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Zimmerman leads initial wave of MLB player opt-outs

Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Washington Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman, a franchise icon since the team relocated from Montreal, Canada, in 2005, is opting out of the abbreviated 2020 Major League Baseball season, one of at least four players thus far to voluntarily withdraw. 

Zimmerman, a key part of the Nationals’ march last fall to their first World Series title, is joined by teammate and pitcher Joe Ross, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake, and Colorado Rockies infielder-outfielder Ian Desmond among those opting out of playing this season. 

The choices, while expressly permitted, highlight the tension of MLB seeking to restart the season amid a still-growing Covid-19 pandemic. Any player is permitted to opt out of playing the 60-game regular season this year, but only those deemed to be at higher risk from a medical standpoint will still receive their prorated salary and accrue service time.

Zimmerman, as a result, forfeits $740,000 in expected prorated pay, while Ross will forego about $555,000, and Desmond and Leake about $5.6m each. 

“After a great deal of thought and given my family circumstances – three young children, including a newborn, and a mother at high risk – I have decided not to participate in the 2020 season,” Zimmerman said. “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.”

Desmond expressed similar sentiments, and made a lengthy statement on Instagram in which he also touched upon his experiences with racism as a biracial player and decried the sport’s declining accessibility to young people, minorities, and the economically challenged. 

“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,” Desmond said. “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.”

Mike Rizzo, Nationals president of baseball operations and general manager, said he stands fully behind the decisions of Zimmerman and Ross.

“We are one hundred per cent supportive of their decision to not play this year,” Rizzo said. “We will miss their presence in the clubhouse and their contributions on the field.”

MLB is not alone facing voluntary player options. The National Basketball Association and Women’s National Basketball Association each have also seen several players voluntarily withdraw from those leagues’ quarantined, Florida-based restarts, including women’s stars Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver, and notable NBA players Trevor Ariza and Avery Bradley.

The MLB scenario, however, is different, as it still involves playing in home markets, regular travel, and despite the implementation of extensive health and safety protocols, the lack of a fully quarantined environment. 

MLB, meanwhile, has assigned naming rights for the upcoming restart of Spring Training to existing league sponsor Camping World. The training, to begin this week in advance of the planned season start July 23 or July 24, will be known as Summer Camp presented by Camping World. The publicly traded retail chain of outdoor and camping products in late 2017 became the league’s first-ever presenting sponsor of Spring Training, and this new summer alignment essentially represents an execution of those existing rights.