Before COVID-19 overtook the world, Vas Drimalitis previewed Brandon Nimmo’s 2020 season and opined that the happy-go-lucky center fielder should be expected to be a very productive player if healthy. Those who wish to contemplate what Nimmo’s on-field production might look like this year should simply re-read Vas’s piece, as I have nothing further to add to the case that he made. Nimmo is good. The Mets are lucky to have him. The end.
But of all the players on the Mets roster, his is the one whose presence will most concern me heading into the shortened season. My concern will not be because I fear that his production on the field will be lackluster, but rather because I will be wondering if he should even be on the field at all.
A lifetime ago when the Mets were in their first round of spring training this past February, Nimmo had to miss time to undergo extra cardiac screening (an aside: it is also worth noting that Matt Adams had to undergo similar testing, so much of what is being discussed in this article applies to him as well). It was later revealed that the issue was an irregular heartbeat, with Nimmo jokingly saying, “I guess I have a little bit larger heart. I got a lot of love to give.” While his levity might have provided some comfort, it was still a slightly abnormal health issue to read about a player experiencing. And it is also worth noting that this was not the first time Nimmo suffered a slightly abnormal health issue, as back in 2017 he missed time due to a partially collapsed lung.
In normal times, it doesn’t seem like these issues would be too much to worry about, provided they be appropriately monitored. But these are anything but normal times, and while we still don’t fully know the ways in which the coronavirus impacts the body, we do know that people with certain underlying health conditions are at greater risk. A lot of focus has been placed on the virus’s impact on the lungs, but there’s also evidence that it can damage the heart as well, and that those with preexisting heart conditions are particularly vulnerable. Given what we know about Nimmo’s health history, it is thus possible that he may be at a higher risk of experiencing complications from COVID than others would be.
The league did offer the option for players with underlying health issues to opt out of playing this year while still receiving their salaries. It is possible that Nimmo’s heart condition made him qualify for that right. But even if he did, the calculation for whether or not to play would not have been quite so simple for someone in his position. Nimmo, after all, is still a young player without a guaranteed contract. 2020 marks his first year of being arbitration-eligible, and the $2.175 million he was slated to earn this year is likely a bit lower than it would have been if his injury-shortened 2019 season had been more in-line with his 2018 levels of production. Undoubtedly, he came into the year hoping a bounceback season would lead to a higher salary in 2021—and would in turn put him on the path to eventually earning a sizable payday in free agency.
Electing to forego play this year would have added a potentially detrimental wrinkle to that plan. So the calculation was not just whether or not Nimmo wanted to risk getting sick, but also whether or not he wanted to risk limiting his potential career earnings by not playing. And that’s not even getting into the possible factors of feeling pressure from his bosses, his teammates, or his own sense of responsibility to the team that may have influenced his thinking.
An obvious caveat: I don’t know Nimmo. I don’t know the particulars of his health history, and I’m not a doctor nor a scientist. I’m not qualified to offer a diagnosis of whether or not it is safe for him to play, nor do I know the factors involved in his decision to do so. My concern for him is based on a lot of unknown factors, which I suppose is appropriate given how much we’ve all been operating in the dark about this disease over the past few months. But my concern is also about our mindset—”our” meaning the baseball world at large, both those working in the industry and us mere fans—as we get ready to watch people like Nimmo take the field once more.
As I’ve been contemplating the prospect of baseball resuming play amidst this pandemic, I’ve thought about an article that our own Allison McCague wrote for The Hardball Times last year. In it, she discussed the ways in which we often dehumanize players by discussing them as though they are commodities to be used and abused for our entertainment rather than as actual human beings with lives outside of the game. The current crisis has made this problem even more glaring. We are asking these players—along with the hundreds of other personnel in various occupations that are necessary for games to happen—to put themselves at risk so that owners can make money and we can have something with which to distract ourselves from these dark times. And many people dismiss the risk that players may be assuming by highlighting the fact that they are predominantly young and healthy, ignoring the facts that A) we still don’t have a full picture of the short and long-term effects of contracting COVID-19, B) many players have underlying health issues that put themselves at greater risk of experiencing complications if they get sick, and C) those who do get sick may pass along the illness to their family members, who may not be as young and as healthy as they are.
We’ve already made the case for why baseball should not be played this year. Major League Baseball is nevertheless choosing to move forward. As such, the issue now becomes whether the league will show the necessary care and discipline in making sure that resuming play can be done as safely as humanly possible. How are they ensuring that the safety protocols they are mandating will be suitable for preventing illness? What kind of oversight are they placing on teams to be sure that they will be fully enforcing all the safety guidelines? And will they be willing to call it quits and cancel the season if it becomes clear that games cannot be played without players and other personnel putting themselves at significant risk of contracting COVID? Public pressure must be placed on the league and the teams within it to ensure that neither party is disregarding the safety and well-being of their players and personnel in the name of making a few extra bucks or winning a few extra games.
It’s not just the league which needs to be cautious and deliberate in how it approaches player safety—it needs to be something that fans are actively mindful of as well. This is not going to be a normal season, and we cannot use our normal playbook of analyzing player transactions and injuries with the same casually dehumanizing tone and language that we usually use. When players go on the IL due to contracting COVID—and that is very much a “when,” not an “if”—our first thought should not be about how the team will be impacted by not having them on the roster for a while. It should instead be centered on the player’s short and long-term well-being, along with the well-being of their families, and on the team’s subsequent efforts to ensure that no one else will contract the illness from them. Any other type of response downplays the seriousness of this pandemic, and it does a disservice to the players who are putting themselves at risk for our entertainment.
I love watching Nimmo play for the Mets. I hope he will stay with the team for a long time. And him having a healthy bounce-back year would go a long way towards the Mets having a successful 2020 season. But this is about more than our hopes for the team’s success. This is about Nimmo’s wife Chelsea and the other members of their family. This is about the decades of post-baseball life that they will hopefully be able to enjoy to the fullest once his playing days are over. This is about recognizing that Brandon Nimmo has more to contribute to this world than his ability to hit a ball with a stick, just as all the players who will be suiting up in the weeks and months to come do. While some part of me will enjoy watching him take the field with the rest of the team soon, his overall health and well-being will remain at the forefront of my mind. I just hope that I’m not alone in that.