Cubs

Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

If Yu Darvish thinks baseball can pull off this high-risk, three-month season during a pandemic, maybe there’s reason to dream on the long shot coming in.

Then, again, the Cubs’ potential Opening Day starter has not ruled out changing his mind about playing — which underscores the daily fragility of the thread holding this 30-team, 30-site process together.

“Definitely, I came here to make sure everybody’s doing the right thing,” Darvish said through a translator. “I had in my mind if they’re not, I was ready to go home.”

Darvish was the first player in the majors last spring to publicly express fear of the COVID-19 spread and lethality of a virus that was blamed for fewer than 10 American deaths at the time — weeks before major sports were shut down across the country.

Four months and more than 130,000 U.S. coronavirus-related deaths later, he made the “tough” decision to play — with plenty of reservations.

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“Yes, definitely, I still have concerns,” he said Sunday, two days after Giants star Buster Posey became one of 11 players without a pre-existing, high-risk condition to decline to play this season.

MORE: Tracking MLB players who have opted out or declined to play in 2020

Under rules in the COVID-19 health and safety Operations Manual, players with high-risk conditions are allowed to change their minds in either direction when it comes to the opt-out decision. And they earn full service time for the year and prorated salary for the 60-game season if they don’t play.

Those such as Darvish who are not in that category don’t get service time or pay for the year if they decline to play and are not allowed to return once that decision is made official.

Asked if he still is leaving open the possibility of opting out of the season, he said, “Maybe. But at this point no, I don’t think so.”

In a baseball vacuum, Darvish offers the Cubs their best chance for success during a 60-game season and any playoffs that might follow.

“The way he finished the season last year, how good he was for us, that’s the guy we’re counting on,” manager David Ross said, referring to a second half that included a 2.76 ERA and a 118-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts.

But Darvish, a native of Japan, hasn’t viewed baseball in a vacuum since the year began — approaching Cubs officials upon his arrival for informal work before spring training began in February to address concerns about reporters who might travel from possible virus hot spots in Asia to cover him.

“I’m really worried about it,” he said then.

And then on March 5 he left the Cubs’ spring facility to see a doctor for a test after experiencing a cough, out of a fear he might expose teammates if he had the virus.

By the time MLB and the union agreed last month to terms for a season, the thought of playing during a pandemic had only become more serious for Darvish and many others throughout the game.

“It was tough because I have small children,” Darvish said of the decision. “During the spring we had a lot of thoughts about that, and it was tough decision.”

He said seeing teammates with similar family dynamics and concerns choose to play made it “a little easier to make the decision to play.”

But it’s a discussion among players and their families across the majors that isn’t going to go away — and figures to only intensify every time another batch of test results shows up late or another player tests positive somewhere.

MORE: Cubs COVID-19 tests return negative, Theo Epstein cautions against complacency

Not to mention continued spikes in new cases and deaths in cities and states across the major-league map.

“I think we’re all a little nervous. Nobody wants to get this thing,” Cubs veteran Jon Lester said. “You have to just believe in the testing process; you have to believe in kind of the bubble community we’re trying to create here; you have to believe in these things.”

That’s when Lester held up a mask during the Zoom session with reporters.

The Cubs — the only team in the league without a player testing positive through the first two weeks of intake and monitoring testing — have shown a commitment to safety protocols from top to bottom in the organization. Third baseman Kris Bryant wore his mask again while taking ground balls at third base Sunday, despite plenty of safe distance from the nearest player or coach.

“I know that some of the players are uncomfortable wearing it, but they do wear it,” Darvish said. “So it’s nice to see. I used to wear [masks] all the time in Japan so I’m very comfortable with this.”

Getting comfortable with the larger experiment, especially when teams begin to travel and inherent risks increase, could be an ongoing adjustment — for everyone from
Darvish, Lester and Bryant to Angels superstar Mike Trout, who continues to express concerns with his first child due next month.

“There’s a lot of stuff where you’re putting yourself out there and just kind of hoping,” said Lester, whose successful battle with cancer more than a decade ago qualifies him for a high-risk exemption to opt out.

“My own personal health really wasn’t my concern,” said Lester, who said the team doctor consulted with his oncologist in Chicago on the issue. “We do have some family stuff we’re trying to stay away from. But I think you just have to dive into this head-first and go with the protocols and wash your hands and be careful.

“You really have to concentrate on that and hopefully everything else kind of takes care of itself.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Will 4 days off help or hurt the Cubs?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Will 4 days off help or hurt the Cubs?

With the Cardinals being shutdown by MLB for a COVID-19 outbreak in the organization, the Cubs had an impromptu four days off after stringing together one of the best records in baseball so far. Will having the days off help or hurt them going forward?

David Kaplan and Gordon Wittenmyer discuss the Cubs' impromptu weekend off, Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger breaking protocol and going out in Chicago, and a 'what if' scenario that could have changed the Cubs getting Aroldis Chapman in 2016.

