resumed last July, Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain kept showing up for work. When delays in tests caused some teams to cancel workouts, when Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez revealed the virus had inflamed his heart, when an outbreak felled 20 members of the Marlins organization, Cain took the field.
But then the Cardinals came to Milwaukee, and six members of the St. Louis organization tested positive, and Cain, 34, decided he wanted no part of this.
“It was nerve-racking,” he told SI. His oldest son, six-year-old Cameron, has severe asthma; Cain worried he might bring the plague home. And he honestly thought he was just a few weeks ahead of everyone else: “I didn’t think we would be able to get through [the season],” he said. So on Aug. 1, he became one of 18 players to opt out of the 2020 MLB season.
The Cardinals’ outbreak eventually infected 18 people, sidelined the team for 16 days and, manager Mike Shildt said, resulted in “a few visits to the [emergency room].” But MLB played on, and, by adjusting its protocols, the league did indeed finish its season.
(In some ways, its final moments embodied the whole campaign: Fans’ lasting image was of Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, who had half an hour earlier become a World Series champion and an hour before that returned a positive COVID test, milling about the field without a mask.)
Now baseball is back, and so is Cain. He arrived at spring training this week. His family will join him once he is settled. MLB has offered players the same arrangement this year: Anyone deemed high-risk can opt out with pay, anyone not deemed high-risk can opt out and forfeit salary. So far, no one has.
Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, now 36, opted out last June, citing his newborn son, Henry, and his mother, Cheryl, who has multiple sclerosis. But he reported to spring training this week with the rest of the team. “A lot of people have asked me, well, not much has changed, but I think that’s kind of wrong,” he said. “I think a lot of things have changed. We know so much more about the whole situation that everyone’s in right now.”
The virus has killed nearly half a million Americans and inflicted unknown damage on even those who have survived it. But cases are dropping as more people receive the vaccine. Players are optimistic that numbers will continue to improve—and they are optimistic, they say, that the league is better positioned to keep them safe this year.
Washington right-hander Joe Ross, 27, opted out the same day as Zimmerman. Both his parents and his sister, Frankie, are medical professionals, and they impressed on him the seriousness of the virus. His brother, Tyson, 33, a right-hander who had recently been released by the Giants, opted out as well. Joe said the league’s extended fight with the union over finances made him skeptical of the sport’s priorities.
“We were in a standstill for so long going back and forth on what the season pay was going to look like,” he said. “We maybe lost a little bit of insight into [that] the whole reason we stopped playing baseball in spring training was obviously a health reason, so I think when that came back, I wished there was a more complete plan on how to handle the whole situation. ... I’m pretty confident going into this year that everyone will have a pretty solidified plan.”
Most of the opt-outs-turned-opt-ins mentioned the league’s success in completing last season. “They had those two big hiccups,” Zimmerman said, “But other than that, they did a pretty darn good job.” Dodgers lefty David Price, now 35, was vocal last spring about what he felt were lax standards but said he considered returning at midseason once he saw the improved policies.
“It definitely crossed my mind,” he said. “But I didn’t feel like I was in a spot with my arm to come back and stay on the field.”
This year’s protocols are set to be tighter than last year’s; players are required to quarantine throughout spring training, must stay in their hotels on the road during the season and are prohibited from gathering indoors in groups of more than 10. Of course, the rules will only work if everyone follows them.
Fourteen of the 18 players who opted out last year are in their 30s. Many of them had made enough money to feel comfortable relinquishing a year’s pay. And they can feel the weight of their mortality. But they can also feel the weight of their career mortality. Orioles right-hander Félix Hernández, 34, said his return was motivated in part by his desire to make the Hall of Fame. Giants catcher Buster Posey, 33, is in the last guaranteed year of his contract with the only team he has ever known. Cain wants his three children to form memories of watching Dad at work.
So, when did he opt back in?
Cain paused. He laughed. “That’s a good question,” he said. “I think they just assumed. They didn’t really ask me if I was coming back or not.” He just started getting emails from the team about when to report to camp. He had also assumed he was coming back. So he packed his bags and headed south, to see if the league can get through this season, too.