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As the Nationals equipment truck rolls south to Spring Training, still no answer on Bryce Harper

As the Nationals equipment truck rolls south to Spring Training, still no answer on Bryce Harper

Monday delivered an unofficial baseball holiday: Truck Day. The Nationals finished loading their spring training equipment into a 70-foot tractor-trailer and sent it to start a 1,000-mile journey down I-95 to their West Palm Beach spring training home.

And yet, Bryce Harper’s situation remains unresolved. He’s made it all the way into February without a new home, which prompted a special Nationals beat writers edition of the Racing Presidents podcast. Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post and Jamal Collier of MLB.com joined NBC Sports Washington's Nationals insider, Todd Dybas, to discuss just why this has taken so long with Harper, plus a slew of other Nationals topics.

Pitchers and catchers report February 13. General managers and managers have to be wondering what they will have going forward. Of course, a simple solution for them if their owner suddenly decides Harper or Manny Machado are worth it is to replace whomever needs to be removed to fit the young stars in. That’s one of the few points surrounding this pursuit that everyone seems to agree on.

Another is how the Harper-Machado free agency period has declined from something expected to be filled with fireworks to a slog in danger of inducing apathy. The eventual jolt from the signing should wash away the bad taste from the tease-filled wait. However, it won’t clear the ideas formed during it, namely that MLB owners are proactively suppressing player salaries and that baseball at-large has yet another issue to deal with in the modern media landscape.

Beyond Harper, the Nationals have a specific concern still in front of them: lack of pitching depth. Dallas Keuchel remains on the market. Closer Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned. Big names are out there wondering when a spring training answer will come. Some team will end up with a steal. Can the quiet market provide the Nationals one more weapon?

The guys get into all of that. Take a listen.

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Nats' Sean Doolittle on recent protests: 'This is our generation’s civil rights movement'

Nats' Sean Doolittle on recent protests: 'This is our generation’s civil rights movement'

WASHINGTON -- Weeks elapsed without baseball, so Sean Doolittle needed to find ways to occupy himself.

He worked out for two or three hours each morning, often leaving the house to take 30-mile rides on his road bike. He lost weight, continued the workouts, lost more weight. He threw into a net in his side yard. Doolittle granted himself the title of being in “pretty good shape,” then stalled himself from espousing a cliché.

“I'm not going to say I'm in the best shape of my life as a 33-year-old,” Doolittle said. “That ship sailed a long time ago.”

He was also watching social unrest across the country -- and baseball’s response to it -- with a keen eye. Former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond wrote a powerful message on Instagram outlining bigotry he dealt with, which Doolittle called “incredible” and said he read multiple times. He listened to a podcast with CC Sabathia, Chris Young, Cameron Maybin and Edwin Jackson in which they discussed microaggressions and other untoward situations they went through. He thought about how these conversations can continue when baseball games resume, and where baseball’s spot in the landscape would exist.

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“This is our generation's civil rights movement,” Doolittle said. “There's never been a better time or a more important time to get involved and to help raise the voices of people who are trying to bring attention to some of these issues and share their experiences and go to a public demonstration, get involved -- whether it's with your voice or with your wallet. We're in a position where we can help a little bit financially with some of these causes. We still felt like we had a purpose and that there was something important that we were doing. That definitely, I think, kept us from being bored and missing baseball. There's more important things than baseball, but it's my job. So I was staying ready."

The process, and merit, of his job appears to have him concerned. Not long after Major League Baseball stopped March 12, commissioner Rob Manfred started touting the league’s return as a puff of joy for a society reeling from the onset of a pandemic. That idea has long passed. The sport spent three months bickering -- privately and publicly -- before ostensibly agreeing to what they already agreed to March 26, shifting the conversation from health and safety to finances. Doolittle called the pivot “tone-deaf” and “gross” when asked about it Sunday.

RELATED: SEAN DOOLITTLE STILL UNSURE IF HE WILL OPT-OUT

Then he talked about the increase in Black baseball players speaking out about the influence of systemic racism both in their personal and baseball lives. The MLBPA proposed a joint fund of $10 million -- split evenly between the union and league -- for social justice causes. The amount is paltry. It’s also more than zero for a sport traditionally lagging in diversity on the field and behind the scenes. Doolittle now wonders where baseball, “America’s pastime”, fits in the broader landscape of 2020.

