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Yu Darvish, COVID-19, and the power of peer pressure

Yu Darvish may still opt out of the 2020 season, but he says seeing how seriously his teammates are treating the protocols gives him reassurance

Chicago Cubs v Texas Rangers Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

Yu Darvish, former Texas Rangers ace and current member of the Chicago Cubs, is one of the more thoughful, insightful players in MLB. He vocalized concerns this spring, before the season was delayed, about COVID-19 and the impact that the Coronavirus would have on the league, as well as concerns on a personal level about playing.

Darvish talked to the Chicago media yesterday about playing in this abbreviated season amidst the pandemic, noting that as a father of small children he was particularly concerned about putting their safety at risk, saying “I cam here to make sure everybody’s doing the right thing. I had in my mind if they’re not, I was ready to go home.”

While Darvish didn’t rule out the possibility that he may opt out, he says at this point he doesn’t expect to do so. But Darvish is in the same situation as many players, I suspect, particularly those with young children, or who have family that is high-risk — they have concerns and are somewhat reluctant, but are willing to play if there’s commitment to following the protocols by everyone involved.

The testing screwup over the July 4th weekend that resulted in delays in getting tests processed was a major black eye for MLB, and caused understandable expressions of concern and dismay from players and organizations. Yes, it was a holiday weekend, and the testing was just starting and you expect some hiccoughs, but still...the entire MLB plan hinges upon regular testing and getting the tests processed. You would think that someone would have noted that there are are two federal holidays (Independence Day and Labor Day) between reporting date and the end of the season, and accounted for that, made some sort of contingency plan...something.

But based on what we are reading and hearing right now out of summer camps, the players are treating this seriously and following the protocols — and really, that’s as big a factor as the testing, I think, in whether the season can happen or not.

Players have talked about having to basically exist in a bubble for the time being. The Toronto Blue Jays have an even more extreme bubble — under the exemption from Canadian quarantine laws the team received, they aren’t allowed to leave the Rogers Center complex, which includes a hotel where players and staffers are staying, except to leave to travel to away games — and the team is apparently considering trying to play its home games in Buffalo so that players have a little more freedom of movement. But even teams in the United States, in areas that aren’t under lockdown, are expected to take very aggressive precautions to minimize the possibility of contracting the virus.

Players are going to, as part of this, have to hold each other accountable. Team leaders are emphasizing the importance of being vigilant, following the rules, avoiding exposure outside of the park. There’s going to be a tremendous amount of peer pressure among the players to do the right thing.

And that peer pressure is why I am actually cautiously optimistic that the MLB season will happen — or if it doesn’t happen, it won’t be because of significant outbreaks among players. In a shortened season, every game is critical, both for individuals, and for teams — in a sixty game season, every team is a contender, after all. No one wants to be the guy who hit up a bar instead of staying home, picking up Captain Trips, and infecting half a dozen of his teammates. And no one wants the Alpha in the clubhouse jumping on them because they found out they were out and about the night before instead of staying safe.

This is also why, counter-intuitive though it may seem, I think there’s likely to be fewer players contracting COVID-19 through the end of the season than there would be if there were no season going on. The season occurring gives everyone somewhere to go, something to do, gives them interaction and bonding with their teammates, gives them an extremely compelling reason to make sure they stay safe. They have a purpose, and they have as part of that an obligation to their teammates that they are assuming.

If there is no season — if they are facing the prospect of not playing again until spring training, 2021 — its going to be a lot harder to maintain that level of social distancing and isolation. There’s a lot of down time, a lot of guys being at loose ends, a lot of restlessness. Single players, in particular, are probably going to take more risks, be less cautious — as we all know, for many younger people, they don’t want to get it, but if they do, the mentality is that they will not really be impacted seriously, and if its just them they don’t have to worry that they’ll pass it on to someone they care about. Its going to be a lot harder to keep guys from going out, from seeing people, from being in environments where they can pick up the virus.

But with a 2020 season, a shortened one where players are trying to squeeze in every at bat, every inning, possible? Asking players to isolate for three months so that they can get through the season, stay safe, and keep the league from being shut down (and, not unrelatedly, keep paychecks flowing)? For that short period of time, given the stakes, I think players are going to be much more meticulous than they otherwise would. No one wants to be Rudy Gobert.

Along these lines I periodically will see someone say something like, we are putting players’ health at risk because we have to have baseball, or owners are making players expose themselves because they are so desperate for TV money. But the thing is...players, for the most part, want to play. Those who don’t want to have the ability to opt out — a handful have so far, and I expect that number to grow going forward.

But the reason players are playing isn’t because fans are pressuring them to, or owners are making them. Its because they have a limited window to perform at a major league level, they want to get as much as possible out of their abilities during that window, and they want to maximize their earnings. Let’s not forget — just a month or so ago, we were condemning owners for not having enough games, while it was the players who wanted a longer season and more games played.

I could be proven wrong, and you can all link this and dunk on my and send it to Old Takes Exposed if several hundred players end up testing positive in a couple of weeks. But as of now, I think that the players are going to be able to follow the heightened protocols for the next few months, be cognizant of their duty to keep their teammates safe, and get through the season without widespread outbreaks.