WASHINGTON -- “I've never wanted my entire identity to be wrapped up in baseball.”
That single sentence from Sean Doolittle encapsulated the tone of his 30-minute conversation with the media on Sunday afternoon. Wearing a face mask for the entire remote Zoom call, the Nationals closer candidly dove into the issues impacting himself, his family and the game of baseball in the middle of a pandemic and social unrest.
To play or not to play?
Doolittle's wife, Eireann Dolan, has a chronic lung condition. Doolittle had to weigh all the factors that could affect her health when deciding whether to play this season. They came up with a plan for Doolittle to report for workouts -- for as long as he feels comfortable doing so.
“My wife’s been public about her health,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think that should be a requirement for people to disclose as they’re continuing to try to make these decisions for what’s best for them and their family. That was something she chose to do, to shine a light on what a lot of players are struggling with right now. What it came down to for us was, we were able to find a way where I think she’s going to be able to stay with some family that’s in the area, just so she’s close. …
“From that standpoint, we’re feeling a little bit better about it. But I don’t know. So far -- and we’re only three days into this -- our medical staff has been doing an incredible job, and I think it’s running as smoothly as it can at this point. But like a lot of players, the opt-out provisions are not great. Like they’re not great. There’s a lot of players right now that are trying to make decisions that might be participating in camp that aren’t 100 percent comfortable with where things are at right now. That’s kind of where I am.
“I think I'm planning on playing. But if at any point I start to feel unsafe, if it starts to take a toll on my mental health with all these things we have to worry about, and just of this kind of this cloud of uncertainty hanging over everything, then I'll opt out. But for now, I've prepared for the last three months like I'm going to play. I feel ready to go.”
The role of sports in a pandemic
Doolittle wants to compete. He also wants to do so in a safe environment. Speaking about the possibility of having fans in the stands this season, Doolittle urged adhering to health guidelines.
“We're trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that's killed 130,000 people,” Doolittle said. “We're way worse off as a country than where we were in March when we shut this thing down. And look at where other developed countries are and their response to this. We haven't done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back. Sports are like the reward of a functional society, and we're just like trying to bring it back even though we've taken none of the steps to flatten the curve or whatever you want to say. We did flatten the curve for a little bit, but we didn't use that time to do anything productive. We just opened back up for Memorial Day. We decided we're done with it.
“If there aren't sports, it's going to be because people are not wearing masks, because the response to this has been so politicized. We need help from the general public. If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask, social distance, keep washing your hands. We can't just have virus fatigue and think, 'Well, it's been four months. We're over it. This has been enough time, right? We've waited long enough, shouldn't sports come back now?' No, there's things we have to do in order to bring this stuff back.”
More than physical health
It’s easy to focus on the physical aspect of baseball -- strength training, conditioning, ramping up to a certain number of pitches to avoid injuries. But there’s another element that’s not as obvious as watching a performance on the mound.
“My mental health is something that I’m really going to have to stay on top of,” Doolittle said. “I can already tell this is going to be a grind mentally, and I might go crazy before anything else. Like I said, there’s this cloud of uncertainty. You’re always kind of waiting for more bad news. Every time I get a text message or something on my phone throughout the day, I’m worried that it’s either going to be some kind of bad news -- like somebody in the league tested positive or somebody opted out, or so-and-so broke protocols and there’s pictures of people going out on social media when they shouldn’t be. And just the regular procedures of the day. It’s a lot. It’s very, very different. And unfortunately, there’s not a long period of adjustments and there’s not a lot of room for error.”
From striking out to speaking out
For as long as he’s been involved in the sport, Doolittle’s world has been about baseball this time of year. He kept up with his training program during the delay -- even getting in better shape by biking 30 miles three to four times a week -- and also used his newfound free time without games to speak out about social unrest, attend protests and get involved in the community.
"In a way, it kept us busy,” Doolittle said. “It made us feel like we still had a purpose. Even though baseball wasn't happening, there's still really important things that we wanted to be involved in, that we wanted to help with. I've never wanted my entire identity to be wrapped up in baseball. Of course I missed it when it wasn't happening …
“But at the same time, there were other things that are happening in the world that I wanted to be involved in. This is our generation's civil rights movement. There's never been a better time or a more important time to get involved and to help raise the voices of people who are trying to bring attention to some of these issues and share their experiences and go to a public demonstration and get involved -- whether it's with your voice or with your wallet. We're in a position where we can help a little bit financially with some of these causes. We still felt like we had a purpose and that there was something important that we were doing. That definitely, I think, kept us from being bored and missing baseball. There's more important things than baseball. But it's my job, so I was staying ready.”
Keeping the conversation going
Doolittle’s focus may be on work, but social justice issues still are on his mind. He emphatically supported former National Ian Desmond electing not to play this season, and he pointed out ways those topics could be improved on in the baseball setting.
“We have to shut up and listen and figure out a way to address these issues -- be better teammates, be better human beings,” Doolittle said. “There seem to be a lot of instances where it might not be the overt, in-your-face racism where you’re hearing racial slurs and stuff like that. It might be something that’s a little bit more subtle. … There’s a lot of that stuff that I think we can clean up if we’re really serious about moving the game forward and making our locker rooms better, more inclusive places for all of our teammates."
He added, “I think this is where we're still trying to come to grips with where baseball fits in American society in 2020. Is it just a distraction? Is this like some Ancient Rome bread and circuses stuff where we're just appeasing the masses and giving them distraction from everything else that's going on in the world, all the bad things that are going on in the world? Or, can we be a productive part of a discussion about ending racism and promoting equality and justice for everybody? I think we’ve reached a tipping point where over the last couple of months, guys have kind of found their voice. They've been maybe more active on social media than they have been throughout their career, and they've gotten a little bit more comfortable putting themselves out there. They've found some support from other players around the league. So I think it's all culminated, and there's going to be a lot of guys that are going to continue these conversations. I'm proud to stand with those guys and try to amplify their voices and echo their message."