Throughout both the pandemic and the long and greed-laced labor impasse that threatened to help the coronavirus wipe away baseball this summer, Zack Wheeler prepared himself to pitch. “I’ve always been a slow starter,” he said Sunday. “I didn’t want to come into our second spring training like it would be my first spring training.” Down in his home state, Wheeler threw five times a week, including live bullpen sessions of as many as 80 pitches at LakePoint Sports Complex in Emerson, Ga. The hitters in those sessions were major- and minor-league players, so the conditions were as close as Wheeler could come to replicating the workouts he would have completed and the competition he would have faced in Clearwater, with the Phillies.
“As far as I know,” he said, “none of those guys has tested positive.”
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It’s important to remember that recent history, those measures Wheeler took to keep himself sharp, when contemplating the risks and rewards that he is weighing these days. His wife, Dominique, is pregnant with their first child, and her due date is late this month, right around when this 60-game Major League Baseball season is scheduled to begin. Already, MLB’s COVID-19 protocols have prevented Aaron Nola, the Phillies’ presumptive opening-day starter, from reporting to camp. Now Wheeler, who signed a five-year, $118-million contract with the club in December, might not be available for that first game, either – or for the entire season. He is still considering whether to return to the Phillies after Dominque gives birth, and no one should blame him if he chooses not to.
Yes, Wheeler prepared himself to pitch, and he wants to pitch. That much is clear, but so is this: To listen to him Sunday was to wonder if he’d truly be at peace if he did.
“It’s a very difficult decision, something that I’m still playing in my head,” he said. “I’ve got 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’re safe, that’s the number-one goal for me. Baseball comes after that.”
If this were a more customary set of circumstances, there wouldn’t be much more to say about Wheeler’s situation other than Congratulations, Dad. He’d stay with the Phillies until he got the call that Dominique was ready to head to the hospital, and once the baby arrived, he could stay with his family for up to three days, per MLB’s parental-leave policy.
But even a sensible act – the Wheelers, for instance, moved up to the Philadelphia area before camp began to be closer to Dominique’s family – becomes complicated and fraught amid our new reality. Wheeler leaves the house every day for Citizens Bank Park then comes home again, and soon he’ll be traveling up and down the East Coast as the Phillies play their geographically limited slate of games, and it would be understandable if that level of exposure were just another source of stress and worry for a couple who are about to become parents.
“We just have to see how things go here at the field and the stadium,” he said. “I’m happy with what I see so far, but things could change, especially once our baby’s born. I always think about what’s going on around me – Is it safe? Is it OK? – literally every single day. I’ve just got to ask myself that, and I’m going to continue asking myself that every single day.”
All those questions can be condensed into one: Is it worth it? Wheeler stood to make $21.5 million for a full 162-game season after agreeing to that contract with the Phillies, but his prorated salary over 60 games would be just less than $8 million. That’s what he would be giving up if he decided to opt out this year. Without knowing anything about the nature of his household finances, if I were him, I’d walk away. He still has four years left on the contract and another $96.5 million guaranteed to him, and no one, he said, has pressured him or argued to him that he has an obligation to play – no acquaintances or fans, no teammates, and certainly not manager Joe Girardi.
“Family comes first to him,” said Wheeler, 30. “That’s the first thing he told me when I talked to him on the phone after I signed. I know he recognizes that. … I think everybody’s looking out for themselves and everybody else right now. It’s a difficult time for people. People might have certain family members at risk, so they’ve got to watch out for themselves. I can only worry about myself. If I worry about myself and keep my family safe, surely I’m keeping somebody else’s family safe.”