As Camps Open, Players Forced to Weigh the Risks of Playing During a Pandemic

Cliff Corcoran

Major League Baseball took its first concrete steps toward staging a 2020 season this week. On Sunday, teams announced their initial 60-man player pools. On Wednesday, players started reporting to Summer Camp (the official name for this year’s second Spring Training). However, most of the big baseball news this week has pertained not to the game but to the virus that continues to loom over and threaten the already radically abbreviated season.

The biggest news has been the fact that four established major leaguers have already decided to opt out of the season. Diamondbacks righty Mike Leake, a 10-year veteran who threw 197 league-average innings and won a Gold Glove last year, was the first to do so on Monday. Leake made no direct statement, but the Diamondbacks issued one saying that “Mike and his family had many discussions about playing this season. They took countless factors into consideration, many of which are personal to him and his family.”

Later that day, we learned that Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and his teammate righty Joe Ross also opted out of the season. Zimmerman—who has spent his entire 15-year career with the Nationals, re-signed with them this winter, and might have gained some playing time with the addition of the designated hitter in the National League—cited his “family circumstances—three young children, including a newborn, and a mother at high risk.” Zimmerman’s mother has multiple sclerosis.

Ross, who started Game 5 of the World Series and was due to battle for the fifth spot in the Nationals' rotation, did not issue a statement, but was joined by his brother Tyson in forgoing the 2020 season on Friday. Tyson Ross signed with Giants in January, but was released on June 25. We don’t know if he told the team he intended to opt out prior to his release, but he will not seek join another team until next year. The Rosses' parents are both medical professionals.

Monday evening, Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond announced his decision to skip the 2020 season via a lengthy Instagram post in which he also shared some of his feelings about being biracial in America and the difficulties faced by minorities and lower-income kids who want to play baseball. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made this baseball season one that is a risk I am not comfortable taking,” he wrote. “With a pregnant wife and four young children who have lots of questions about what’s going on in the world, home is where I need to be right now.”

Leake, Zimmerman, Desmond, and the Ross brothers are the only players who have officially opted out thus far, but they are not the only players who have shared their concerns about playing. Asked upon his arrival in camp if he was sure he was going to play this season, Nationals closer Sean Doolittle hemmed and hawed for eight seconds before saying, “not entirely. I’m here, so I’m very much leaning toward playing, and that’s the way I’ve prepared mentally and physically during the break.” However, Doolittle’s wife is high-risk (she has acute asthma and incurred permanent lung damage from a childhood bout with pneumonia), and it is evident that the decision remains difficult and unresolved for one of the game’s most thoughtful players. Asked if he was convinced that baseball was going to be able to work “in this climate,” Doolittle answered much more quickly. “No. No, I’m not . . . there’s so much we don’t know about how it’s going to effect the players and the cities.”

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Elsewhere, Brewers utility man Brock Holt posted an Instagram post about the fact that he will have to stay separate from his pregnant wife and young son for the next three months (it would be four if the Brewers have a deep playoff run). Holt’s teammate Ryan Braun expressed fear, “nervousness and apprehension” about the season to the Los Angeles Times on Monday.

Dodgers, team president Andrew Friedman told The Athletic’s Pedro Moura last week that “we’ve definitely had conversations with a few players who are concerned . . . not necessarily rising to the level of opting out.”

One of those players was reliever Joe Kelly, whose wife recently had twins. Kelly told a Boston radio station that he considered opting out over concern about the long-term health issues caused by the virus. Kelly has decided to play out of a sense of responsibility to his teammates, but it remains possible that conversations with those teammates in camp could change his mind or the mind of others. Among those others are fellow reliever Kenley Jansen, who has a worrisome history of heart problems, diabetic lefty Scott Alexander, and outfielder A.J. Pollock, whose wife gave birth to their daughter almost four months prematurely in March. Pollock told SportsNet LA in May, “if there’s any chance of putting her at risk, it’s going to be a really difficult decision.” Per Moura, the Dodgers have already had multiple members of the organization test positive for COVID-19.

