Eduardo Rodriguez is 27 years old and at the height of his pitching powers. He is also a husband and father of two kids. The latter is of far greater importance than whatever he might contribute to the Boston Red Sox, a reality that led both the pitcher and team to the conclusion that he will not pitch in the 2020 season.
Rodriguez tested positive for COVID-19 before reporting for July training camp, and his arrival to Boston was delayed until the middle of last month. Once he did join the team, his resumption of baseball activities was quickly halted due to mild myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that has been connected frequently to the novel coronavirus.
Initially, Rodriguez was shut down from baseball activity for a week. But an MRI on Tuesday revealed that the myocarditis had not gone away.
Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said that Rodriguez’s “long-term prognosis is excellent,” including an expectation that he’ll be healthy and ready to pitch in 2021. The compressed 2020 baseball schedule, however, rendered it impossible to contemplate a return to the mound this year.
The decision was reached on Friday night. Rodriguez informed his teammates via Zoom on Saturday that he’d be heading home to South Florida.
“This is not something to mess around with,” said Bloom. “We remain very optimistic he’s going to make a full recovery. We’re confident that the severity of this is mild. His heart is functioning normally. [But] due to the fact that it is persistent and the amount of care we need to take with this and the time left in the season, he’s not going to be able to come back and pitch this year.”
Rodriguez contracted COVID-19 before reporting to Boston. Unlike the Marlins and Cardinals, which have experienced outbreaks since the start of the season, Rodriguez’s case reflects the devastating prevalence of the virus in the US rather than serving as a commentary on MLB’s ability to stage a season safely.
Nonetheless, the fact that an elite athlete won’t be able to take part in this disfigured baseball season also serves as a testament to the shared vulnerability created by the pandemic. It serves as a reminder of the overall fragility of baseball.
“Here is one of the best pitchers in the game last year and he’s not able to perform on the field. . . . Young people aren’t safe from this,” said Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke. “You’re more at risk when you’re older, but it hits the young pretty hard too at times. Eddie, just unfortunately, he’s one of those guys that it hit hard, and to lose an entire season is pretty rough on anybody.”
The loss of Rodriguez this year, of course, has on-field significance to the Sox. Bloom acknowledged that on a team already without Chris Sale for 2020, Rodriguez’s absence “certainly makes the mountain a little higher.” He said that the Sox will continue to explore trade candidates while also looking at potential starting rotation additions currently working out in Pawtucket.
Still, on Saturday, the competitive impact of Rodriguez missing the season was an afterthought. Sports cannot exist in a vacuum in 2020. Professional sports leagues claim they are trying to offer a measure of normalcy, yet the tenuousness of player safety and health — and thus the tenuousness of MLB’s season — is unavoidable in a way that shows there will be nothing normal about sports or anything else.
Already, a compressed schedule has been further disfigured as MLB sticks fingers into a dam that is springing leaks. Just over a week into the season, eight teams have had to adjust their schedules. Those inside the sport recognize that they are trying to walk across a frozen lake while the temperature rises. Collapse is an omnipresent concern.
“I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t think about that,” said Sox pitcher Matt Barnes. “I think everybody’s probably thought, ‘Are we going to get shut down? Will it be next week? Will it be two weeks?’ You really don’t know.”
Teammate Jackie Bradley Jr., however, had a different view.
“I think [the season is] going to last. I think they [MLB officials] are going to make it last,” said Bradley. “I’m here to work and we’ll see what they decide to do.”
Either players are contemplating the possibility that the season ends, resigning themselves to an uncomfortable journey through it, or, in an increasing number of cases, opting out of it. (Two more players, including Brewers star Lorenzo Cain, opted out Saturday, bringing the total to 19.) Many are clinging to the notion that a season will prove possible, but there’s hope rather than certainty in such views, creating a challenging environment in which to focus on the field.
“The second that I start thinking about are we going to get shut down, if we get shut down here, my performance on the field is going to suffer,” said Barnes. “We’re here, we all want to play the full 60-game season and go into the postseason, so I have to do my part to make sure I’m ready every single day to pitch and try and, while obviously be aware of what’s going on and kind of the drastic nature of the situation that we’re in, still try and focus as much as you can on baseball.”
There’s nothing easy or normal about that undertaking for those playing or watching the game. At best, the 2020 season will be a misshapen imitation, with hope — particularly for those like Rodriguez whose health has been impacted directly by the pandemic — for something better in 2021.