“When we first heard, it’s just uncertainty about when the season would start,” Zimmerman said. “Then you start putting two and two together — eight weeks with no gatherings of 50 people and stuff like that — and you end up saying, ‘This isn’t going to start anytime soon.’ ”
And so March 15, Zimmerman made the decision any major leaguer has become free to do in these uncertain times: He rented a car; packed up the two-bedroom apartment he had rented in West Palm Beach, Fla.; loaded up his wife and two young daughters; and pointed north.
“I’d just rather be home,” said Zimmerman, 35. “Everyone’s happier at home.”
There is no road map for this — not for one baseball player, not for one team, not for all of Major League Baseball, not for any of us. As Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, said Friday during a conference call with reporters, “This thing is not in the general manager’s manual.”
So individual players are making individual decisions, all with advice from their clubs. Opening Day for the Nationals was supposed to be Thursday in New York against the Mets. The home opener was the following week, April 2, also against the Mets. There would have been a World Series banner to unveil. There would have been World Series rings to present.
None of that is important, of course, given the rate at which the coronavirus is changing our daily lives. But they had been things to look forward to. Now we’re all looking forward to … what?
“There’s still a lot of unknowns,” Rizzo said.
There will be no regular season baseball until, at the earliest, mid-May. Even that seems optimistic. So each player must figure out, with guidance from club training staff, what’s best for him.
What was best for Zimmerman was to return to his McLean home. He and his wife, Heather, eschewed air travel for the rental car and Interstate 95. They made one stop before the Georgia border the first night, then another in North Carolina — iPads for the girls, no more than six hours of driving at a time. Thirteen Nationals remained in West Palm Beach, where they are working out in shifts. Zimmerman wanted more familiar footing.
“I’m lucky,” Zimmerman said. He has made about $140 million in his career. So he has a gym in his basement. His pool will open soon. His kids can play in the yard. He has access to Nationals Park, where he could go if he needed to take swings in the batting cage or, as he said, “do light baseball activity.”
“At first, you want to stay ready,” Zimmerman said by phone Thursday. “But then you realize it’s going to take longer. Everyone wants to play. None of us don’t want to play the season. We’re such a unique sport, though, because it basically takes the starting pitchers a while to get ready. And then we play a ridiculous amount of games. It was so fluid at first, you had no clue what was going to happen over the next hour, let alone the next day. So do you stay ready?
“Who knows? It’s something we’ve never had to deal with before. Now that you know what the sort of best-case scenario timeline is, there’s no reason for me to be ready to go like we’re going to start next week. Right now, it doesn’t seem like there’s a right answer. The right answer is just to be careful and obviously stay away from people or at your house.”
With all of these restrictions on activity, though, comes time. With time, the mind wanders, and it’s hard to keep it from exploring the what-ifs. Some fall in the big-picture category: What if aggressive and widespread testing for the virus had started in the United States as soon as the first cases appeared? But there are more narrow views, too, that might have impacted our quarantined selves.
“Think about the PGA Tour right now,” said Zimmerman, an avid golfer and golf fan. “If they could test all their players and caddies and people they need on site and find out that they don’t have the virus, and you could do the Masters on TV, and everyone’s mic’ed up — it would be the most-watched TV event ever.
“What if we had gotten out ahead of it, sports-wise, and tested the players? You basically detox the arenas. You could’ve had the games without the fans. The TV ratings would have been incredible. We missed the window, but imagine if we were on TV right now. It’d be weird for us to play, but people would have loved to watch.”
It’s wishful thinking, of course. In a sports-less world, it almost reads like a tease. Being shut in for however long we’re shut in for would be significantly more tolerable with the Masters and baseball and basketball and hockey on. On that, we can all agree.
At some point, there will be actual baseball to play. Until there is, the players are like the rest of us — wondering when, wondering how, all while changing their own lives.
“What it all comes down to is sacrifice,” Zimmerman said. “Sacrificing your day-to-day lives, your normalcy.”
Normalcy for his entire adult life has been to be in Florida, preparing to play baseball games. By this point on the calendar, spring training can be so long, so monotonous, so boring. Wouldn’t it be great to have it back?