How will MLB handle clubhouse divisions over COVID-19 vaccine as baseball seeks return to normalcy?

Hannah Keyser
·8 min read

While most of the details remain uncertain, 2021 will feature, at bare minimum, some baseball and also the broader rollout of a coronavirus vaccine. The hope, of course, is that the latter will ease the emotional and logistical burden of the former.

Baseball in a pandemic, and here the game works as a handy microcosm for society at large, was more difficult and less fun. Something like a season was salvaged for 2020, but the industry’s psychic and perhaps economic health (not to mention its members’ literal health) hinges on being able to eventually return to pre-pandemic normal. Hopefully, appropriate access to the vaccine will make that possible.

The reality, however, will likely be much more complicated. Even when they seem to provide relief from the pandemic, vaccines are a divisive and controversial issue in this country. If they’re not mandated — and it seems they won’t be — a segment of the baseball population will almost certainly abstain, possibly compromising the safety or viability of the 2021 season.

“This is obviously a very challenging question and topic,” Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said on a Zoom with reporters.

The overwhelming majority of MLB managers that Yahoo Sports spoke to this week specified that they will themselves get the vaccine, but would not attempt to impose their personal views on the rest of their clubhouse.

“I will get vaccinated, yes,” Brewers skipper Craig Counsell said, “as of what I know right now.”

“That question is going to be answered probably through my wife because she's in charge and we got three kids so I'll let her decide,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “But, from what I've understood and learned to date, I would not be hesitant to get vaccinated.”

“I believe in the science of the vaccine. I believe the FDA has approved the vaccine for a reason, and that reason is extensive study,” said Giants manager Gabe Kapler.

“I need to talk to the doctors and see what, if any complications, there are with those of us that have had it before,” said Tigers manager AJ Hinch, who had COVID-19 earlier this year. “But I want to be safe and I want the freedom to move around the country and move around baseball.”

“Certainly the health care workers around our country need to get it first, there's no question about that. Senior citizens, people that are very high-risk need to get it first,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais, referencing a concern that, as had happened with COVID-19 testing in the spring, athletes would be given undue vaccine priority ahead of at-risk and essential populations.

“I probably will, when the time is right,” he concluded.

“I would get the vaccination,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said, “in a heartbeat.”

FILE - In this July 24, 2020, file photo, Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly, left, gives an elbow-bump to Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi, right, prior to a baseball game in Philadelphia. Mattingly won the NL Manager of the Year award on Tuesday night, Nov. 10. Mattingly guided the Marlins to their first playoff appearance since 2003 despite dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that paused their season and ravaged the roster. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola, File)
Marlins manager Don Mattlingly, whose team suffered a COVID-19 outbreak during the 2020 season, said he'd take the vaccine in a heartbeat. But will players follow suit? (AP Photo/Chris Szagola, File)

Could COVID-19 vaccine divide clubhouses?

That’s a promising response from an informal poll of MLB’s skippers, but the unanimity is ultimately misleading. In a large enough group — say the 1,200 major league players plus coaches and support staff — some people will not want to get vaccinated, even when it’s their turn.

In January, 2019, over a year before the coronavirus brought life in North America to a screeching halt, the World Health Organization put the anti-vaccine movement on its list of the top 10 global health threats, following a study that showed confidence in vaccines has declined in America. Now, that’s proving all the more relevant.

A Pew Research study conducted in November, shortly before the FDA issued emergency authorization for the first of what should be several vaccines, found that 39% of respondents “definitely or probably would not get a coronavirus vaccine” based on what they knew at the time. Eighteen percent said they might change their minds as more information emerges during the rollout. But 21% don’t intend to get vaccinated, and are at least “pretty certain” that they never will.

A full half of respondents who identified themselves as Republicans would not take the vaccine at the time of the poll (it’s no secret that baseball’s player population leans right). And, perhaps even more relevant in predicting the behavior of young healthy athletes, 52% of people who did not view themselves at risk for a severe case of COVID-19 said they would not get vaccinated.

