Ryan Zimmerman has been a fixture in the Washington Nationals lineup and clubhouse since the franchise moved from Montreal in 2005, and he was a key reserve on a team that beat the Houston Astros in a thrilling seven-game World Series last October.
But if Major League Baseball is able to launch a pandemic-shortened 60-game season in late July, the Nationals will defend their title without the 35-year-old corner infielder who was considered the heart and soul of the organization.
Zimmerman and Nationals pitcher Joe Ross, 27, have opted out of the abbreviated 2020 season "for the personal health and safety of themselves and their loved ones," the team announced Monday. Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake, 32, also opted out of 2020, forfeiting about $5.2 million in prorated salary.
Zimmerman, who made his major league debut Sept. 1, 2005, cited his family circumstances - he has three young children, including a newborn, and a mother who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis - as the reason for his decision.
"Everyone knows how much it means to me to be a part of a team, and I will miss that camaraderie dearly this year," Zimmerman said in a statement. "Of course I would love to pursue back-to-back titles. I cannot speak for anyone else, but given the unusual nature of the season, this is the best decision for me and my family, and I truly appreciate the organization's understanding and support."
The decisions of Zimmerman, Ross and Leake come four days before teams are scheduled to begin training camps in their home stadiums and with COVID-19 cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations rising dramatically in several states - including Florida, Texas, Arizona and California - that are home to MLB teams.
Fear and trepidation over the coronavirus could push more players to opt out of the season.
"I'm excited about having the opportunity to go back and play, but at the same time, I'm a little bit scared of what it will look like ... there's some nervousness and apprehension," Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun said Monday as he prepared to leave his Malibu home to return to Milwaukee for the restart of training camp.
"My biggest priority is being a father first and a husband second, so to leave three young children and my wife to go into an environment where I don't know what it will look like or when exactly I will come back or how safe it will be, it's a little bit scary and completely different than anything I've experienced."
Braun, 36, said he isn't yet comfortable with his wife, Larisa; 5-year-old daughter, Celine; 3-year-old son, Greyson; and 4-week-old son, Carter, traveling to Milwaukee. He wants to see if there is an MLB season and how both L.A. and Milwaukee are faring in case numbers and hospitalizations next month.
"They won't come initially because there's a lot of unknowns and uncertainty," said Braun, a six-time All-Star and the 2011 National League most valuable player. "I think it's easier and safer to stay here for now and then we'll assess how things go and if everything is normal and safe."
Braun said he is not convinced MLB will be able to start or complete a season.
"I'm optimistic that we will play games, but obviously, if we look at what's happening in the country, the COVID numbers are not good," he said. "There are a significant number of athletes who have tested positive, which is indicative of the overall numbers in our country right now."
The risk to his family was not worth the reward of playing a 15th season for Zimmerman, who hit .257 with six homers and 27 RBIs in 52 games in 2019 and hit a dramatic home run in Game 1 of the World Series.
But Zimmerman, who signed a one-year, $2 million contract for 2020 after the Nationals declined to exercise his $18 million option, said he was not retiring.
"I have not decided on my future in baseball past 2020," said Zimmerman, who has amassed $138 million in career earnings. "But this year, I'll be staying safe at home and pulling as hard as anyone for the guys to defend our championship."
Leake, a 10-year veteran, was entering the final year of a five-year, $80 million deal after going 12-11 with a 4.29 ERA for Seattle and Arizona in 2019.
The right-hander was not considered a "high-risk individual" as part of MLB's health and safety operating manual, so he will forfeit his 2020 salary. His father, Chris Leake, suffered a catastrophic fall from the roof of a home he was working on in 2013 and is paralyzed from the waist down.
"During this global pandemic, Mike had many discussions about playing this season," agent Danny Horwits said in a statement. "They took countless factors into consideration, many of which are personal to him and his family. After thorough consideration, he has chosen to opt out of playing in 2020.
"This was not an easy decision for Mike. He wishes the best of luck and health for his Diamondbacks teammates this season and he's looking forward to 2021."
Ross went 4-4 with a 5.38 ERA last season and was expected to compete for the Nationals' fifth rotation spot. The right-hander did not issue a statement, but his family may have played a role in his decision. According to the Athletic, Ross' father is a pediatrician and his mother is an emergency room nurse in Oakland.
Zimmerman hinted at this decision in May when he penned a diary for the Associated Press.
"I love baseball and I know how much America loves baseball, but you know what I love way more than baseball? My family," Zimmerman said. "Even if we're supposed to be quarantined, what if someone goes to a grocery store? Or a pharmacy to pick up a prescription? Or something like that?
"Then, all of a sudden, I'm a healthy 35-year-old athlete who maybe gets sick but is asymptomatic, and I come home, and I have a 2-week-old baby who gets it. Maybe the baby gets over it without us ever knowing, but 10 years down the road, my kid's lungs don't develop fully. Who knows? We just don't know everything about what this virus does.
"At some point, we've got to be real about: What's worth having baseball?"
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!