It’s quick to get off topic or down a rabbit hole when talking about the COVID-19 vaccines, so starting with the basics is important. Multiple COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration here in the United States and in similar health agencies around the world. They are safe vaccines. The Center for Disease Control says so. The World Health Organization says so. The European Medicines Agency says so. The Public Health Agency of Canada says so. Severe side effects are rare, significantly more rare than the potential side effects of COVID.
The approved COVID-19 vaccines are also effective. While they do not completely prevent infections, they provide protection against severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Data from the New York State Department of Health shows that unvaccinated people account for up to 10 times as many hospitalizations as vaccinated people, and information from the CDC shows that COVID death rates are similarly disproportionate between the two groups. It is extremely likely that your primary care physician will recommend that you take a COVID vaccine if you have not taken it, as over 95% of U.S. physicians are fully vaccinated.
This is the starting line. This is not part of the “discussion.” If you decline to take the vaccine, you are doing so despite the mountains of data that suggests otherwise. In addition, you are putting your community at greater risk to yourself thanks to community immunity. Now, you can choose to not get the vaccine. But in doing so, you are also putting yourself at greater risk, putting your community at greater risk, and opening up yourself for criticism, as freedom of speech cuts both ways.
It is, therefore, impossible for me not to feel anything other than anger and shame that no fewer than 10 Kansas City Royals will be unable to make the trip to Toronto because of Canada’s vaccine requirements. Canada requires proof of vaccination for entry, and to date there have been 25 players across all MLB teams who have been unable to play in Toronto for that reason. That is, until nearly 40% of the active Royals roster didn’t make those requirements—two and half times as many players as the team with the next most unvaccinated players on their Toronto trip.
There are layers to this, oh, layers and layers, but we’ll keep it simple and baseball related here. Getting vaccinated is a competitive advantage. Remember, vaccines prevent against severe disease and hospitalizations. If there was a way to vaccinate against breaking your hamate bone or pulling your hamstring, baseball players would happily line up to take it. COVID is just another potential reason to be sent to the Injured List, and there’s a way to minimize that risk.
And, of course, getting the COVID vaccine is a competitive advantage because it lets you play anywhere and everywhere. Yeah, there’s one team in Canada. But there are four teams in their division, all of whom play in Canada regularly. Every other American League team plays in Canada at some point as well. You don’t get the vaccine, you don’t play. Furthermore, these players are sacrificing tens of thousands of dollars to do so, as players go unpaid if they miss games in Canada.
But the other advantage of getting vaccinated? Hey, remember community immunity? Getting vaccinated does not completely prevent the spread of the virus, but it decreases the chance for both infection and transmission. In other words, vaccinated players help protect themselves and others. And in a team environment, that seems...I don’t know, somewhat relevant?
Perhaps worst of all, Whit Merrifield spoke the quiet part out loud in an interview with reporters about why he didn’t take the vaccine. His response was, hey, if it impacted a team that had playoff hopes, I’d change my tune.
“I understand what Canada has in place right now. That’s the only reason that I would think about getting it at this point is to go to Canada,” Merrifield said. “That might change down the road. Something happens, and I happen to get on a team that has a chance to go play in Canada in the postseason, maybe that changes.”
Let us be clear: that is loser talk. The Kansas City Royals are trying to win baseball games right now, and Merrifield recognized that getting vaccinated would allow him to play. By saying that he’d maybe do so for a playoff team, he’s sending a message whether he wants to or not that this team ain’t it.
The farce of this is that it didn’t have to be this way. Getting the vaccine is a personal choice, yes, but a personal choice can shift over time or given a nudge one way or another. Dayton Moore payed lip service to this idea, and I have no reason to think that the medical staff didn’t do what they could do about getting players good information about the vaccines. But something is off (emphasis mine):
“We can’t really talk about the vaccination status of players,” Moore said, “but our guys have done an incredible job for really the last year and a half. Our medical team, coaching staff, our front office personnel, of doing our best to educate everybody in our organization and provide them with the necessary guidance, giving them the proper amount of space and grace along the way to make very informed decisions.
“But at the end of the day, it’s their choice. It’s what they decide to do. And we’ve always been an organization that kind of promotes and encourages their individual choices. Unfortunately, some of this affects the team. We’re disappointed in some of that, but we realize it’s part of the game. It’s part of the world we live in, and we’re just really looking forward to providing these players that opportunity that are getting this chance to play in Toronto.”
Coleman praised the Royals leadership for not requiring the players to be vaccinated.
“The above staff, the owner, GM, everybody, it’s been really cool to see how they’re handling it where it’s not like forcing (us),” he said. “We all have our own opinion, so I feel like it’s really been good that the higher ups respect that.”
Contrast this emphasis with the Chicago White Sox, who last year were at the vanguard of getting their players vaccinated and engaging in vaccine outreach.
We were able to vaccinate virtually the entire traveling party. We are grateful that by being vaccinated, the Sox can contribute to stopping the spread of COVID-19 in our community, & look forward to collaborating with the City on a multisport, multiteam vacc. advocacy campaign.— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) April 11, 2021
The White Sox also implemented a vaccine requirement for their entire minor league system this February, thereby ensuring vaccination status for future big league callups from their system (the new Collective Bargaining Agreement does not allow for a vaccine mandate for members of the Major League Baseball Players Association). Sure enough, they only had two vaccine holdouts when they went to Toronto earlier this year.
“The Chicago White Sox are requiring all of our employees to be up to date on their Covid-19 vaccination status, and this requirement extends to our minor-league players as well. We believe this is the right thing to do to protect the health and well being of all of our players and staff across the organization.”
The last statement there is important: the White Sox prioritized the health and well being of their organization. The Royals seem to have prioritized player choice, and if they have implemented any minor league or organizational mandate, they have not been public about it. Neither organization can mandate vaccines for MLB players; however, the White Sox are a better team than the Royals on the field, and they also might just be a better team off the field, too. Compare this statement from Danny Mendick from last year (emphasis mine):
“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.”
...and this statement from Hunter Dozier (emphasis mine also):
“It’s a personal choice. I got COVID in 2020. I have antibodies,” Dozier said. “Me personally, I don’t do any vaccines. I live a healthy lifestyle. I eat healthy. I work out. I want my body to naturally fight stuff off. I’m not against vaccines. It’s just a personal preference, and I’m not judging anyone who wanted to get it or didn’t want to get it.”
Don’t you see? Mendick and Dozier’s approach couldn’t be any further different. One considers others first. The other is focused inward and only inward. In a team sport, this matters.
For what it’s worth, Dayton Moore seems to have done what he can to try and get players vaccinated, with team officials continually encouraging players to get the vaccine since it was authorized. The Royals have also reportedly worked with the University of Kansas Health System to send doctors to make vaccination house calls for players and families. The team knows that more vaccinations is better than less vaccinations, but the Royals have a high rate of unvaccinated players for a reason. Whether it’s a failure of approach or one of culture, it’s a mark on their record nonetheless.
The Royals players and coaches who did not take the vaccine have the right to do so. They can make their decision one way or another for smart or stupid reasons. But they’ve got to live with the consequences, which taint the whole team and the entire organization as a farce. Nearly 40% of players who won’t play? What are we even doing? Being awful at baseball is one thing. But this embarrassment that’s happening now is another.