Even if the troubling trend is not quite that extreme when baseball players have an opportunity to receive the vaccine — and that timing is worth its own careful consideration — managers will necessarily be navigating a clubhouse divided on a crucial issue that has ramifications for how the season will be able to proceed.

“Right. Um, I hadn’t thought of it until you just brought that up actually about those conversations,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who anticipated there will be both more information about the vaccines and more direction about how teams should handle any hypotheticals by the time these conversations are a reality.

“If there are issues, we'll tackle that,” he said.

“We're going to have to address the issue,” Baldelli said. “Yes, it's a challenging topic, but just one of many challenging topics that we've tackled to this point and found ways to work through. In a very straightforward sense, we know different people think very differently about vaccinations, but we also know that the world is a much safer place because of vaccinations.”

In the case of strong opposition to the vaccine, most managers deferred to individual choice.

“It's your choice,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “And that's the beautiful thing about this country is that we can make those kinds of choices.”

Nobody said they would require it for their players — “I don't think it'd be right for me to point the finger and say ‘you got to do this,’ we just don't operate like that,” Cash said — but that doesn’t mean they won’t talk about it.

“I will of course be open to having conversations with our players and talking about anything that they want to talk about,” Kapler said. “Happy to talk through FDA approval and talk through the different companies that are doing a pretty good job of developing vaccines and rolling them out.”

“I'll address it directly with our players, I'll let them know what my plans are and I'll let them disagree,” Hinch said. “If they disagree, we'll move forward with whatever rules are put in place by Major League Baseball.”

If baseball hopes to return to relative normalcy in 2021, it needs widespread acceptance and usage of the COVID-19 vaccine.
If baseball hopes to return to relative normalcy in 2021, it needs widespread acceptance and usage of the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Will MLB mandate vaccination?

Deference to a higher mandate was another theme. Managers will be the ones implementing guidelines and mediating fallout in clubhouses, but if there is going to be a baseball-wide ruling regarding COVID-19 vaccinations, it’ll come from above the team level.

Asked about plans to issue any sort of guidelines or require vaccinations, MLB sidestepped the issue, telling Yahoo Sports in a statement, “In conjunction with our team of medical experts, we are tracking all developments related to vaccines. We are working on plans both to promote vaccination and to ensure that the members of our industry are vaccinated at an appropriate time.”

New guidelines issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allow employers to require COVID-19 vaccines. However, as it pertains to baseball, a vaccine mandate would almost certainly have to be negotiated with the MLB Players Association (one manager compared it hypothetically to the existing joint drug agreement) and it is highly unlikely the union would agree to make it mandatory.

“It's hard. If somebody disagrees and doesn't want to do it, I don't know what protocols we're going to have in place,” Hinch said. “I know we want a safe environment, I know we want the fans back in the stands. I know we want something to feel normal again, which is baseball in the summer with freedom to move around and leave the hotel and go to the ballpark whenever we want and live a baseball life that we've lived our whole lives.

“Part of that is going to be a responsibility to learn about the vaccine and the important safety protocols and follow them to the best of your ability.”

And he’s right, it is hard. Personal liberty is an easy answer and perhaps the only one that’s legally sound. The problem is that vaccines work better the more ubiquitous they are. The safety protocols of 2020 were barely enough to get baseball through a 60-game season — one that weighed heavily on the players and personnel and created arduous disruptions to their routines. If they’re going to play something closer to 162 next summer, the hope is that some of those restrictions can be relaxed in accordance with community immunization.

“The vaccination seems like it’s a huge part of this thing going forward” Mattingly said. “I would hate to think about doing 162 the way we did 60.”

But if a significant portion of the baseball world abstains from vaccinations, their development will be moot.

Martinez said he has family members who contracted COVID-19, and he wished a vaccine had been available to protect them. If his players don’t take the vaccine, their manager will do what it takes to feel safe next season.

“I’ll wear a mask,” he said.

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