Pregnancy and newborns are clearly a prevalent concern for players — you can add the A’s Chad Pinder and Frankie Montas and some guy named Mike Trout to the list of players not sure what to expect while expecting — but some players are at-risk themselves. Those players include diabetics, such as Alexander, Braves outfielder (and DH candidate) Adam Duvall, and would-be Cardinals closer Jordan Hicks (who is still rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery), cancer survivors such as the Cubs Anthony Rizzo and John Lester and Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco, the last of whom battled leukemia last year, and others such as A’s lefty Jake Diekman, who has ulcerative colitis and had his colon removed in 2018.

Diekman told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser last Thursday that he never thought about opting out, but then proceeded to undermine that declaration. “I feel like there are a ton of moving parts . . . It’s a slippery slope. Say two or three guys on the team get it, we’ve all be around each other. I don’t know if I’d opt out in the middle of the season, but it definitely worries you.”

Rockies outfielder David Dahl had his spleen removed five years ago. “My immune system’s pretty bad,” Dahl told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal in May. Since then, Dahl has had one of his teammates in the Colorado outfield test positive for COVID-19 (Charlie Blackmon) and another opt out of the season (Desmond).

Under the rule currently in place, if Dahl, Diekman, Duvall, or any other player opts out of the season because he himself is deemed high-risk, he will draw his full pro-rated salary for the abbreviated season. However, players who choose not to play out of concern, not for themselves, but for their loved ones, a group that already includes Zimmerman and Desmond, will forgo not only the season but their salaries, as well. That’s yet another way in which Major League Baseball’s plans to play this season are perverse. I doubt that salary concerns are going to weigh heavily in any player’s decision to play or not to play, and I wouldn’t dare judge them if they did, but that doesn’t make that salary rule any less morally repugnant.

Just as repugnant is the fact that Major League Baseball is asking so many players to make hard decisions about putting themselves or their families at risk. Zimmerman addressed many of these issues in an ongoing diary he has been writing for the Associated Press.

“I’ll tell you this about baseball,” Zimmerman wrote last Friday, “the owners aren’t going to be traveling with us. I’m pretty sure they’re going to be hanging out at their houses, watching baseball on TV. We’re going to be the ones out there, if we decide to play. We’re the ones taking all the risk. . . . At the end of the day, does a player feel comfortable going to the field every day and — in my case, more importantly  feel comfortable coming home every day and feel like they’re not putting anyone else in danger?”

In May, he played out that scenario: “I’m a healthy 35-year-old athlete who maybe gets sick but is asymptomatic, and I come home, and I have a 2-week-old baby who gets it. Maybe the baby gets over it without us ever knowing, but 10 years down the road, my kid’s lungs don’t develop fully. Who knows? We just don’t know everything about what this virus does. . . . I love baseball . . . but you know what I love more than baseball? My family. . . . At some point we’ve got to be real about: What’s worth having baseball?”

Players wondering about the impact the virus can have even on a young healthy body need look no further than Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy. Hottovy is a fit, 38-year-old who pitched briefly in the majors and professionally until 2013. He tested positive for COVID-19 in late May. Despite being young and athletic, it took him 30 days for his body to defeat the virus. His breathing got so bad he had to go to the hospital, which sent him home with a breathing apparatus. He lost 18 pounds fighting off the virus, and despite being negative for two weeks now, his breathing is still not back to normal, nor is his strength or his cardiovascular health.

Hottovy got emotional relaying his story to reporters Wednesday morning, telling them, “If my story and journey through this helps one person realize how severe this can get, and if that saves one life, then I want my story to be heard. I’m sorry I’m emotional, but it’s still fresh. I’m only two weeks from testing negative after 30 days of quarantining from my family. What my wife had to endure for a month. You just don’t want to put anybody through that.”

As difficult as that month was for the Hottovys, it could have been far worse. By continuing to move forward with the season, Major League Baseball is very nearly guaranteeing that it will be worse for at least one major-league family, to say nothing of the larger community to which the thousands of contacts created by the Major League Baseball season will conduct the spread of the virus. The MLB season means thousands of players (60 times 30 is 1,800) and hundreds of support staff spread across 28 cities coast to coast. Even if divided into thirds by the regional scheduling (western division teams will only play other western division teams in both leagues, etc.), that is a path for the virus to travel before it is a source of entertainment or profit. As new cases continue to skyrocket, we may see more players decide to opt out. As the prospect of the season becomes increasingly untenable, Major League Baseball should do the responsible thing and do it for them.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.

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