Now, they’re linked again. Both have jobs for the truncated 2020 Major League Baseball season. Neither will perform them. Their cases are instructive. Most sports haven’t yet started up again. Baseball teams are only in the process of convening. How can these two — along with Nationals pitcher Joe Ross and Arizona pitcher Mike Leake — be the last to opt out?
They won’t be the last in baseball. And in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic — with cases in the United States again on the rise — they won’t be the last across sports.
Even as major team sports attempt this return — and for now, that’s all it is, an attempt — individuals are making decisions about their own lives, about their own families, about what’s best for them, that go beyond whether we have the right to be entertained. In announcing his decision Monday in a statement posted to Twitter by his agency, Zimmerman acknowledged his newborn son, the youngest of his three kids, and his mother, who has multiple sclerosis, as driving reasons behind his decision.
“[T]his year, I’ll be staying safe at home and pulling as hard as anyone for the guys to defend our championship,” Zimmerman wrote.
Desmond’s announcement was at the tail end of a moving and powerful Instagram post that detailed the journey that led him to speak out against systemic racism in this country, highlighting baseball’s role in exacerbating those problems. It is worthy of more discussion and exploration, because — for someone I first met when he was a shy 19-year-old being thrust into a big league spring training camp — it shows intellectual growth, uncommon depth and maturity. At an important time in this country, Desmond can — and will — be a voice for change, certainly within baseball but maybe even outside it. There’s no doubt I’ll revisit that notion through him again.
In the end, though, by way of explaining his decision, Desmond wrote, “The covid-19 pandemic has made this baseball season one that is a risk I am not comfortable taking.” His wife is pregnant with their fifth child. He has other, more important issues on his mind. And so the Rockies won’t have his services for the 60 games of this season.
To take nothing away from the concerns Zimmerman and Desmond have for their families, this is also relevant: Neither needs the money. In his more than 14 major league seasons, Zimmerman has earned more than $135 million and would have added just more than $740,000 this year because his one-year, $2 million deal is prorated. In parts of 11 seasons, Desmond has earned more than $76 million and would have padded that by around $5.5 million in 2020. He’s signed through 2021.
Nor does either need the service time to get closer to free agency. Zimmerman will be a free agent this offseason, and Desmond could be after 2021 if the Rockies don’t pick up his $15 million option for 2022. Their families are set. They can afford to concentrate on their concerns at home. Leake, who has earned more than $94 million in his career and has a $5 million buyout of his 2021 option, is in a similar spot.
Through Tuesday we have these four thoughtful decisions to opt out, to put personal situations over professional pursuits. But what of those who haven’t put in the service time and don’t have more millions than they ever imagined in the bank?
These can’t be isolated cases. It’s why, of the four, Ross’s choice is the most intriguing — and, in a lot of ways, the boldest. He has just more than four years of major league service time, and it takes six to reach free agency. His career earnings are just more than $3.5 million. He will gain nothing in either service time or dollars by sitting out. Voluntarily, he at best put his career on pause and at worst put it in jeopardy.
That’s his choice, and good for him. But given there are 1,200 players who are on 40-man rosters and another 600 spots available for teams to invite as part of their “talent pool” that could play this summer, surely some players feel somewhat trapped. Someone in, say, his first or second year in the big leagues must have an immunocompromised relative. Someone must be making the major league minimum, with no guarantee of ever reaching a lucrative payday, and be hesitant to go with his instincts because of how it could affect his career.
We are seeing it in the NBA even before the league tries to create a bubble outside Orlando. Davis Bertans of the Washington Wizards is among a group of players — including Portland’s Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley of the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas’s Willie Cauley-Stein — who have opted out. Brooklyn Nets center DeAndre Jordan tested positive for the coronavirus, and he announced he won’t play, either.
Look, if sports can return safely — without putting the health of players and, more importantly, older coaches and staff who could be at greater risk of long-term problems in jeopardy — that would be great. Max Scherzer vs. Gerrit Cole, Nationals vs. Yankees, to open an odd MLB season in late July? Sign me up.
But there’s still room for something that fits somewhere between skepticism and realism, and the players are telling us about it even before camps open. Even in considering how to put together a season — with detailed testing and logistical protocols in place — medical experts told MLB officials that each game should be considered a “risk event.” That’s heavy.
There’s something instructive about that phrase Zimmerman used in his statement — “staying safe at home.” It’s responsible for him and his family. He should face no scorn. Desmond, too, wrote that, “With a pregnant wife and four young children who have lots of questions about what’s going on in the world, home is where I need to be right now.”
Zimmerman and Desmond are out there now, public with their thoughts and concerns, tied together once again. That’s great, because it reminds us that the virus is real and that we still must make decisions — we must alter our lives — because of it. But in reading their words and considering their choices, think, too, about the players who haven’t yet stepped forward with their worries. The games, for us, are about entertainment. For the players, they very much could be risk events.