Cubs' Yu Darvish plans to play as others in MLB opt out over COVID-19 concerns

Cubs' Yu Darvish plans to play as others in MLB opt out over COVID-19 concerns

If Major League Baseball is able to thread the needle of a 60-game season during a pandemic, the Cubs will have ace starter, Yu Darvish, on the mound, at least for now.

They’ll also have five-time All-Star Jon Lester and three-time All-Star Anthony Rizzo in camp when summertime Spring Training starts at the end of the week.

Big deal?

It’s looked bigger and bigger as news around the league surfaced of players opting out of the 2020 season over COVID-19 concerns.

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Darvish was the first player during spring training months ago to express concern over the coronavirus, long before the first known death from the virus in the U.S. and before MLB shut down the sport in mid-March — and looked like a possible candidate to opt out of an abbreviated season as the pandemic continues to rage across most of the country.

Lester and Rizzo are both cancer survivors and appear to qualify for the “high-risk” category of players who would be allowed to opt out and still receive service time and salary.

After Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake became the first player reported to opt out, a source close to Darvish said the four-time All-Star intends to report to camp this week and pitch — which appears to be the consensus intent across the Cubs’ roster.

“To this point we have not had anyone talk to us about opting out,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Monday afternoon during a zoom session with reporters. “But that said I’ve seen in the last hour or so that three players around the league have opted out. I’m sure there’ll be more. And I feel we have to respect that. 

“Everyone’s going to come at these decisions from a different angle,” he added, “but i don’t think anyone that plays in the major leagues is going to make that decision lightly. They’re going to make it with a lot of input from probably friends and family and probably from teammates as well.”

In addition to Leake, Nationals pitcher Joe Ross and Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman also opted out. 

None of the three are known to be in the high-risk category.

Under the rules outlined in the operating manual MLB and the players union approved for 2020, players reserve the right throughout the training period and season to change their minds on whether to opt out (or back in).

Darvish, a native of Japan who made a brief trip back home over the winter, expressed concern to Cubs officials as spring training opened over possible exposure from the handful of baseball media traveling from Asia, where the virus was more prevalent at the time.

“I’m really worried about it,” he said in early March.

Rizzo and Lester have said for months they intended to play and didn’t consider their medical backgrounds significant enough risks to opt out.

“Right now we don’t have anyone that we know about that’s considering it,” Hoyer said. “But I think if we did we would respect the decision and understand that this is being made from a very important place of wanting to keep either themselves or keep their family members safe.”

Cubs outfielder Ian Happ, who recently took over as the Cubs’ union representative, said last week that teammates and the union would support any player’s decision to opt out.

“I think it’s so important to see the whole picture here,” said Happ, who declined to predict which teammates might be considering opting out, “and that this is our job, and guys want to get back to playing, but at the same time, there’s a lot more that goes into it.”


Cubs' David Ross' plan for weekend off: watch baseball, hang out with his dog

Cubs' David Ross' plan for weekend off: watch baseball, hang out with his dog

The Cubs have a few unforeseen days off from playing after several new Cardinals tested positive for COVID-19 this week. 

With this weekend’s series in St. Louis postponed, the Cubs returned to Chicago, where they’ll remain until heading to Cleveland on Tuesday morning. They have a light workout scheduled for pitchers on Saturday and a simulated game scheduled on Sunday.

What will Cubs manager David Ross be doing otherwise with no games scheduled, though?

“Me personally, it’s just sitting on my couch with my dog and watching baseball and highlights and catching a game,” Ross said Saturday.

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Cleveland is coincidentally in town this weekend, facing the White Sox on the South Side. Ross has the opportunity to get an early look at the Indians ahead of their two-game series on Tuesday and Wednesday. They're playing on Sunday Night Baseball this week in place of the Cubs and Cardinals.

“We’ll definitely have baseball on, try to get a nice meal delivered and just hang out with myself. I’m pretty awesome by myself,” Ross said with a smile.


Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Millions of Americans have lost jobs or taken pay cuts because of the economic impact of a coronavirus pandemic that in this country shows no signs of going away anytime soon, including countless members of the sports media.

So despite some of the more laughably ignorant opinions from the dimmer corners of social media, exactly nobody in the media wants any sport to shut down again.

That said, what the hell are we doing playing games outside of a bubble during the deadliest pandemic in this country in more than 100 years?

With Friday's news that another Cardinals staff member and two more players tested positive in the past two days for COVID-19, the Cubs-Cards weekend series was postponed as officials scrambled to test and retest Cardinals personnel and try to get their season restarted.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since the intake process began in June, have done everything right, from management to the last player on the roster, to keep their team healthy and playing.

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But the operative, most overlooked, word in all of this has always been “playing.”

And the longer MLB pushes through outbreaks, and measures the season’s viability in counting cases instead of the risk of a catastrophic outcome for even one player, the deeper its ethical dilemma in this viral cesspool.

“Ethically, I have no problem saying we’re going to keep doing this,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said over the weekend about asking players to continue working as the league experienced outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals.

“That said, we have to do it the right way,” Hoyer said, citing the extra lengths the Cubs have taken to keep players and staff safe.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

But even he and other team executives understand the limits of all the best-made plans.

“The infection is throughout the country. That’s the reality,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you’re traveling around, there’s a real risk. Protocols are not perfect. No set of protocols are perfect. They’re designed to minimize the risk as best you possibly can.”

And while the odds for surviving the virus favor young, athletic people such as baseball players, the nearly 160,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 in the last five months include otherwise healthy toddlers, teens and young adults.

Add that to the best-known characteristic of this virus — its wildfire-like ability to spread within a group — and baseball’s attempt to stage a two-month season involving travel in and out of 30 locales starts to look like Russian roulette.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, 27, contracted COVID-19 last month and as a result developed myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — that might shut him down for the season even after multiple tests say he’s clear of the virus.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, a fit, 39-year-old, recent major-league athlete, had a monthlong case so severe he went to the emergency room at one point for treatment before the viral pneumonia and high fever began to improve.

The vast majority of players insist they want to play, including Rodríguez, even after his heart diagnosis. More than 20 others have opted out because of the risk, including All-Stars Buster Posey, David Price and — in the past week — Lorenzo Cain and Yoenis Céspedes.

Obviously the owners want to play, with more than $1 billion in recouped revenues at stake in a season of deep financial losses.

“Everyone that I know outside of baseball who’s become positive, who’s gotten COVID-19 at some point, did everything right — washed their hands, wore masks, socially distanced — and they still became positive,” Epstein said. “They don’t know where. It could have been the grocery store. It could have been walking down the street.

“And as far as I know that’s the case inside baseball, too,” he added. “This is everywhere in the country and unfortunately going the wrong direction nationwide. It’s a fraught environment out there that we’re operating in, and we’re going to need to do our absolute best and also be fortunate.”