The stories of the Washington Nationals and Ryan Zimmerman are intertwined. The franchise moved from Montreal, where they were known as the Expos, in 2005, the same year they drafted Zimmerman out of college. He reached the major leagues late that season and has been with them ever since, the face of the franchise through the lean seasons, their renaissance and, last year, their first World Series title.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, has ended that streak — or at least put it on pause. Zimmerman announced Monday that he would opt out of the 2020 Major League Baseball season, which is set to begin July 23. He became the most prominent player to do so, joining his teammate Joe Ross, his former teammate Ian Desmond, of the Colorado Rockies, and Mike Leake of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who also bowed out on Monday, days before a second spring training is set to begin.
“I cannot speak for anyone else, but given the unusual nature of the season, this is the best decision for me and my family,” Zimmerman, a first baseman, said in a statement released by his agents, “and I truly appreciate the organization’s understanding and support.”
Based on the regulations agreed upon by M.L.B. and the players’ union, any player is allowed to opt out of the 2020 season, which is slated to last 60 games. But only those at higher risk of severe illness from the coronavirus because of their medical history will receive pay and service time after opting out.
Zimmerman, who would have earned $740,000 in prorated pay during this shortened season, said in his statement that he had given the decision “a great deal of thought” and cited his family circumstances — he has three young children, including a one-month old son, and his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995.
“Everyone knows how much it means to be part of a team, and I will miss that camaraderie dearly this year,” he said.
Over the winter, Zimmerman, 35, re-signed with the Nationals for one year and $2 million. He has made over $133 million in his 15-year career. He said on Monday that he was “not retiring at this time.”
Ross, 27, a right-handed pitcher who had a chance of making the Nationals’ starting rotation, was entering his sixth season with the club and was expected to make about $555,000 in prorated pay.
In a team-issued statement, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said that Ross and Zimmerman opted out “for the personal health and safety of themselves and their loves ones” and said the club “one hundred percent” supported their decisions.
Desmond, 34 — who won three Silver Slugger Awards while he was Zimmerman’s teammate from 2009-15 — posted a lengthy, heartfelt statement on Instagram late Monday expounding upon his upbringing, the racism he has faced as a biracial man, the declining accessibility of baseball and his family. Desmond, an outfielder, was due to make about $5.6 million in prorated pay but wrote that he didn’t feel comfortable with the health risk of playing baseball this season.
“With a pregnant wife and four young children who have lots of questions about what’s going on in the world, home is where I need to be right now,” he wrote. “Home for my wife, Chelsey. Home to help. Home to guide. Home to answer my older three boys’ questions about Coronavirus and Civil Rights and life. Home to be their Dad.”
Leake, 32, was the first M.L.B. player to make his opt-out intentions public. In what would have been his 11th major league season, Leake was due to make roughly $5.6 million in prorated pay. His contract also called for an $18 million mutual option or a $5 million buyout for the 2021 season.
“This was not an easy decision for Mike,” Leake’s agent, Danny Horwits, said in a statement. Horwits also said that Leake had “many discussions” with his family about playing this season and they took “countless factors into consideration, many of which are personal to him and his family.”
Houston Astros Manager Dusty Baker, 71, is the oldest at his position in M.L.B. and has committed to managing this season. But he has acknowledged that he and his coaches — three of whom are 62 or older — are more at risk during the pandemic.
On Monday, the Minnesota Twins reassigned two of their higher risk major-league coaches — Bob McClure, 68, and Bill Evers, 66 — after examining the health histories of their staff members.
“It’s about as difficult a decision call as you’re going to have in the game of baseball,” Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli told reporters. “Both wanted to be part of this season more than anything, both very disappointed to hear the news, but both know it’s the right and safe thing to do.”
Twins officials told reporters that McClure and Evers would be paid their full salaries but would work remotely in other roles from home.