As March turned to April, then May, then June and finally July, Joe Ross anxiously watched Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association negotiate a plan for the sport to play the 2020 season under unprecedented circumstances.
Ross, like so many of his fellow players, acknowledged there were financial issues that needed to be sorted out before the season could commence. But he was more concerned with the lack of time and attention that seemed to be being spent on figuring out the medical protocols necessary to keep everyone safe.
And that greatly concerned the Nationals right-hander, who understood the severity and the danger of the coronavirus from his mother, father and sister, all of them medical professionals.
“We were at a standstill so long with going back and forth on what the season’s pay was going to look like, I think we kind of lost a little bit of insight on the whole reason we stopped playing baseball in spring training. It was a health reason,” Ross said today during a Zoom session with reporters. “I wish there was maybe a more complete plan on how to handle the whole situation.”
Over time, MLB and the MLBPA did pay greater attention to health and safety protocols. But during the last week of June, as summer training camps were about to commence in ballparks around the country, Ross still was uneasy about the situation. So he made the difficult decision to opt out of the 2020 season, forfeiting his $1.5 million salary and the opportunity to accrue big league service time.
“With the medical professionals in my family - both my parents, my sister, some close family friends - it just kind of made sense to take this as serious as you could,” said Ross, who had not previously discussed his decision in detail. “There were a lot of unanswered questions going into it. Not that we know everything now, but the initial shock value of what was happening added up with a few other things, and I decided to take time away, which is always hard to do.”
Ross, who was joined by Nationals utilityman Josh Harrison during today’s session with reporters to talk about their involvement with The Players Alliance and the organization’s work to raise awareness about racial inequality in baseball and American society, admitted it was tough to watch the season from afar.
He had missed time because of injuries earlier in his career, but this summer spent at home in Northern California with a few close family members and a few close friends was unlike any prolonged absence from baseball he’d ever experienced.
Ross tried to make the most of the unexpected opportunity, relishing his family time and watching his nephew grow from an infant to a toddler. But he also couldn’t help but feel an itch to grab a ball and start throwing after watching the Nationals play on TV, wishing he could’ve helped them through their frustrating season.
“The only time in the past you could ever drag me off the field was if I literally couldn’t throw a baseball,” he said. “So to sideline myself was a little different this year, and kind of made me appreciate what baseball does give me during the season. I definitely missed that camaraderie being around the team, who is kind of your family.”
Ross kept himself in shape as much as possible under the circumstances. He played catch with his older brother, Tyson, a fellow big league pitcher. He worked out in his home gym. And he let his body rest, hoping it will allow him to report to spring training in two months fresher than he’s been in a long time.
“It was nice to have that break on the arm, not be taxing myself,” he said. “But at the same also have that itch to get better, to work, to watch the game and to get that late-night motivation: ‘Dang, I want to play catch and it’s 11:30 at night. I guess I’ll have to save it for tomorrow morning.’ It was definitely a weird time, but I got through it. It definitely helped to be able to do that with my big brother.”
Though there remains plenty of uncertainty surrounding the 2021 MLB season and what protocols will be necessary to begin the season before the COVID-19 vaccine is widely distributed, Ross says he’s comfortable returning to play.
“I’m pretty confident going into this year that everyone will have a pre-solidified plan on how to do so,” he said. “I know they made some adjustments last year in the middle of the season, once they did start back up. I’m confident going into spring training. Hopefully, everything will be going better. I know they’re saying winter’s going to be a hard time. I’m looking forward to getting this spring started.”
The Nationals have waited years for Ross to develop into a full-time, trusted member of their rotation, and they continue to tout him as a key part of their 2021 roster. He’s expected to once again compete for the No. 5 starter’s spot with Austin Voth and Erick Fedde, once again holding a slight edge on the others based on past performance and the fact he’s out of minor league options.
It’s entirely possible, though, his decision to sit out this season will have been detrimental to his career. It’s possible he’ll show up to West Palm Beach rusty, or that someone else will have leapfrogged him on the depth chart.
Ross, though, doesn’t second-guess his decision. He made it not for baseball reasons but for health reasons. And after watching the sport struggle through the season’s first few weeks to prevent the virus from spreading inside multiple clubhouses, his convictions only strengthened.
“I wouldn’t say I felt like I made the wrong decision,” he said. “You saw with the Marlins and some other teams where major breakouts happened and altered their season. I think within the first month, they had played maybe 12-15 less games than everyone else. So I wouldn’t say I second-guessed it. Obviously, watching them play, I wanted to be out there and be with the team. But I made the decision and had to go with my gut instinct. And that’s what I did.”