Sean Doolittle is here. He’s been on the field, participating fully in early summer training workouts. He has thrown off the mound, at times while wearing a mask. He wants to be around for the entire 2020 season.
But he’s not completely convinced yet he’s willing to take the risk.
“So far - and we’re only three days into this - our medical staff has been doing an incredible job,” the Nationals reliever said. “I think it’s running as smoothly as it can at this point. Like a lot of players, the opt-out provisions are not great. There’s a lot of players right now trying to make decisions that might be participating in camp that aren’t 100 percent comfortable with where things are at right now. That’s kind of where I am.”
Along with Ryan Zimmerman, who announced his intentions to sit out the season last week, Doolittle has loomed as the most prominent Nationals player who might choose to opt out based on the health concerns of family members. Doolittle’s wife, Eireann Dolan, has a chronic lung condition that leaves her at a higher risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19.
Given that unavoidable fact, the left-hander admitted for weeks he wasn’t sure if he’d play this season or not. But after making arrangements for his wife to stay with relatives in the nearby area while he stays alone here in town, Doolittle reported for camp with the intention of participating through the season’s completion.
“I think I’m planning on playing,” he said. “But if at any point I start to feel unsafe, if it starts to take a toll on my mental health with all these things we have to worry about and kind of this cloud of uncertainty hanging over everything, then I’ll opt out. But for now, I’ve prepared for the last three months like I’m going to play. I feel ready to go.”
Doolittle has been among the most vocal advocates for the safety of players and their families throughout the pandemic. And as the nasty labor battle between owners and players played out in public earlier this summer, he consistently conveyed a different message: Health and safety protocols were more important than financial disputes.
“That should have been the focus all along,” he said. “How are we going to keep these people safe? And not just the players; the staff and all the auxiliary workers that put a baseball season on. That should have been the focus. Instead, the focus was trying to jam in a new salary structure in the middle of a pandemic, and trying to change a bunch of the rules. Stuff (the owners and league) wanted to do all along, in like a two-month window during a pandemic. The whole thing, it felt tone deaf. It felt gross, you know?”
Three days into camp, Doolittle made a point to praise team officials who have been charged with the daunting task of making sure Major League Baseball’s extensive protocols are followed in clubhouses and on the field.
“I think our staff and our coaches have done an awesome job of coming up with a schedule that really factors in distancing,” he said. “There’s no overlap with anybody at all, except for the people you need to be around in order to play catch with somebody or something like that. Everybody’s got their masks on in the clubhouse. The only time guys don’t have their masks on is when they’re on the field, and even then there’s a lot of guys who still wear their masks outside. So I think just from a daily standpoint, I think our medical staff is doing everything you can do to try to mitigate the risk as much as possible at this point. That’s been great to see. They’ve done a great job so far.”
But there’s only so much the people on site at ballparks can do. Much depends on the system as a whole working efficiently to help keep everyone informed and ultimately safe.
Doolittle gave one example that underscores the difficult task baseball faces in trying to pull this season off: He was tested for COVID-19 on Friday, then again this morning as outlined in MLB’s protocols. But he still hadn’t learned results of Friday’s test as of this afternoon, let alone his latest test.
“We’ve got to clean that up, right?” he said. “That’s one thing that makes me a little nervous.”
Like everyone involved, Doolittle isn’t looking forward to playing this season in empty ballparks. And after listening to owners base much of their argument for players to accept further salary cuts because of the anticipated revenue lost with no fans in the stands, he couldn’t help but smile when asked today about recent comments from some owners about the possibility of allowing a limited number of fans to watch games in person at some point this year.
“I do think it brings to mind kind of where we’re at in our response to this as a country,” he said. “Like, we’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people. We’re way worse off as a country then we were in March when we shut this thing down. And look at where other developed countries are in 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. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve. We did flatten the curve a little bit, but we didn’t use that time to do anything productive. We just opened back up for Memorial Day. We decided we’re done with it. If there aren’t sports, it’s going to be because people are not wearing masks, because the response to this has been so politicized.
“We need help from the general public. If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask, social distance, keep washing your hands. We can’t just have virus fatigue and keep thinking: ‘Well, it’s been four months, we’re over it, this has been enough time, right? We’ve waited long enough, shouldn’t sports come back now?’ No, there are things we have to do in order to bring this stuff back.”