Zack Wheeler checked in last week to his Center City apartment, days before he was scheduled to report to Citizens Bank Park for the start of summer camp. He spent the majority of baseball’s three-month shutdown in Georgia, throwing five times a week and facing hitters to make sure his right arm -- the one in which the Phillies invested $118 million last offseason -- was ready for whenever the season started.
The season, even one shortened to just 60 games, brings great expectations upon a player signed to the third richest free-agent contract in franchise history. But now, less than three weeks before that season is scheduled to begin, Wheeler is unsure if he will play.
His wife, Dominique, is pregnant with the couple’s first child and expected to give birth later this month. Concerns about the coronavirus weighed on Wheeler as he prepared in Georgia, contemplating if he should even report to summer camp.
He and his wife came together to Philadelphia with Wheeler deciding to see how he felt at the ballpark and if the strict protocols would alleviate his concerns. So far, he said, things are good.
“But things could change, especially once our baby’s born,” Wheeler said. “I always think about what’s going on around me. Is it safe? Is it OK? Literally every single day. I have to just ask myself that. I’m going to continue to keep asking myself that every day.”
“It’s a very difficult decision. It’s something that is still playing in my head. I have to be very careful here at the field, outside of the field, wherever I go. The baby’s and Dominique’s health is most important to me. So whatever I can do to make sure they are safe, that is the No. 1 goal for me. Baseball comes after that.”
The Phillies planned to begin the season with Aaron Nola and Wheeler at the top of their rotation. Nola has been kept away from the start of camp because of COVID-19 protocols and Wheeler is debating if he should even be there. Manager Joe Girardi said it’s possible that the team could start the season without Nola and Wheeler.
The team has four players placed on the COVID-19 injury list and three players kept away due to COVID-19 protocols. The first three days of Phillies camp -- like most camps around baseball -- have offered a view into the difficulties of playing a season during a pandemic.
“I feel safe as of now. I sort of check myself every day and ask myself that question,” Wheeler said. “If I feel like it’s not safe or things are sort of getting out of hand maybe, I’ll think about it a little bit more. But [manager] Joe [Girardi] has control of the clubhouse and he’s doing a nice job right now. The training staff is doing a very nice job. They’re working hard keeping everybody safe.”
After signing with the Phillies in December, Wheeler received a call from manager Joe Girardi. Family, Girardi told his new pitcher, is first. Wheeler called Girardi a “family guy” who “loves his kids” and “is one of the reasons why I signed here.” The two have talked about Wheeler’s concerns and the manager knows what position his pitcher is in.
“I’ve told Zack, ‘Zack, whatever you feel is best, I got your back. Whatever Dominique feels is best, I got her back, too,‘” Girardi said. “And I understand the trepidation. It’s scary.”
Wheeler’s concerns followed a weekend of players -- like David Price and Felix Hernandez -- opting out of the season due to coronavirus concerns. And his thoughts are similar to those of Mike Trout, who is still unsure about playing as his wife is due to deliver the couple’s first baby in August. The Players Association and league failed to agree to a deal that would have allowed players with pregnant wives to still be paid this season if they opted out.
“There are a lot of guys with pregnant wives right now, whether it’s later on in the pregnancy, early on in the pregnancy, they are at risk,” Wheeler said. “It’s a very serious thing as we all know. Maybe they should have thought about that a little bit more. I don’t know. Like I said, I can only worry about myself and do as much as I can personally to protect my wife.”
Wheeler pitched a simulated game on Saturday and is on track for the season, if he remains with the team. The birth of his child would likely cost him five days of the season -- three days paternity leave and two days waiting for results of a COVID-19 test -- if he decides to return.
Wheeler said he does everything he can to protect from the virus: washes and sanitizes his hands, wears a mask, and keeps his distance. He thinks about it constantly, freeing his mind only when he steps onto the field. But now he’s not sure how much longer he’ll be out there.
“That’s my concern when I’m out there, getting guys out, getting some swings and misses, and just pitching,” Wheeler said. “As soon as I’m done with that, my first thought is ‘How’s Dominique doing?’ Immediately contacting her and finding out how she’s doing.”