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To play or not to play: MLB players face tough decisions amid coronavirus surge

  • July 05, 2020

PHOENIX — It was a gut-wrenching decision, one that weighed on Los Angeles Dodgers starter David Price for months, finding a balance between health concerns for his young family and the responsibility to his new teammates and fanbase.

Price couldn’t bear the thought of contracting COVID-19 and risking the health of his wife, 3-year-old son and 11-month old daughter.

He also recognized the fact that the Dodgers traded for him and former MVP outfielder Mookie Betts in February, and that without him in the starting rotation, it diminishes their chances of winning their first World Series since 1988.

“It was the toughest decision I’ve had to make,’’ Price told USA TODAY Sports in a text message, “knowing I’m making the right decision for myself and my family. We’ve been in conversation [with the Dodgers] for a long time about all of this.’’

Price, a Cy Young winner and World Series hero is the biggest star to opt out this season. He forfeits about $11.8 million in salary if the 60-game season is completed.

Who knows, maybe it’ll be nothing more than a procedural move, with several players openly wondering just three days into Spring Training 2.0, how the season can possibly work, and whether they’re crazy for even trying?

“I think there’s still some doubt that we’re going to have a season now,’’ St. Louis Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, a member of the players union’s executive subcommittee, said Sunday. “By no means is this a slam dunk. We’re trying, we’re going to give it our best effort, but for me to sit here and say 100% would be a lie.’’

Major League Baseball is expected to officially release its  schedule Monday night, but with just 18 days before opening night – with the New York Yankees facing the Washington Nationals – no one can predict if there will even be a season, let alone which players will choose to play.

“I think you’d be a little bit maybe naive or silly not to gauge what’s going on around you,’’ San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey said Saturday, “not only here, but paying attention to what’s happening in different parts of the country. Obviously, unprecedented times right now. …

“I’d be surprised if you asked any player, if they gave you a hardline, ‘No way, I’m not going to opt out ever’ answer.’’

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey dons a mask during practice Sunday at Oracle Park.

There’s a growing sense of anxiety from players seeing the daily positive tests on not only their own team, but also throughout baseball. The Atlanta Braves, winners of back-to-back NL East titles, had four players – including perennial MVP candidate Freddie Freeman – test positive. Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays have had six players missing from their workouts. The Arizona Diamondbacks are missing two-thirds of their starting outfield.

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle openly expressed his frustration with the testing process, even stopping three minutes into his 30-minute Zoom press conference, to look at his cell phone. He still was awaiting his test results from Friday after taking another test Sunday morning. And he wants to know what happened to those N-95 masks and gloves that were supposed to be at each locker?

“We’ve got to clean that up, right? ’’ he said. “So that’s one thing that makes me a little nervous.’’

Little wonder why players are racked with the dilemma of trying to decide whether or not to play. Players like Milwaukee Brewers star Ryan Braun left behind his wife and three kids, including a one-month old son, in California. Boston Red Sox first baseman Mitch Moreland said good-bye to his family in Georgia for the rest of the summer. Doolittle and his wife, Eireann, an asthmatic, decided it would be safest to live apart until the season concludes.

“To a lot of players, the opt-out provisions aren’t great,’’ Doolittle said Sunday. “There’s a lot of players right now trying to make decisions that aren’t 100% comfortable where things are at right now. That’s kind of where I am. I think I’m planning on playing, but at any point I can start to feel unsafe. If it starts to take a toll on my mental health with all of these things we have to worry about this cloud of uncertainty hanging over everything, then I’ll opt out.’’

Doolittle praised the Nationals training and medical staff, and saying the workout structure has been fine, but the uncertainty and anxiety has been grueling. His cellphone is constantly beeping with updates from teammates and friends testing positive, and others opting out.

“It’s been weird man, it’s been really weird,’’ he said. “My mental health is something that I’m really going to have to stay atop of. I can already tell this is going to be a grind, mentally. I may go crazy before anything else. There’s this cloud of uncertainty. You’re always kind of waiting for more bad news, like somebody in the league tested positive or somebody opted out or so-and-so broke protocol…..All of these things, and then just the procedures of the day , it’s a lot. It’s very, very different.

“And unfortunately, there’s not a long period of adjustments and there’s not a lot of room for error.’’

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Certainly, no one is under more pressure than Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout, the best player in baseball.

He is trying to decide whether or not to play this season, balancing the responsibility to his family and to the game.

Trout’s wife, Jessica, is expecting their first baby in August. He is not missing the birth. He is not missing the chance to hold his baby for the first time.

And, with exception of paternity leave, he really doesn’t want to miss the season, either.

“I love baseball, but I have to do what’s right for my family,’’ says Trout, who has worn a mask during his workouts. “It’s going to come down to how safe we’re going to be. If there’s an outbreak, you definitely have to reconsider. …It takes one guy to bring that into the clubhouse, and you know how contagious this virus is. It’s going to be tough to contain.”

There will be plenty of more players who will spend the next few weeks determining whether they will play, knowing that if they opt out, they can’t return.

There is no right or wrong answer.

“I understand why certain individuals will be possibly not very optimistic about this or just don’t feel comfortable,’’ Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper said . “I was definitely in that boat as well before I came here thinking to myself, ‘Should we go? Is this something that’s going to happen?’ Is something bad going to happen to my pregnant wife or my child or anybody else in the clubhouse or even our media or somebody else?…

“I feel safe.’’

Others don’t.

And that’s ok, too.

“I’m very scared of everything,’’ said Boston Red Sox All-Star J.D. Martinez, who has asthma. “I’m excited to go out there and play. I think my love for the game is going to outweigh my fear once I get out there.’’

The fear won’t ever completely go away. Certainly, in spring training. Not during the season. Not until there’s a vaccine.

If the season is to be played, Doolittle says, it will need help from more than just the guys wearing a uniform.

“We’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people,’’ he said. “We’re way worse off as a country than we were in March when we shut this thing down. And like, look at where other developed countries are their response to this. We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back. Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. …

“We need help from the general public. If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask, social distance, keep washing your hands.’’

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