(1:20) - Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger breaking safety protocol to go out in Chicago

(7:09) - Cubs get four days off due to the Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak

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(9:30) - Is David Ross following in the steps of Joe Maddon with some of his methods?

(16:00) - How will MLB fix the missing games that teams will have at the end of the season?

(18:40) - Cubs wanted Andrew Miller initially, not Aroldis Chapman in 2016

Listen here or below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Jason Kipnis enjoying 'fun ride' with Cubs, but 2016 World Series still stings

Jason Kipnis enjoying 'fun ride' with Cubs, but 2016 World Series still stings

A peppy voice shouted from offscreen, drawing Jason Kipnis’ attention away from the pregame Zoom setup in front of him. Kipnis chucked as he spotted Mike Napoli, his former Indians teammate and current Cubs quality assurance coach.

“Ask this guy about 2016,” Kipnis said to the reporters on Zoom as Napoli bobbed into frame.

“It was the greatest year of our lives,” Napoli shouted.

At least Kipnis had someone with him who knew what it was like to lose to the Cubs in the 2016 World Series.

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Kipnis returned to Progressive Field on Tuesday, for the first time since he signed with the Cubs as a free agent in February. In the Cubs’ 7-1 win against the Indians on Tuesday, Kipnis hit a double and scored a run on a wild pitch. It was his first time in a decade-long career facing Cleveland.

The Indians had drafted Kipnis in 2009. He’d made his major league debut with the club two years later. And he spent nine seasons in Cleveland.

A “homey vibe” hit him as the Cubs touched down in the airport Tuesday and drove to their hotel. Familiar views greeted him.

What was new was walking to the ballpark from the hotel, going through a different entrance.

“I'm actually being steered to probably a few hallways I didn't know existed,” Kipnis said.

He’d been to the visiting clubhouse before but never to the batting cages or weight room. He was seeing a new side of a building that he’d called home for so many years.

Plus, he was doing it in Cubbie blue. One of his most agonizing experiences at Progressive Field had come at the hands of the Cubs. His current teammates had made up the young core of that 2016 World Series Cubs team.

“I’ve already had Rizzo walking me through, ‘I celebrated here, I celebrated here,’" Kipnis said before the game. "I’m like, ‘Thanks, buddy. I get it.'”

Kipnis said there was never a real path for him to return to the Indians for this season.  Asked if the option was closed off on his end or the teams’, he said, “My phone never rang, I’ll put it that way.”

Instead Kipnis, a Northbrook native, joined his hometown team. Over the summer, Kipnis posted on Twitter that being a Cub was still a “mindf*ck” at times.

When he and the Indians lost World Series Game 7 at home, after blowing a 3-1 series lead, 99 percent of Kipnis was “absolutely crushed.”

But he said one percent could “look back at the field the last second be like, ‘Hey, at least it's the Cubs.’

If the Indians were going to lose, at least it was to a team with a 108-year World Series drought.

Kipnis likens his feelings about playing for his hometown team this year to that ratio. He’s overwhelmingly excited about representing Chicago and playing for his friends and family. One percent of him aches every time he sees the 2016 banners or World Series highlights, neither of which he can escape in Chicago.

“I have to keep reliving it,” Kipnis said. “… It sucks, but it was a fun time in ’16, and I don’t regret anything about it”

This year has been Kipnis’ first experience switching teams. He’s been locked in a position battle at second base with Nico Hoerner and has been efficient in limited at-bats. In seven games, Kipnis is batting .368, with five extra-base hits. He kept the ball from his first home run as a Cub.

“When you get back into that hunter mentality, it's fun,” Kipnis said, “because then you push yourself to stay at it. You might not feel great some days, and you normally might have taken a day off or something to rest the body, but now you just find a way to get something productive done that day.

“And I think especially coming here in Chicago, where I know now I have even more family and friends watching games, and friends of friends, everything, it's been like a little bit more motivation to stay on top of myself.”

The COVID-19 pandemic ensured that Kipnis would get to play his former team this season. Regular season schedules became regional, so the NL Central Cubs play the AL Central Indians four times this year.

But the pandemic also ensured that Kipnis wouldn’t be able to greet fans in person, or his former teammates and coaches how he’d like to – some of them with “bull-rush” hugs.

“I've invaded these guys personal spaces for about nine years,” Kipnis said. “I think I can take a day off from giving them a hug.”

The Indians played a tribute video for Kipnis before the game. Players and staff members applauded him. Kipnis stepped out and waved his hat at the empty stands.

Like much of this season, Kipnis’ return wasn’t anything like he could have imagined when he put pen to paper back in February. But at least publicly, you won’t hear any complaints from Kipnis.

“It's been such a fun ride here so far,” he said.

 

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