It was Wednesday afternoon and a veteran relief pitcher was in his car, driving to his team's home city with the intention of playing baseball in the midst of a pandemic. He spent the prior days in a remote location wondering whether he should drive north to his house or head west for his job. He chose the latter, despite clear hesitation, because he figured it was worth it to at least give this all a chance. As he drove, a central question beckoned, one that lingered across the sport when teams officially restarted their workouts a couple of days later.
"Why are we doing this?"
Mike Trout lent his voice and his stature to that sentiment on Friday morning, while expressing unmistakable concern over the possibility of testing positive for the coronavirus and spreading it to his pregnant wife, who's only a month away from delivering the couple's first child. Such trepidation from the undoubted face of baseball sent shockwaves through the industry, but Trout was far from alone.
Managers all over the sport, scrambling for the proper balance of reassurance and understanding, have spent the better part of this week hearing similar concerns from their players as camps start up again. Ian Desmond, Mike Leake, Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross have already decided to opt out and others might follow. But many others will trudge along in spite of their apprehension, playing grudgingly because they either need the money or can't stomach the loss of service time or feel the pressure -- external or otherwise -- to suck it up and play.
There are young players on split contracts who were given most of their 2020 compensation in advance, as part of the March agreement, and will now play for relative pennies. There are veterans on minor league deals who would collect more from unemployment than they would by earning Triple-A salaries on a prorated basis if they don't graduate to active rosters.
One of those players, a longtime infielder, lamented how the quick ramp-up to what MLB is calling "Summer Camp" might prevent teams from having the logistics in place to ensure proper social distancing at their respective facilities. He also expressed doubt that all those people making up Tiers 1 and 2 -- up to 125 per team, consisting of players, coaches, trainers, front-office executives, public-relations employees and clubhouse personnel, among others -- will care enough to consistently adhere to all the health-and-safety protocols. Asked why he's going through with it, the player said: "Because if I don't, I might as well retire."
Trout, owner of a $426.5 million contract that extends through the 2030 season, isn't burdened by those concerns. Instead, he's worried about passing COVID-19 to his wife, Jessica, and how that might affect her delivery process. Others are concerned for their own safety, or that of a loved one or an older coach, or of the public at large, given what it might mean for hundreds of players to navigate through a season outside of a bubble environment while hospitals brace for an overflow of patients.
"It's a tough situation for everybody," Trout said. "I talked to a lot of guys across the league and they're texting me a lot. I'm not gonna name any names, but they're all thinking the same thing: 'Is this gonna work?'"
More than 55,000 new coronavirus infections were reported across the U.S. on Thursday, setting a single-day global record. The death toll has exceeded 130,000 in this country; initial hopes that the virus would slow down amid the summer heat have vanished. Thirty-eight states are currently experiencing an increase in cases, most notably Florida, Arizona, California and Texas, which house a combined 10 MLB teams.
Through that prism will be varying degrees of risk tolerance among players. Hours after Trout touched on the importance of doing "what's right for my family," two of the most accomplished members of the Los Angeles Dodgers sat in conference rooms 30 miles away and spoke with greater optimism. Clayton Kershaw, who has three kids, expressed his trust in the league and the players' union to do what's right. Justin Turner, who doesn't have children, said playing "has probably been one of the easier decisions."
Moments later, MLB and the MLB Players Association announced that 38 of the first 3,185 people who went through the intake screening process tested positive for the coronavirus, 31 of whom were players. The rate of positive tests, 1.2%, was 7.5 times lower than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed as the country's overall rate on Friday. But not all the results had come in yet, and others who tested positive before reporting -- such as Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon, at least 12 members of the Philadelphia Phillies and several others -- were not included.
The real test begins now, when the demands of a season -- a season that includes frequent travel -- begin to present themselves. MLB did an admirable job putting together a 100-plus-page operations manual that is exceedingly thorough with regard to how testing will be conducted and how social distancing will be implemented. But even that document, many will admit, is evolving. And nowhere in it does it outline punishments for those who don't adhere to the health-and-safety protocols.
It will come down to discipline, accountability and self-policing. Positive cases are inevitable; the hope is to avoid the type of outbreaks that might postpone or even cancel the season. If one person wavers, the entire system might collapse. And even if players adhere to monklike sensibilities over the next three to four months, the realities of a pandemic that forges on might render their efforts meaningless. It's why so many players are hesitant.
It's why Trout lent his voice to the concern.
"It takes one guy to bring that in this clubhouse," he said. "And given how contagious this virus is, it's going to be hard to contain."