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MLB must get more players vaccinated or the playoffs will come down to Covid, not the game

Baseball isn't alone among pro sports leagues in feeling the effects of re-opening and a too-low vaccination rate. But that doesn't make it right.
Image: Eduardo Rodriguez, Boston Red Sox Opening Day Workout
Eduardo Rodriguez, #57 of the Boston Red Sox, wears a mask during a team workout ahead of the 2021 Opening Day game at Fenway Park in Boston, on March 31, 2021.Billie Weiss / Boston Red Sox/Getty Images file

Just two weeks into the Major League Baseball season, the teams leading the way include the New York Yankees, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros — but that has nothing to do with win-loss records.

According to MLB, those are the lone teams whose players have been mostly vaccinated against Covid-19.

And in 2021, that’s a problem.

In 2020, the return of sports buoyed many Americans who had become increasingly anxious as the death toll from Covid-19 rose by the day. Restarting professional sports provided a much-needed salve during those difficult times (in addition to providing much-needed income to franchises).

And so, months before a vaccine became available to anybody, athletes in the NBA, MLB, NFL, Major League Soccer, the National Women's Soccer League and NHL performed in “bubbles,” subjecting themselves to daily testing and contact tracing and isolating themselves from their families and fans. Their games were played in mostly empty arenas and stadiums, champions were crowned in front of little more than cameras — and the rest of us felt a bit more hopeful about our own futures even as players risked theirs to play for us.

At this point, it feels like it’s only through sheer luck that more athletes are not catching Covid-19.

But those bubbles are gone in 2021. When athletes are not on chartered flights and team buses, they’re interacting with people in public venues and going home to their families after games.

Therefore, a team’s number of Covid-19 cases has now become a new, glaring statistic in baseball and every other sport — largely because the leagues, rather than strongly urging all athletes to be vaccinated before play began or demanding they be allowed to, have been playing Russian roulette with athletes’ health.

For instance, a Covid-19 outbreak among the Washington Nationals caused a season-opening, three-game series against the New York Mets scheduled for April 1-4 to be postponed.

Four Washington players tested positive, and seven other players plus two staff members had to be quarantined because of possible exposure to the virus. When the four players were finally declared free of Covid-19, most of the Nats were vaccinated at a St. Louis hotel before Monday’s game against the Cardinals — though some still reportedly opted out.

Nevertheless, it has been a veritable picnic for the Nats compared to the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks, who had to postpone eight games between March 31 and April 14 because of a Covid-19 outbreak.

The sheer number of Covid-19 outbreaks in sports is proof positive that athletes are as vulnerable to the virus as the rest of us.

The Canucks are scheduled to play their next game Friday. But with the NHL season scheduled to end in mid-May, Vancouver may not be able to make up all its postponed games to reach the playoffs.

That could put them in the same boat as Virginia Commonwealth University, whose men’s basketball team qualified for the NCAA March Madness tournament only to forfeit its first-round game because too many of its players caught Covid-19.

At this point, it feels like it’s only through sheer luck that more athletes are not catching Covid-19 — let alone transmitting it to teammates and loved ones.

Athletes have been providing us with entertainment and a semblance of normalcy during a pandemic that has now lasted more than a year and killed nearly 3 million people worldwide — and more than half a million in the United States alone. But the leagues that control their schedules and the conditions under which they play have yet to truly make the vaccination of athletes a priority. This is inexcusable.

Sports leagues should be making sure that athletes who perform during a pandemic are as safe as possible. Yet, from the sheer volume of players testing positive, that hardly seems to be the case.

Those bubbles in which athletes lived and worked in 2020 are gone in 2021.

Just take the Nats: Until Monday, they trailed the other 29 teams in MLB in its vaccination rate, despite the league’s much-hyped inventive program for teams to get to 85 percent of “tier 1 players and staff” fully vaccinated. (They get to use the saunas again is they get to that herd immunity level and play cards on team buses, among other things.)

Don’t blame the Nats for the outbreak, though. Better to blame MLB (and every other league) for being negligent about protecting its most valuable assets — the athletes. After all, only one team — the Chicago Cubs — made it through spring training without a case of Covid-19. And two weeks into the season, only four teams are at the league-established herd immunity threshold of 85 percent of people vaccinated, even with the league’s three-week-old incentive program.

And now, with nearly everyone in America eligible for a vaccine, could anyone really complain about athletes “jumping the line” to get vaccinated? Especially when they’re generating so much money for so many by putting their lives, their livelihoods and their families’ lives at risk?

The league should have assigned health care workers to vaccinate every player and staff member on every team during spring training, especially once it became clear that Covid-19 was making a comeback. And those workers should have been prepared to deliver their most persuasive, fact-based appeals to every athlete and staffer who did not want the vaccine.

Sports leagues should be making sure that athletes who perform during a pandemic are as safe as possible.

You’re not doing it just for yourself, any skeptical athlete should have been told. You’re doing it to protect your family and your teammates. And they should have been given more information about the long-term effects of a Covid-19 infection — including those reportedly suffered by 23-year-old Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum — not just the short-term side effects of the vaccines

And sports leagues, players associations and health care experts should have already developed a strategy to help educate the broader public that getting vaccinated against Covid-19 is the right thing to do. That perhaps could have helped reduced vaccine hesitancy among Republican men, many of whom are also sports fans.

Perhaps if more sports stars were shown on video getting the jab, like Dolly Parton did, it would drive home the message that the vaccine can save lives.

Athletes, after all, have enormous influence. League officials are usually more cognizant of that — and they should be more appreciative of what athletes did for us all in 2020.

The sheer number of Covid-19 outbreaks in sports is proof positive that athletes are as vulnerable to the virus as the rest of us. Leagues should provide athletes with real protection from it instead of merely hoping that nobody gets Covid-19 today, this week or next week.

A league could unwittingly compromise the integrity of its season by not vaccinating all its athletes now. Nobody needs to see a team lose a playoff berth — let alone a playoff game — because of a lack of healthy bodies. The championship team, after all, should be the one that performs best in competition — not merely the one least affected by Covid-19.