Four major league players announced their decisions not to play in 2020 on Monday, three of them current or former Nationals. Their stated reasons for opting out varied from specific health concerns about close family members (Ryan Zimmerman) to more vague concerns about the pandemic (Mike Leake) to a passionate and deeply personal message about baseball, race, culture, health and family (Ian Desmond).
Joe Ross, the fourth player, has not yet made a public statement about his decision. Which is absolutely fine. He doesn’t owe anyone an explanation, nor does anyone else who chooses to sit out the upcoming season.
It’s up to each individual and his family to decide what is best for them. Not what’s best for their team. What’s best for them.
This is a season that will bear no resemblance to any that have come before. Our usual notions of priorities - team over individual - can’t apply to this unique situation. Yes, a team’s chances of winning may decrease with each player’s decision to sit out, but that cannot be viewed by anyone as more important than the health of that player and his loved ones.
The Nationals get it. General manager Mike Rizzo isn’t questioning Zimmerman and Ross’ decisions or making either feel guilty for walking away: “We are 100 percent supportive of their decision to not play this year.”
Players who are deemed high-risk for contracting COVID-19 and potentially suffering serious effects from the disease are entitled to their full prorated 2020 salary and will receive a full year of MLB service time, but none of the four players who announced their decisions Monday fall into that category. Even if they have high-risk relatives, they must be placed on MLB’s Restricted List and forfeit their salary and ability to accrue service time.
For players like Zimmerman, Leake and Desmond who collectively have made more than $322 million in their professional careers, there’s no significant financial risk. For players who haven’t yet hit the jackpot like Ross, it’s a bigger gamble. And that might discourage some fringe roster players from sitting out even if they’re worried about getting themselves or their families sick.
But no one should be made to feel guilty for making whatever decision is made. Yes, some of these guys are fortunate to be able to choose not to work, an option that isn’t available for millions of other citizens of this world who can’t afford to make the same choice. That doesn’t make their reasons for sitting out any less valid.
We put professional athletes up on a pedestal and ask - no, demand - them to perform for our entertainment. They’re the best on earth at what they do, and there’s nothing wrong with expecting them to give their best effort.
But they are real human beings with spouses and kids and mothers and fathers and siblings, and they have the right to put the needs of those people ahead of the needs of the rest of us.
We don’t know how the 2020 season is going to play out. We hope it all goes off without a hitch, that the season is played through completion and nobody gets seriously sick. But we can’t say with any certainty it’ll happen like that.
So when more players announce their intentions to sit out - and there will be more - in the coming days, let’s remember they’re doing so not to upset their teammates, their organizations or their fans. They’re doing it to protect themselves and their families from a very serious health risk.