Then he tested positive for the novel coronavirus July 2. The Nationals had 16 days to make a decision on him, and covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, made it for them. Abad has since signed with the New York Yankees and is training at their alternate site in Scranton, Pa. He said he’s not mad at the Nationals, who, in the end, released a pitcher they hadn’t seen since March. He said that was fair.
Abad is only frustrated by how little control he had. He never showed symptoms, likely contracted the virus while traveling from the Dominican Republic, and sat in a hotel room, a long toss from Nationals Park, while a chance dwindled. He would now like to remind everyone to stay safe and wear a mask.
“People should use me as an example, that I was somebody that did not have any symptoms but still suffered the consequences of having the virus,” Abad said in July in an interview with The Washington Post. “I had to be locked down for 14 days and lost my opportunity with the Nationals because of it.”
His fate had rested on Article XX(B) of MLB’s collective bargaining agreement. In theory, the section was written to protect veterans on minor league contracts. If a player has six or more years of service time and finished the previous season on a club’s 40-man roster or 60-day injured list, he qualifies for a retention bonus, forcing teams to make a choice five days before the regular season.
This summer, Abad qualified. His nine-year career has included stops with the Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants and Nationals for 39 appearances in 2013. So before noon on July 18, the Nationals had three options: They could put Abad on the Opening Day roster, send him to the minors with a $100,000 retention bonus, or outright release him. In normal years, a fourth option is a handshake agreement to release the player, forgo the bonus and bring him right back. That happens if the player feels he has a chance to be called up down the line.
But in 2020, players can’t rejoin a 60-man pool after leaving it. Abad’s agent, Francis Marquez, figures that could have happened under different circumstances. Abad and Sam Freeman, another veteran lefty reliever, were expected to compete for a bullpen spot. Abad, though, never made it to the summer training. Freeman has now made three regular season appearances for the Nationals.
“It really seemed like nothing could go his way,” Marquez said. “Everything stacked against Fernando in July.”
As the month dragged on, Abad knew every day gave the Nationals less incentive to keep him. It was, for a short time, as if he were looking at his career through an hourglass. He still hoped the team had room. He still called Marquez each morning, saying he was ready and felt fine. He thought about his travel to the United States, each tiny detail of it, and wondered what went wrong.
He was one of more than 150 players who took one of two MLB-chartered flights from the Dominican Republic to Miami on July 1. The passengers, according to MLB, wore masks and were socially distanced on the plane. But no one was tested for the coronavirus before boarding. Abad was in a handful of players from that trip who later tested positive during intake screening. It led to Dominicans quarantining around the league, including Juan Soto, Victor Robles and three other Nationals.
After landing in Miami, Abad flew to Newark. After landing in Newark, he flew to Washington, And after landing in Washington, he spit into a cup, waited for the results, then learned he had the coronavirus. That left him alone and devastated.
Each of Abad’s follow-up tests produced negative results. But in early July, D.C. required any player, coach or staff member to quarantine for 14 days after any possible exposure to the coronavirus. The city has since relaxed those regulations for the Nationals and ceded to MLB’s protocols. Now, if a player tests positive, as Soto did on July 23, the required isolation period is a minimum of 10 days.
“I did feel, in a way, like I was in jail,” Abad said, adding that he filled days with calls, prayer and video games. “Food was brought to me at a hotel; I couldn’t even leave my room for that. Emotionally, at the end, it did become pretty difficult.”
On that July 17 morning, Abad finally left his hotel and walked to Nationals Park. It wasn’t how he envisioned it. He had already been released. But the Nationals offered an antibody test, a requirement to sign with another team. Both Marquez and Abad said this was beyond the club’s obligations. It was still bittersweet.
Back in the spring, Abad felt he had some traction with Washington. When they broke for the coronavirus shutdown, he took just two days off while designing a throwing program. He pitched a bullpen and simulated game each week. He faced New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez and White Sox designated hitter Edwin Encarnación, among other major leaguers. Everything was geared toward making the Nationals.
That’s what stung most once he waded into free agency: all the time he had spent working toward a singular goal, only to have it pushed out of reach by a virus. That’s how this summer will stick in his head.
“I understand the decision that they had to make,” Abad said of the Nationals before landing with the Yankees on July 24. “It sucks that it was me. It sucks that I was the one who had to go through this.”