“Is it just a distraction?” Doolittle said. “Is this like Ancient Rome [circus maximus] and stuff where we're just amusing the masses and giving them distraction from everything else that's going on in the world, all the bad things that are going on in the world?

“Or can we be a productive part of a discussion about ending racism and promoting equality and justice for everybody. I think we have reached a tipping point where over the last couple of months, guys have kind of found their voice. They've been maybe more active on social media than they have been throughout their career, and they've gotten a little bit more comfortable putting themselves out there. They've found support from other players around the league. So I think it's all culminated, and there's going to be a lot of guys that are going to continue these conversations. I'm proud to stand with those guys and try to amplify their voices and echo their message."

Doolittle uses his Twitter account to often address issues he feels compelled by. In person, he’s happy to talk extensively about a variety of topics, from books to union issues to society at-large. Sunday, he rode into the current status of the country as it relates to his profession. This is a standard approach for Doolittle. He’s a closer at work, involved human outside of it.

“ I've never wanted my entire identity to be wrapped up in baseball,” Doolittle said.

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Sean Doolittle is in Washington, but still not positive he won’t opt-out

Sean Doolittle is in Washington, but still not positive he won’t opt-out

WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle stopped his press conference to reach for his phone. He logged in, looked and then confirmed what he was about to say. His coronavirus test results from Friday were not back yet mid-day Sunday despite Doolittle already being tested again that morning. He’s frustrated.

“So, we've got to clean that up, right?” Doolittle said, rhetorically. “That's one thing that makes me a little nervous."

Sunday, with his gray cloth mask over his face and hair suggesting it was just freed from a hat, Doolittle went through his plan to play. There is no guarantee he will. He’s concerned foremost about the possibility of his wife, Eireann Dolan, who is high-risk because of a chronic lung condition, becoming sick. So, they have decided to live separately. She is in the area in case he needs her and not “half a country” away in their Chicago home. Meanwhile, he is maximizing his precautions while he feels things out at the ballpark.

“So she’s close enough where if something happens, if I get sick, even though she can’t be with me because she’s high-risk, she’ll be able to help in some way,” Doolittle said. “Bring groceries or stop by the house and make sure I have everything I need, something like that. From that standpoint, we’re feeling a little bit better about it.

“But I don’t know. So far – and we’re only three days into this – our medical staff has been doing an incredible job. I think it’s running as smoothly as it can at this point. Like a lot of players, [I think] the opt-out provisions are not great. There’s a lot of players right now trying to make decisions that might be participating in camp that aren’t 100 percent comfortable with where things are at right now. That’s kind of where I am.

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“I think I'm planning on playing, but if at any point I start to feel unsafe, if it starts to take a toll on my mental health with all these things that we have to worry about and just kind of this cloud of uncertainty hanging over everything, then I'll opt-out. But for now I've prepared for the last three months like I'm going to play. I feel ready to go.”

A handful of players -- including two of Doolittle’s teammates, Joe Ross and Ryan Zimmerman -- have chosen not to play this season. Los Angeles starter David Price decided Saturday he would not play in 2020.

And, each day brings new positive tests -- as expected. Players continue to debate what to do going forward. Doolittle wonders what news his phone is going to provide every time it rattles because of an alert.

“It’s been weird, man,” Doolittle said. “It’s been really weird. My mental health is something that I’m really going to have to stay on top of. I can already tell this is going to be a grind mentally and I might go crazy before anything else.

RELATED: TWO NATS PLAYERS TEST POSITIVE FOR COVID-19

“Like I said, there’s this cloud of uncertainty. You’re always kind of waiting for more bad news. Every time I get a text message or something on my phone throughout the day, I’m worried that it’s either going to be some kind of bad news -- like somebody in the league tested positive or somebody opted out or so-and-so broke protocols and there’s pictures of people going out on social media when they shouldn’t be. And just the regular procedures of the day. It’s a lot. It’s very, very different. And unfortunately there’s not a long period of adjustments and there’s not a lot of room for error.”

Doolittle threw from the game mound in Nationals Park on Saturday. He wore his mask most of the time he was pitching (players are not required to on the field). His usual post-session fist bump for the catcher was stifled. There was no face-to-face discussion about how his pitches were acting. He left for a spaced-out clubhouse where the water sits outside of a fridge so no one repeatedly touches a handle. Then, he went home to a different place than where his wife is, waiting for his coronavirus test results from the last three days.

This will be his life from now until at least the middle of October, if not later, should he choose to play and baseball make it that long. Both remain in question.

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