Earlier this month, the Chicago White Sox—the Kansas City Royals’ rivals in the American League Central—released some interesting injury news. In a normal year, that would be an update to a physical injury suffered while playing or preparing for the game of baseball.
But we haven’t had normal since, arguably, December of 2019, when Wuhan, China, was the first major area to feel the effects of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. And indeed, the White Sox did not release injury news that was in any way traditional. Rather, they proudly showcased their players receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines.
We are proud to help share the positive message about how safe and important it is for everyone to be vaccinated.— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) April 11, 2021
To discuss world events on a baseball site is to invite the insidious criticism of “stick to sports” from those who would rather pretend that the world does not exist when a baseball game is on television. But COVID-19 is a unique case because it is unarguably a baseball issue. That’s because COVID represents a direct on-field threat to a baseball club’s operations, and indeed Major League Baseball created a specific COVID-19 Injured List for players unable to play due to the virus. It is, for all intents and purposes, a type of injury, beyond its existential threat to global health.
Fortunately for MLB, all adults over the age of 16 are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, covering every team’s major and minor league rosters. Unfortunately for MLB, and for the United States at large, vaccine hesitation is still prevalent. Nearly 40% of Americans showed some kind of hesitancy in regard to the vaccine, of whom half do not plan to get the vaccine. While 13% of the population answered that they will “definitely not” receive the vaccine as of March 2021, some groups, such as Republicans and white Evangelical Christians, answered as such at a 30% clip.
From a scientific and health standpoint, these vaccine fears are unfounded. The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and there is no evidence that suggests the COVID-19 vaccines have any less or worse long-term side effects than other vaccines of their respective types. Some criticisms are even brazen conspiracy theories, such as the false claims that the vaccines change your DNA or contain tracking technology.
But MLB, understanding the unfortunate existence of vaccine hesitancy, wisely implemented a carrot for their players and organizations via a policy that significantly relaxes COVID-19 restrictions for teams that achieve an 85% vaccination rate among all Tier 1 individuals, the tier which primarily includes players and coaches. Such perks include: a lifted restriction on mask-wearing in the clubhouse, the ability to dine at both indoor and outdoor restaurants, the ability to resume use of team saunas, and more—a relative return to normalcy, in other words.
Though teams must disclose players whom they put on the COVID-19 Injured List for roster transaction reasons, teams cannot disclose to the media whether or not an individual player has COVID on their own due to HIPAA. Players can voluntarily release or allow the release of said information, though. The same kinds of restrictions apply to the vaccine; while players and coaches can choose to disclose whether they or not they received a COVID-19 vaccine, via official team channels or otherwise, the law gives them the privacy not to do so.
This brings us back to the White Sox, as an example of a team whose players and coaches have actively chosen vaccine advocacy. They have done so because they believe that they have a duty to pose a good example to the community, and, as both White Sox infielder Danny Mendick and general manager Rick Hahn have stated, to each other.
“It’s pretty cool to see that all the guys pretty much went in there and got the vaccine for everybody else,” Mendick said. “It helps for families, for road trips and different things like that. It shows that everyone has bought in. We’ve got a 162-game season, so it’s great to get it started like this.”
Hahn was also proud of the buy-in from the group.
“We think it’s a great message to the community, and we think it’s a great message to each other about being a good teammate,” Hahn said. “There’s obviously individual benefits to anyone — players included, staff included — who gets vaccinated, even individual benefits under the protocols that we’re all working under at this point.
“But it goes beyond that. It goes beyond what it does for the individual and goes to protecting each other and protecting the community around us. And the level of buy-in we had in our clubhouse was remarkable and something that everyone down there should be very, very proud of.”
The Royals, by contrast, have been silent on their views on vaccination. The organization has neither announced a press release discussing their vaccination strategy nor have they revealed any information to media members regarding how many of their players or coaches have been vaccinated. They will not even disclose whether or not the team has hit or plans to hit 85% vaccination rate for Tier 1 personnel (which, for the 26-man roster, would be 23 players, plus 85% of what other individuals classify under the Tier 1 banner).
To be clear, the Royals organization has the right not to disclose whether their employees have taken the vaccine. They are not doing anything illegal or even wrong. Furthermore, it could very well be that there is dissent within the clubhouse and among Tier 1 individuals and the team is trying to navigate that, though any and all speculation on the matter is empty of meaning. Regardless, for a team that has been otherwise extremely involved in the greater community of Kansas City, this hands-off approach to the vaccine is deeply disappointing.
The blame is not solely on the club, either, as individual players are allowed to be as forthright about their vaccinations as they wish. The White Sox are a clear example, but beyond that, we know that Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes have been vaccinated because they have willingly disclosed that information to the media. And there has been a small trickle of Royals player-related COVID-19 news, to be fair. Josh Staumont told reporters that his bizarre one-day stint on the IL last week was due to common side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine. And, per Staumont, there is some support from the organization here:
“I’ve been so thankful for how they’re handling it and handling this whole COVID-19 thing going back to last year,” Staumont said. “As I get vaccinated, we’ll be [ready to go]. I’m glad I could get that day. But that’s all it was.”
Like their rivals the White Sox, and like fellow Kansas City public figures Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, the Royals have significant cultural influence within the city, both individually and as a group. Speaking out about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine via the bare minimum of announcing their vaccination—and that, hey, maybe you too could get vaccinated, it’s easy!—would do meaningful good.
The science is clear that these vaccines will save lives. Thus far, more Americans have died from COVID-19 than died from World War I and World War II combined. And unlike other important issues facing the country, from income inequality to racism, COVID-19 has a direct impact on MLB by sidelining players on the IL and even canceling games. It is also for baseball’s best interests that vaccine adoption is high and that herd immunity is achieved. The Toronto Blue Jays can’t even play in Toronto because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Not choosing to advocate for a vaccine that literally prevents trips to the IL for their team and will save lives of the fans who watch the team is unfortunate. The Royals could very well be pro-vaccine and supportive of their players. We simply do not know, because they have not said, and this is not simply a case of player health—it’s also a case of community duty.
They can do better. The White Sox have. Their Truman Sports Complex siblings have. The opportunity is right there for the taking.