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Players are opting out of the season—and that’s okay

St Louis Cardinals Summer Workouts Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

There is an alternate timeline where Jordan Hicks never tore his UCL and he is about to utterly bamboozle the game’s best hitters with his wicked sinker-slider combo. The MLB All-Star Game is tonight.

But alas, that is not the timeline we are living in. Instead, we get intrasquad scrimmages as baseball attempts to salvage playoff revenue trudge through a global pandemic.

Nobody truly knows how a shortened 60-game season will play out. Then again, there are lots of things we don’t know right now, many of which are far more important than baseball. (See: shortages in COVID-19 tests for ordinary citizens while sports leagues evidently enjoy access to an abundance of testing kits.) Either way, here are some things we do know. A quick Google search will tell you that the the U.S. is nearing another grim milestone: 3.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases; the death toll continues to rise past 138,000.

We also know that the baseball world is not immune to COVID-19. In fact, 28 of the league’s 30 organizations had at least one player or staff member test positive by Friday of last week—and all of this is occurring before teams are slated to begin traveling to other cities on a regular basis. For some players, the risk to them and their loved ones simply isn’t worth the reward. 13 players have already opted out of the season, including the aforementioned Hicks.

From his perspective, the case to forgo 2020 is incredibly compelling. First and foremost, Hicks is a type 1 diabetic, a condition that, according to the CDC, “might be at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.” Sure, the CDC makes a distinction between its “might be” and “are” sections, but as their website also notes:

COVID-19 is a new disease. Currently there are limited data and information about the impact of underlying medical conditions and whether they increase the risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

In other words, there are lots of questions we don’t have definitive answers to yet. For example, we have little-to-no-understanding of the long-term effects of COVID-19. I don’t say that to fearmonger, but in our collective desire for a return to normalcy, it’s easy to forget that we are still in the midst of battling a dangerous virus we have relatively little information about. So if you’re Jordan Hicks and you have an opportunity to potentially limit your exposure to COVID-19, of course you’re going to take it.

Then there are both the baseball and financial aspects of Hicks’ decision. He was going to begin the season on the IL anyways as he continued to rehab from Tommy John surgery, with the Cardinals setting the timetable for his return around the middle of August. Let’s assume he were activated from the IL on August 16 (the exact midpoint of the month). That leaves you with 40 regular season games remaining but just three off-days (8/27, 9/3, and 9/10, if you were curious). Take a hard-throwing 23-year-old pitcher coming off a torn UCL, no ability to do a typical minor league rehab stint, and a schedule that isn’t conducive to, say, limiting outings on back-to-back days, and you have the choice between maybe making 10-15 appearances this year or focusing on getting ready for Opening Day 2021.

The latter is most likely the better option for Hicks’ career in the long run. As for the short-term, his 2020 salary would be the same whether he opted in or out. Because Hicks was deemed a “high-risk player” due to his type 1 diabetes, he will still receive prorated pay and a full year of service time. That means he is still set to reach arbitration for the first time this offseason without needing to jeopardize his health or run the risk of pitching poorly in his final pre-arb year.

For a multitude of reasons, sitting this season out makes too much sense for Hicks not to do so. Ultimately, he doesn’t owe us anything, and I’ve never understood why some fans expect athletes to act against their own best interest.

In an extremely not scientific study, I sampled 50 replies to Hicks and Dodgers lefty David Price’s opt-out announcements on Twitter, categorizing them as positive/supportive or negative/critical of the respective player’s decision. Hicks received an overwhelmingly positive response (48:2 ratio) while Price was treated to a more moderate, but still generally positive, reception (34:16 ratio).

Let me be clear: this isn’t a ploy for me to sneak Best Fans In Baseball™ grandstanding into this post. Price was always going to draw a greater amount of backlash than Hicks given that:

  1. Hicks, unlike Price, has an MLB-approved pre-existing condition.
  2. Including his draft signing bonus, Hicks’ career earnings total roughly $1.7 million. Price, on the other hand, is opting out of the fifth year of his seven-year, $217 million deal, which lends itself to accusations of only caring about the money and not one’s team.
  3. Price has yet to throw an official pitch for the Dodgers. Mookie Betts, the headliner of the trade that brought Price to Los Angeles in February, is only under contract through this season and now the intended #3 starter they just acquired is out of the picture. Dodgers fans can’t be too pleased with the very real possibility that their blockbuster trade ends in only getting 2-3 months of Betts and past-his-prime seasons from Price, going on 35, in 2021 and 2022.

This sort of fan ire is nothing new. Just last year, some Indianapolis Colts fans denounced quarterback Andrew Luck as a soft, selfish quitter and booed him off the field after news of his retirement broke. It’s admittedly not a perfect analogy, but one look at Luck’s injury history—paired with what we know about professional football and brain damage—should, if anything, command respect. A man with nearly $100 million in earnings (and whose wife was expecting their first child at the time) prioritized protecting his mind and body over tying his entire life and wellbeing up in a destructive NFL career.

Be it then with Luck or now in the wake of COVID-19, I’ve seen too many people to count fire back with snarky replies to the effect of “I guess I’ll just tell my boss I’m not showing up to work anymore.” It’s true that top-tier athletes have a level of financial security most of us could only dream of. Who wouldn’t love to never have to worry about money? I think I speak for most of us, though, when I say that if I suddenly woke up tomorrow with an MLB-caliber fastball and millions in my bank account, I wouldn’t think twice about putting my family above an internet horde calling me a traitor.

I miss baseball as much as the next person, but I also acknowledge that players, staff, etc. are not inanimate objects to be manipulated for my entertainment. For example, it’s always fun to watch Jordan Hicks take the mound, but I’m genuinely glad he’s taking the steps that are right for him. When participants of a game—however much I might enjoy said game—express legitimate concerns regarding their or their family’s safety, who am I to criticize someone for doing what I would do in their shoes?