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Vaccines offer a shot at normalcy — and force tough conversations — in MLB

Major League Baseball’s season began earlier this month, the second launched during the global coronavirus pandemic. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

After an underwhelming start earlier this month, Houston Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. revealed he had been physically ill during three-plus laborious innings against the Detroit Tigers.

His manager, Dusty Baker, explained that McCullers’s start had been shaky in more ways than one. The 27-year-old, an athlete in peak physical condition, found himself with “wobbly” legs and was unable to catch his breath. McCullers received a coronavirus vaccine shot that week, he and his manager said. The side effects were troublesome enough that he required IVs just to make his start. At the same time, his team was dealing with a coronavirus outbreak that knocked multiple starters out of the lineup and left the Astros scrambling to fill out their roster.

Some in Major League Baseball, like in so many other industries, have pointed to the arrival of vaccines as the beginning of a return to normal. But MLB is learning that widespread vaccination is not as linear a process as it may seem — or as unpolarizing a suggestion as some might hope.

For the past few weeks, teams and their players have been confronted with a choice of whether to be vaccinated, incentivized by the promise of loosened restrictions if 85 percent of a team’s players and staff get the shot. Major League Baseball will not say exactly how many teams have reached the threshold, though the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox have said they are among those that have. New York Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said Wednesday his team is 84 percent vaccinated with just days until more players complete the two-week waiting period between a player’s shot and him qualifying as fully vaccinated.

Scott Servais, manager of the Seattle Mariners, said this week he heard 10 of 30 teams had reached the threshold. MLB would not confirm that number and does not identify which teams have hit the mark, though it did say it was “encouraged” by the number, noting that logistical issues make reaching large numbers of players difficult. But managers and executives acknowledged player reluctance is partly to blame.

“There has been some hesitation on the part of some players,” New York Mets President Sandy Alderson said last week, adding that the team held a mandatory educational session with a physician in the hope of dispelling concerns about the vaccine, something the Boston Red Sox and others have done as well.

“I think that’s in the best interest of the team. It’s in the best interest of their families. It’s in the best interest of those who work with the players. So I hope that in addition to their own personal medical considerations that they take all of those things into consideration as well.”

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Vaccine holdout on MLB teams can matter a great deal. It can be the difference between whether teammates are allowed to eat in restaurants or spend time with family and play video games together. In short, it can determine whether players can participate in the treasured sanity-maintaining off-the-field activities that help make a lengthy baseball season more manageable.

An MLB clubhouse is home to players from a variety of backgrounds, education levels, political views and religious beliefs. It’s an environment that remains stable largely based on the premise that it doesn’t matter what a teammate thinks as long as he helps you win. The choice of whether to get vaccinated threatens this complex and fragile balance.

If a team suffers an outbreak of the coronavirus, it can dramatically affect its fortunes for the season. The Astros, Washington Nationals and Minnesota Twins have played without key starters for multiple games because of coronavirus outbreaks. The Nationals and Twins had to postpone multiple games, forcing them to play doubleheaders with depleted rosters in the aftermath.

“Those conversations with some guys have continued, but we’re not here to press our players. Our players, at this point, are going to make their own decisions,” Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli said Tuesday. “We’re going to support the decisions that they make. Are there some things that become maybe easier for us protocol-wise if we reach that 85 percent threshold? Yes. But again, this isn’t going to be something that’s going to continue on from our end on a regular basis, trying to get anyone to do anything that they’re not comfortable doing.”

Some players say they are talking to their teammates about getting vaccinated. Others say they are staying out of it. But many agree the question is an uncomfortable one.

When asked this month whether he had considered taking the vaccine, Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, a member of the players’ union executive subcommittee, shuffled around his words.

“There’s people that will [get the vaccine]. You know, I never try to get deep into where it’s at,” he said, seeming to imply that while some players won’t get the vaccine, he hasn’t been keeping a count on how many. “For me, I tend to follow science. I try to listen to what the scientists say, what the experts say. So for me, I see a benefit in it and I can’t wait to get it.”

Many players have echoed Scherzer’s unwillingness to prescribe the vaccine for teammates and mirrored his determination to speak only for himself.

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Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, who is featured in a public service announcement encouraging vaccination, would not even directly disclose whether he planned to get vaccinated.

“I’ll put it to you this way: I’m in a vaccine commercial,” he told reporters, adding that whether he got the shot was “private medical information.” Many of his teammates, including Michael Conforto, James McCann and J.D. Davis, cast it as a “personal choice.”

St. Louis Cardinals Manager Mike Shildt, Cleveland Manager Terry Francona, Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner and many others have avoided a stance with similar phrasing.

Other players have used social media to make their stances against the vaccine clear. Twins shortstop Andrelton Simmons, for example, issued a statement via Twitter late in spring training saying: “For personal reasons and past experience I will not be taking it or advocating for [the vaccine]. I hope I don’t have to explain myself.”

“If you have very specific reasons as to why you don’t want to get it, that’s a total individual choice,” Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey told the St. Paul Pioneer Press this month. “But if you’re someone who’s just hesitant because you lack a little bit of information about it, then I think it’s our responsibility to some degree to help them get that information and ultimately make whatever informed decision they’re going to make going forward.”

Not every player has relied on medical experts for information. Cleveland reliever James Karinchak posted a story on Instagram that included a quote attributed to convicted war criminal and Nazi leader Hermann Goering about controlling people through fear — implying that the government was using the vaccine to do just that.

One National League player, when asked about clubhouse conversations about the vaccine, sent along Karinchak’s post as an example of the kind of beliefs he and others around the sport sometimes encounter when trying to encourage vaccination. Many managers say they are encountering players with concerns about how the vaccine might affect their health, concerns they hope education sessions can mollify.

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Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, said that when the union polled about the vaccine, what it heard most loudly was that players would not agree to make it mandatory.

“It was important based on player feedback that we maintain the voluntary nature of taking the vaccine,” Clark said. “There are players who are interested and even have taken the vaccine already. There are others that are concerned, and there are others that aren’t interested in taking the vaccine. Our responsibility, along with giving guys that option, is to make sure they have the information that they need to make the decision that they want to make for themselves and for their families.”