More than anything, Sean Doolittle wishes he were playing professional baseball right now.
The 33-year-old lefty and Washington Nationals closer has been hunkering down in Florida since the MLB season was put on indefinite hold in March. But no matter how much he yearns for the adrenaline spike that inevitably hits when he gets the call in the bullpen, and the gut-churning mix of anxiety and excitement, it’ll have to wait.
For Doolittle and his wife Eireann Dolan, the proposal floated earlier this week to import all 30 teams to Arizona in isolation for four to five months doesn’t seem ethically or logistically feasible. Approximately 4,425 people would be required to pull this off, by USA Today’s conservative estimate—all of whom would consume desperately needed medical supplies and personnel just to bring the National Pastime back.
“If we’re going to entertain this idea, for the players and the Players’ Association, there has to be that solidarity with those workers who are in those supporting roles,” said Doolittle, a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. All those laborers would be indefinitely separated from loved ones during a global pandemic, too, their lives reduced to work and little else. And they wouldn’t be compensated for their efforts at the level of a pro athlete. Eireann Dolan, Doolittle’s wife of two-and-a-half years, wasn’t having it. “That’s incredibly dehumanizing and it sort of essentializes a person to their job,” she said.
Reached by phone at their temporary home in Jupiter, Florida, along with their dogs, Sophia and Stella, the couple have settled into something resembling a normal routine. Beyond binge-watching Netflix, frequent group chats with teammates and friends, and their shared voracious reading habits, Doolittle is doing his level best to stay in game shape. He was able to bring home some portable exercise equipment like resistance bands, medicine balls, and ankle weights from the Nationals’ facility in his car. The team has been “really good,” helping him devise ad hoc training methods, Doolittle said, and he speaks with their strength coach multiple times each day, sending videos back and forth to track his progress.
Some players have a home gym or a mound erected in their backyard, Dolan added, but that’s not the case for most major leaguers. Because they decided remaining in Jupiter was a wiser course of action than returning to Washington or Dolan’s native Chicago, the pair has had to improvise. “We’re MacGyver-ing our way through it.” she said, sharing a warm chuckle with her husband at the joke.
Over the course of our nearly hour-long conversation, it’s hard to miss the easy, back-and-forth patois the couple has developed. Doolittle describes himself as an introvert, but before he can finish the sentence, Dolan chimes in. “A relief pitcher through and through,” she quipped. “He can sit still and do nothing for hours and hours at a time until someone forces him to get up.”
“What’s the Twilight Zone episode…?” Doolittle asked.
“‘Time Enough at Last.’ Henry Bemis!” Eireann jumped in to answer.
I join in the fray, mentioning that Burgess Meredith played Bemis. “Yes, yes!” Dolan replies. “It’s such a good one!"
In the episode, Bemis is an avid reader who can’t find the time to indulge his greatest passion. The henpecked, shortsighted, and beleaguered bank employee hides away in the vault and (finally) tucks into a good book. While in isolation, a nuclear apocalypse strikes and Bemis is spared. To his everlasting delight, he’s alone in a barren wasteland with nothing to do but read. Then his glasses break. Ironically, the famously rec specs-wearing Doolittle, too, only has one pair of glasses at the moment. Should they suffer serious damage, like Bemis, “[Doolittle’s] completely screwed.” Dolan said.
In contrast, his “goth wife” grows antsy if she spends a day at anything less than peak productivity. “It’s a part of how my brain is completely broken,” she says. Dolan earned her degree in theology and religious studies from Fordham University last year and is currently plowing through the book Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, by Eric Metaxis, plus a few others on the Protestant Reformation. If nothing else, the dense tomes provide a welcome reminder of her pre-quarantine life.
As to baseball’s return, both Dolittle and Dolan desperately hope it happens.
He brings it up “50 times a day,” according to Dolan. The desire to help with the country’s healing process and the return to normalcy plays a large part, but they want him to get back on the mound for what both admit are “selfish” reasons. 2020 is the final year of Doolittle’s contract with the Nationals, and should baseball be shuttered until a vaccine is developed, “He’s on his own,” she said. Half-joking, Doolittle added: “I really don’t want to take 2019’s numbers into free agency.” (Last season, Dolan finished an injury-riddled campaign with a career-worst 4.05 earned-run average).
Were MLB and the MLBPA to adopt the plan, in order to comply with social distancing, computers would call balls and strikes in lieu of a human umpire; dugouts would be emptied, with players seated at a safe distance in the empty stands.
That’s not all. Family members won’t be allowed to enter baseball’s quasi-biodome for a still-undetermined “indefinite amount of time—perhaps as long as 4 1/2 months,” per ESPN. The league has been crunching numbers and parsing data for the last three weeks, and should they fail to come up with a workable solution, the odds of baseball coming back this year are slim. “It’s either this or nothing,” an industry source told SNY.
