For almost every athlete, there was no such thing as a cost-benefit analysis.
After all, if you are skilled enough and worked hard enough and were paid well enough to compete at sports for a living, what was there to analyze?
Yet in this time of COVID-19, everything requires reexamination – including whether to play at all, and whether to walk away for good.
Ryan Zimmerman opting out of the 2020 season was, on its own, not terribly surprising. He forecast his intentions in an ongoing diary for The Associated Press. He’s grossed $138 million in salary for his career, claimed a World Series championship months ago, has a mother who has long suffered from multiple sclerosis and a newborn child.
Yet now that the first draft pick and original face of the Washington Nationals franchise is out, likely ending an excellent career, it begs the question.
How many more Zimmermans will we never see again?
Certainly, there are far weightier issues to ponder globally – with the novel coronavirus killing more than 500,000 – and even within the fairly meaningless world of sport, where leagues are putting their athletes at some risk merely to try and rake in as much cash from their television partners.
But perhaps nothing speaks better to the scope and seriousness of this pandemic than someone electively terminating their livelihood.
Oh, Zimmerman made a point to say he was not retiring. But he knows how limited the market will be in 2021 for a 36-year-old part-time first baseman. Same for Mike Leake, who will not pitch in 2020 for reasons he did not divulge but possibly is family-related.
And though their teams went to great lengths to respect their decisions, we all know how sports culture works. Grinding through is just #PartOfIt, and while there will be public proclamations of support, these athletes undoubtedly weighed how they’d be received going forward into their decision.
And still they walked away.
This concept is just getting started. We’ve already seen two prominent WNBA players, Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver, opt out. The NBA will bubble up next month without Avery Bradley, Trevor Ariza and others, and for the time being await the recoveries of COVID-19-positive players Nikola Jokic and Malcolm Brogdon.
The NFL’s great reckoning over money, work conditions and fans in the stands is still a month or so away, but the sport with perhaps the greatest potential for spread and already with the direst work conditions will certainly see its share of opt-outs.
But baseball has been particularly unkind to older players as franchises scrimp for every last nickel even as record revenues float their values into the multi-billions. The Nationals may have sentimental reasons to let Zimmerman return for a deferred victory lap, with fans hopefully in the stands, in 2021. Otherwise, he’s likely done.
Leake, even at 33, may find a job because it’s increasingly harder to find anyone to throw 190 or so competent innings. But dozens of others may quietly disappear once dispatched from MLB’s 30 “summer camps.”
Felix Hernandez, Rich Hill, Jon Jay, Ubaldo Jimenez, Hunter Pence, Josh Harrison and Pablo Sandoval are among the familiar names that may have the uniform quietly peeled off them during an abbreviated “spring training,” or perhaps during what the league hopes is a 60-game season, or maybe when their phone doesn’t ring over what is expected to be a winter of much discontent within the game.
And then there are those who, for the moment, are willfully turning theirs in. It is an admirable, if startling act during a period in sports history we are only now beginning to comprehend.