Major League Baseball spent months negotiating with the players’ union to devise a safe means to return to work. Seems like the least the players could do is show up.
Last weekend, Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler and Angels superstar Mike Trout floated the notion that they might not play due to the coronavirus pandemic. They did so while at makeshift spring training. Both cited pregnant wives who are due during the truncated season, which begins in 2 1/2 weeks. That’s a valid concern since pregnant women who are infected are five times more likely to be hospitalized than women who are not pregnant.
The problem is, baseball cannot afford continued losses of big names or any names, really. Wheeler and Trout would join nine other ballplayers who have opted out of the 60-game schedule. Thirty-one players have tested positive so far and might face six weeks or more of recovery — or, at least half of the season. That’s 40 players, a full roster out of the 30-team leaguewide pool.
We’re only six days in.
Attrition is inevitable. It’s a virus. Abandonment is elective. If this abandonment continues, the season simply cannot happen. Phillies skipper Joe Girardi believes that how baseball manages testing and mitigation of virus spread will determine whether so many players jump ship that the season never sets sail.
“I think it’s going to come down to how these next three weeks go, to see how many players opt out,” Girardi said. ”Our game is much bigger than just one player. It’s probably much bigger than 10 players. Is there a number you would say it’s not much bigger than? Probably. I’m not so sure what that number is.”
How about 30? If about 60 players are consistently unavailable due to COVID-19, and if 30 frontline players opt out, that’s 90 players total. That’s three teams’ worth. That’s too many. Which is why this opting-out business must stop.
We’re watching multimillionaires decline to work after they spent the last six weeks begging to go back. That’s selfish and elitist, especially at this moment. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and millions more never stopped working, at considerably greater risk than David Price would incur.
We’ve got cops patrolling protests in Minnesota. We’ve got firefighters battling blazes in California and Arizona. All over America, we’ve got doctors, nurses, and orderlies strapping on protective gear to fight coronavirus and cancer and fix our lungs and brains and hearts. They’re not rich, so they can’t opt out.
None of the players who aren’t playing has earned less than $5 million. Most have earned more than $75 million. That’s a lot more than the clubhouse attendants and bullpen catchers and janitors and cooks will earn in their lifetimes. They can’t opt out. Some of them have pregnant wives, too — working pregnant wives who can’t opt out, either.
None of the players who have chosen to extend their vacation has been deemed high-risk, but most cite protecting people with whom they live. There’s a solution to that.
You might miss a birth, or the first few weeks of your kid’s life, or back-to-school 2020. But you will be protected, and you will be tested, and you will be doing your job.
Because that’s what it is. A job. Players were hired to comprise a team with the goal of winning a championship, no matter how asterisked the season becomes. These players were hired to display their skills and drive an industry.
If that sounds insensitive, consider the battleship cruises that separate people from their husbands and wives and parents and children for months, with zero five-star hotels, Michelin three-star restaurants, or first-class airplane seats.
Want to protect your family when teams have begun to travel? Fine. Rent an apartment. Or crash with a teammate. But get up, go to work, do your job, come home. Wash your hands. And wear a mask, dammit. Create the bubble your union was too shortsighted to create for you.
Obviously, MLB has had problems, initially, protecting the players. Thirty-one players and seven support staff tested positive in the first round of testing, and the methodology isn’t flawless, but that’s MLB, which bungles labor negotiations, steroid testing, interleague play, pace-of-play, replay — you name it. That’s why the Nationals, Astros, and Cardinals shut down camp Monday, still awaiting test results from Friday — results MLB says were delayed due to shipping issues surrounding the holiday weekend. The A’s and Angels also reportedly suffered from testing snafus. Cubs star Kris Bryant says testing has been inconsistent, but he won’t run away.
Girardi hopes the league becomes more efficient and the players remain patient.
“There are obviously some things that need to run smoother for this to have a better chance to work,” Girardi said. “Am I surprised there are some glitches? No. We need to get the tests turned around quicker. For all clubs.”
Girardi and Bryant know that baseball, like Congress, does everything wrong at first. Then, generally, it figures things out.
Braves starter Felix Hernandez, who had four teammates test positive, didn’t want to wait for the kinks to work themselves out — but then, Hernandez has made $221 million. Similarly, David Price ($184 million), Ryan Zimmerman ($139 million), Nick Markakis ($119 million), Mike Leake ($94 million), Ian Desmond ($75 million), Tyson Ross ($31 million), and Welington Castillo ($25 million) have decided to continue their baseball-free quarantine. Not every sideliner is grandkids-rich — Tyson Ross’ younger brother, Joe, has made a little more than $5 million — but that’s still a lot more than, say, Rhys Hoskins.
If Hoskins were to sit out, he would forfeit about $225,000, which would account for about 12% of his career earnings. Of course, Hoskins is probably a bad example, since he’d play through the Black Plague, the Spanish flu, and the Inquisition.
Wheeler’s pending decision is fascinating to watch. He’s made about $14 million, and he just signed a five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies that would net him a prorated $8 million this season. That would be more than one-third of his career earnings. Of course, he’d have about $105 million left on the deal, but who knows what tomorrow brings?
Because, folks, there’s a good chance we don’t have a vaccine by spring training 2021 ... or even by next summer. What then, Mike Trout? What happens if we’re at the same place in seven months?
“I’ve got to be there. If I test positive, I can’t see the baby for 14 days,” Trout said last week. “We would be upset.” Heaven forbid Mike Trout should be upset.
We’ve seen other sports come back: baseball in Korea, soccer in Germany and England, golf and NASCAR in the United States.
COVID-19 is real, and it’s vicious, but even if a vaccine appears soon, it will be part of our existence until our existence ends. It is our job to learn how to manage it.
That might mean less family time, and that might mean some players get “upset,” but that’s the thing about a job. Sometimes you just do it.
It’s the least you can do — unless you do nothing at all.