For 99 days this winter, Major League Baseball owners held the sport hostage as they haggled with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association over the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement. The lockdown lasted for months and numbed brains. The two sides argued about luxury tax penalties, about revenue sharing, about an international project, about all the rules that govern the sport.
Ultimately, the most crucial rule for the 2022 season had already been written.
You can find it on the official website of the Government of Canada. It reads, in part:
“To be considered a fully vaccinated traveler to Canada, you must have received at least 2 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine accepted for travel, a mixture of 2 accepted vaccines, or at least 1 dose of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine. . .”
As the trade deadline nears, with the playoff races shrinking to a sprint, no CBA line has proven more influential than Canada’s vaccine demand. (The United States has a similar policy.) The decision affected results on the ground and changed the commercial market landscape. That reality resurfaced this week, after a depleted Phillies squad found themselves at Rogers Center without four players and the Royals announced they would soon set an ignominious record with 10 players placed on the shortlist ahead of a trip. in Toronto.
If the 60-game campaign in 2020 was defined by the risks baseball players were willing to take to drive a season, then 2022 may well be defined by the stubbornness of some in refusing to protect against the risks still prevalent. . Hospitalization rates for COVID-19 have increased this summer as a new variant is sweeping across North America. Team officials in Kansas City and elsewhere have spent months advising players on the benefits of vaccination. The recalcitrance of some individuals only comes to light when their team visits the Blue Jays.
“I won’t let Canada tell me what I do and don’t put in my body for a little money,” Phillies wide receiver JT Realmuto said on Monday. To take a stand against the Great White North, Realmuto lost $260,000. He planned to host his unvaccinated teammates for practices in Miami. Playing without Realmuto and third baseman Alec Bohm, the Phillies hit 14 times on Tuesday and lost ground in pursuit of National League wild cards.
Left outnumbered, Philadelphia suffered a fate similar to those suffered by Boston and Tampa Bay earlier in the season. The Royals aren’t in much contention in 2022. But the pace of their rebuilding effort has been altered by the mandate. Because the double-digit contingent of players on the shortlist includes Kansas City’s most attractive trade asset, outfielder Andrew Benintendi.
“For me,” Benintendi told reporters, “it was a personal decision.”
But, as with all vaccine issues, the decisions of the few have ramifications for the many. The most pressing issue is the death and continued disruption caused by the pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on America’s medical system and flattened the economy. But this is a sports website, and you came here to learn about baseball, so we can focus, in this limited case, on how Benintendi’s status hinders his business value. There are a variety of suitors who could use a player of his caliber. That interest would be reduced if Benintendi is unavailable for road games in Toronto, let alone a possible playoff. And the Blue Jays, of course, can’t acquire unvaccinated players — unless they want them to play road games in America. (You can ask the Brooklyn Nets how it works.)
So Kansas City will approach the August 2 trade deadline with a damper put on its assets. Benintendi could bring less. Same with any potential comeback for compatriot Michael A. Taylor. Whit Merrifield, who posted a .635 OPS this season, said he would consider getting the shot if traded to a playoff team. So there is this.
There’s also the public embarrassment of losing nearly half a roster because players favored “a personal decision” over the collective goal of winning baseball games. Even if it’s only for a few days, the stench will linger. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Royals president of baseball operations Dayton Moore highlighted the two-year effort by his organization’s medical department, front office and coaching staff to “educate everyone in our organization” and provide “the right amount of space and grace along the way to make very informed decisions.
“But ultimately it’s their choice,” Moore said. “That’s what they decide to do.”
Teams cannot force players to get vaccinated. They can only try to convince them. During spring training, questions swirled around the Mets and Yankees due to New York City’s vaccination mandate for workers. Mayor Eric Adams announced an exemption in March to allow unvaccinated athletes and artists to work. The Yankees traveled to Toronto in early May without incident, as did the Astros a few days before.
It might just be a coincidence that the Yankees and Astros are hovering way above the pack in the American League. Getting vaccinated doesn’t make you a better baseball player. But it demonstrates a commitment to a common goal, the kind of milestone that championship-winning teams ask players to take. At a time when clubs circle trips to Toronto with trepidation, the Astros and Yankees need not worry about such nonsense.
Not all American League contenders can say the same. Robbie Ray, who signed a five-year, $115 million contract with Seattle over the winter, did not make the trip to Toronto in May. A month later, the Twins visited without outfielder Max Kepler and three other relievers. The White Sox did not bring in pitchers Dylan Cease and Kendall Graveman.
Few teams have faced Canadian law more directly than Boston. The Red Sox spent a streak there last month without Tanner Houck and outfielder Jarren Duran. These absences were acute. After the bullpen took a lead against the Blue Jays, manager Alex Cora indicated the team would continue to pressure players to get the shot.
When the Red Sox return to Toronto in September, Cora said, “It’s going to be different. And he didn’t mean the law would change. The minds of gamers might. Duran has since indicated that he will be vaccinated in time to make this trip. Houck was less committed. Same story with Chris Sale. Asked about his status following a release from rehab in June, Sale suggested the investigation was an inconvenience. “I just had a lot of fun,” Sale said. “Let’s not ruin this, okay? »
Fair enough. Boston has time to change its mind. But not so long. The mandate of the vaccine affected the ranking. It could affect the commercial market. Canada may not decide what certain players put or don’t put in their bodies. But that may change who does and who doesn’t make the playoffs.
(Top photo by Whit Merrifield and Andrew Benintendi: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports)