PORT CHARLOTTE — Well, this could get awkward.
Conversations and discussions in the Rays’ clubhouse and others around the majors are about to get interesting, and possibly inflammatory, with formal introduction of a serious subject.
One with the potential to significantly improve everyone’s working conditions. But also that can and likely will broach typically off-limit matters such as personal medical issues and philosophical and religious beliefs. And potentially cause divisiveness within their ranks.
Whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Everybody’s going to … bring their own experiences to whatever the issue is at hand. A lot of these guys, some guys have family stuff going on and probably have been having this conversation for over a year,” said Rays reliever Collin McHugh, who got his shot and plans to “encourage” others to.
“So I don’t want to assume that everybody’s uninformed, or that they don’t have a valid reason for not wanting to take it if that’s the case. But I’m just going to continue to reiterate that if we want things to go back to normal as quickly as possible in the baseball world … we do have to have some sort of herd immunity. For me, it seems the simplest way to do that is with this vaccine. But we’ll see if we end up getting there.”
Though no mandates have been, or likely could be, issued, baseball officials have “strongly encouraged” players and staff to get the shot when eligible and some teams have made arrangements to facilitate. (Some Rays personnel have gotten shots based on age and other eligibility exceptions, but there has been no team-led program, though that could change starting Monday with Florida dropping the eligibility age minimum to 16.)
And now there is an incentive plan to convince them to roll up their jersey sleeves.
Major League Baseball and the players union on Monday announced a plan, similar to what the NBA recently put in place, that would ease some protocols and restrictions for individuals who are fully vaccinated, including reducing COVID-19 testing, having family stay with them on the road and being allowed to attend worship services.
There are significantly more incentives for teams that have 85 percent of their 65-70 Tier 1 members (players, coaches, staff in close contact) fully vaccinated.
Per the memo, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, members of teams that meet the 85 percent threshold can eat in restaurants (indoor and outdoor), discontinue mask-wearing in the dugout, have guests in their hotel rooms, have other travel restrictions lifted and resume shared clubhouse activities, such as playing video games.
Some players are already looking forward to that day, though realistically it is more than a month off, given the lag time between shots in the two-dose versions and the two-week waiting period following the second shot before someone is considered fully vaccinated.
“I think it will be huge just to relax your mind, just to be able not to think about extra stuff, just come to the field, enjoy the game, enjoy practice, enjoy everything,” said Rays shortstop Willy Adames, who said he also had received his first dose.
“Just to be able to hang out more with the teammates and spend more time with them joking around or doing whatever, I think that’s a huge part. I’m really happy that they (said) that, and hopefully we can open up for real and just get back to normal.”
Manager Kevin Cash said he respects other “strong opinions” and is aware there can be special situations but would like to see the Rays reach the threshold.
“I think it would mean a lot,” Cash said. “Granted, everybody has their decisions to make. I personally would be a fan of it. We’ll see how it shakes out. Players do their homework and get the information. But if a team or the league gets to 85 percent, I think we could all agree we’re going to be going back to a lifestyle and style of baseball that we’ve cherished for a really long time.”
Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said he sees multiple benefits to getting vaccinated, from reducing the chance he or others around him could get infected to limiting the chance of the season being interrupted due to an outbreak.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes,” he said. “And if a vaccine is the best way to go and that’s what’s recommended, whether that’s right or wrong as well, I’m all for it.”
Infielder Joey Wendle and catcher Mike Zunino said they think a majority of the Rays players will get it. But will that be enough to reach the threshold, or could it create an uncomfortable situation of hold-out players being pressured?
Zunino said momentum may grow as uncertain players see how things go after teammates get vaccinated, which could be a factor, especially if they’re within a couple players of reaching the minimum.
“The more people you see get it, not so much in a peer-pressure stance, but just that whatever speculation could be around it sort of eases when more people you know get it,” he said. “When you see guys in the clubhouse start to get it, it will sort of educate some guys.”
A small sampling of Rays produced some different takes on the vaccine, from Brandon Lowe’s ambivalence to Adames’ glee in looking forward to getting his second shot “to be freeeeee.” None have been as publicly opposed as Twins shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who tweeted Friday, “for personal reasons and past experience I will not be taking it or advocating for it.”
Because league officials are pushing for teams to meet the threshold, the decisions are everybody on the team’s business to a certain extent. Wendle said it is still very much a personal choice.
“I would never tell anybody that they should do one way or the other,” he said. “I think if you feel like you should get it, then you should get it. And if not, then that’s your personal decision to not do that. … And me, personally, I will respect whatever anybody decides to do.”
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