ESPN also reported that CDC and NIH officials had been consulted, and were willing to support a plan that included strict isolation and social distancing. Reached for comment, an MLB spokesperson declined to say which officials they’d worked with, referring The Daily Beast to their previous statement, which countered that the proposal was but one of “numerous contingency plans” under consideration, but MLB had not “received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association,” the statement read. “The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.” The CDC and NIH did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
A source familiar with the league’s efforts stressed that multiple options remain on the table. To wit: Friday morning, USA Today reported on another new proposal, wherein both Arizona and Florida would serve as temporary hosts, with games played at existing spring-training stadiums.
Tuesday morning, Dolan called the Arizona proposal “reckless and irresponsible” on Twitter, adding: “Shut it down.”
Beyond the need for a massive uptick in testing capacity before any of this becomes a reality—not just for ballplayers, but across the nation—Dolittle’s initial thoughts were of labor solidarity. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with his politics.
When the Nationals won the 2019 World Series, Doolittle didn’t go to the White House, citing President Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter, and his decades-long history of racist comments, from the Central Park Five through his equivocation post-Charlottesville and denigration of majority-nonwhite countries as a “shithole.” The lefty hurler will frequently unpack his ideology on social media, and has excoriated his MLB brethren for racist old tweets from MLB comrades, hosted dinner for Syrian refugees just as Trump was unveiling his initial ban on majority-Muslim nations, and spearheaded an effort to save independent bookstores. Dolan, too, sits on the board of an LGBTQ youth advocacy organization, and she and Doolittle co-wrote an editorial for Sports Illustrated advocating on behalf of military veterans who left the service because less-than-honorable discharges and are desperately in need of care.
In Arizona, would the hotel workers, the bus drivers, the clubhouse officials. field staff, security, janitorial, the broadcast crew, and thousands more required in order to play professional sports, “have access to testing and health care if god forbid they got sick, too?” Doolittle wondered. (Dolan posted a tweet expressing a similar sentiment on Tuesday.) They’re being placed at similar risk to their on-field colleagues. As such, “They should be compensated, above and beyond what they normally would get if they’re going to be making these kinds of sacrifices.”
All 30 MLB teams donating $1 million to help stadium workers, was a good, important first step, Doolittle said. But there remains an entire class of contract workers—often non-union—like security personnel and food and concessions vendors who are not directly employed by the team and have seen their seasonal job vanish. “I hope the subcontractors step up,” he said. While pro teams have often been browbeaten into action, “I don’t think [subcontractors] should be let off the hook here.”
Players he’s spoken with have also wondered about being under lock and key, while significant others are left to handle child-rearing, home-schooling, and the entirety of household responsibilities, often while trying to maintain their own careers.
Because of a prior respiratory issue, Dolan is immunocompromised. The fear that she might contract the virus “would be in the back of my mind 24/7,” said Doolittle. Dolan concurred. “Your livelihood is not the same as protecting your life,” she said. And that’s before considering whether piles of tests, PPE, and health-care professionals should be diverted to serve a single class of citizen in a single state, one where positive tests are on the rise and equipment is growing scarce. Her mother, a nurse, normally works at a facility dealing with cancer patients in San Diego. Not anymore. “They’ve all been triaged to work ICU and respiratory,” and have had to re-use protective masks.
Baseball isn’t the only sport gaming out a future return, because they all know that any new games will attract a massive, at times literally captive audience. The NHL and NHLPA have been working together to scope out possible locations to resume the regular season, possibly in North Dakota. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver downplayed the idea, but the league apparently has examined the idea of quarantining in Las Vegas and jumping ahead to the playoffs.
Doctors have raised an eyebrow, to say the least. NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills said unless testing was ramped up significantly—such that every single person who came in contact with a player could be tested—there’s no way to start practicing in pads. In an interview with The New York Daily News, a doctor who specializes in infectious diseases reiterated that without a massive uptick in testing capability, MLB’s plan represented a major risk to public safety. Right now, “There are health care workers on the frontlines that aren’t being tested,” Dr. Krutika Kuppalli told the paper.
The Daily News also heard from anonymous players who weren’t thrilled with the idea of being separated from loved ones. And UFC Chairman Dana White boasted to TMZ that he somehow secured a private island in an unknown location for future bouts and that a casino located on tribal land 40 miles from Fresno, California, would host UFC 249 on April 18. On Thursday, White abruptly announced that UFC 249 had been cancelled. Upcoming matches would be postponed indefinitely, too, thanks to the interventions of ESPN, Disney, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Still, “Fight island is real,” White promised. “It’s a real thing.”
Eventually, sports will once again become a fixture of American life. Perhaps in a different form than before, and perhaps later than fans and players alike care to imagine. But without taking every precaution available, the potential for harm is monumental.
“If they don’t do it safely, and responsibly, and ethically,” Dolan posited, “I don’t think on a long enough timeline, that history will look back and remember the first sport to come back fondly.”