MLB faces a major hurdle in COVID-19 battle: Players hesitant to get the vaccine
MLB 

When Trevor Bauer struggled through performance and health issues early in his Major League Baseball career, he enlisted a Stanford University doctor to capture images of his hip and shoulder, then had his pitching delivery mapped by a biomechanist to identify the sources of his pain.

Yet when it comes to whether he’d receive a COVID-19 vaccine or if he’d suggest others do the same, all Bauer could say was, “It comes down to personal medical history and personal medical choices so I don't really want to speak on that."

As J.D. Davis struggled to gain traction in the major leagues in 2018, he pored over video and data with Houston Astros hitting guru Jeff Albert, who holds a Master’s degree in kinesiology, and dug into the granular concepts of swing and bat planes, in an effort to increase the lift and exit velocity on his batted balls and combat pitchers blowing him away with fastballs.

Three years later, firmly established with the New York Mets, Davis says getting vaccinated “hasn’t really crossed my mind,” that he and teammates “aren’t really getting the itch” for potentially loosened protocols should he and 85% of team personnel get the shot(s).

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OK, so maybe the lure of bottomless beef ancho at Fogo de Chao can’t prompt major league players to collectively vouch for vaccination.

So how about saving your season?

The ambivalence of players in public comments regarding vaccination strikes a decidedly dissonant tone to that of the modern major leaguer, many of whom wouldn’t be making their handsome salaries without an embrace of science and data, without their own clinical trials that take place in a batting cage or bullpen mound rather than a laboratory.

Now, that ambivalence – and perhaps an overarching desire to protect their teammates in the public court of opinion – may produce significant implications in a 2021 season that was supposed to be far sunnier than the protocol-induced slog of 2020.

Just ask the Washington Nationals, who have yet to play a game this season.

It took just one player getting exposed to COVID-19 to create enough spread to produce four positive tests and 11 players in all sidelined by protocols. Tuesday, they will play their first game of the season after 21 teams already have four games in the books, and six more have played five.

The MLB season began on April 1, with fans returning to the ballpark. (Photo: Jay Biggerstaff, USA TODAY Sports)

Unsurprisingly, ace Max Scherzer is more bullish on vaccination than many peers.

"I tend to follow the science," he said on a video call with media Monday. "I try to listen to what all the scientists say and what the experts say. I see the benefit of it. Can't wait to get it."

The Nationals will be playing uphill from the start thanks, apparently, to the misfortune of flying home from spring training just as at least one player carried the virus. In coming weeks, however, teams and players will have control of their own destinies.

As states and health departments lower the age-based requirements for vaccination, team access will ramp up in corresponding fashion. By the end of this month, President Joe Biden vowed, vaccinations will be available to all Americans 16 and older.

Monday, the state of Wisconsin joined the group of states making all residents 16 and older eligible. The Milwaukee Brewers highlighted this benchmark with a PSA featuring former MVP Christian Yelich, infielder Keston Hiura and pitchers Brent Suter and Freddy Peralta proclaiming they received the vaccine and urging residents to do the same.

While Brewers baseball operations president David Stearns noted only a “good chunk” of the roster got vaccinated and Suter indicated hitting the 85% mark hasn’t happened yet, the clubhouse has largely grasped the concept of the greater good – not just for the Brewers, but MLB at large.

“This benefits the game; the more players and people within our universe we can get vaccinated, the more assurances we have that our games will go off without a hitch for the entirety of the season,” Stearns said on a media video conference Monday. “It’s been an ongoing conversation with our players and our organization as a whole. That conversation continues, but we’re off to a great start and very appreciative of the city and health department.”

Those conversations are occurring in 30 clubhouses, and the Brewers and Mets provide a lens into how it all may be shaking out.

As the Mets sat idle for four days while their opponent, the Nationals, was sidelined by the coronavirus, they distributed a survey among players about whether they’d take the vaccine.

The results and the general ambivalence reflected in comments by Davis and outfielder Michael Conforto certainly caught the ears of club president Sandy Alderson and new owner Steve Cohen. They have set up additional player education sessions as the club heads to Philadelphia, where on Monday night Jacob deGrom will finally throw the first pitch by a Met in 2021, four days later than planned.

“There has been some hesitation on the part of some players and that is why we set up the education,” Alderson said on a conference call to discuss the club’s $341 million contract extension with Francisco Lindor. “Unless we had 100% buy-in, education was appropriate and probably appropriate, anyway. We want to get as many players vaccinated as possible.

“That’s in the best interest of the team, it’s in the best interest of their families and those who work with the players. I hope, in addition to their own personal medical considerations, that they take all those things into consideration.”

Perhaps Monday will mark a turning point, and if so, it’s curious why the Mets didn’t immerse their players with knowledge sooner. Suter said the clubhouse consensus on vaccinations shifted following meetings with team physicians Ken Young and Mark Niedfeldt.

“(Clubhouse) conversations, at large, were really respectful, were really enlightening both ways in terms of coming to an understanding and getting peoples’ concerns and mistrusts of this and that,” says Suter, the team’s union representative. “It became very engaging. The whole team was very engaged.

“We had a really good meeting where Dr. Young came in and talked to us about all the concerns we were raising anonymously through the training room to the medical professionals. He answered them one-by-one and did a great job. After that, more conversations were happening, and it stayed very respectful and just became very informative both ways.

“It led to a lot of guys being more open to it. A good chunk of our roster got vaccinated in large part because of what Dr. Young and Nietveld did in terms of informing guys and reassuring guys of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.”

The numbers for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the apparent preferred choice for ballplayers given its one-shot dosage: 74.4% effectiveness in the USA, and 100% efficacy against hospitalization and death from the virus, according to the American Medical Assn., and fewer and less severe side effects.

Those numbers should resonate with ballplayers. Alas, just one team – the St. Louis Cardinals – has reported reaching MLB’s 85% plateau for loosened protocols, allowing players to eat in public, kibitz among themselves and family members and loosen the masks that have accompanied their baseball-related activities for nearly a year.

Despite the dearth of teams hitting the 85% mark, a baseball official noted that MLB was encouraged by the overall percentage of personnel who have volunteered to receive the vaccine, and that by week's end, half of the 30 franchises will be eligible for vaccination with no restrictions in their home market.

The official spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive subject matter.

It's worth noting that the 85% requirement includes all Tier 1 employees – 70 players and 30 staff members. Virtually every manager has said they will get vaccinated or confirmed they received it. Additionally, non-playing staff have no union and far less leverage than players. If you’re a relatively fungible coach, assistant athletic trainer or media relations rep, do you want to be the person who infected a team and disrupted a $10 billion industry?

So in reality, just 79% of players need to get vaccinated for a franchise to reach 85% in Tier 1. And yet, here we are, playing chicken with a pandemic and more than 150 games to navigate.

Lest we forget, the Vancouver Canucks’ season is currently waylaid by a nasty outbreak of the highly contagious Brazilian variant of COVID-19. Sixteen players – more than half the roster – have tested positive for the coronavirus, ESPN reported, with a handful in “rough shape.”

Those statistics should resonate with ballplayers as much as the mph on balls off their bat or out of their hands, their WHIP or OPS. There is no season without safety, and science has shown us the clearest path to that goal.

Suter and his wife suffered through COVID-19 just before spring training, as he ran a fever for 10 days and lost his sense of taste and smell. He’d like to see his comrades avoid that fate – and continue with their livelihood.

“It’s a safe and effective way,” he says of the vaccine, “to do our part and beat this thing.”

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