Canada’s vaccine requirement and ‘personal decisions’ are altering the MLB landscape

For 99 days this winter, the owners of Major League Baseball held the sport hostage as they haggled with the Major League Baseball Players Association over the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement. The lockout spanned months and numbed brains. The two sides argued over luxury tax penalties, over revenue sharing, over an international draft, over all the rules that govern the sport.

As it turns out, the most pivotal rule for the 2022 season had already been written.

You can find it on the official website for the government of Canada. It reads, in part:

“To qualify as a fully vaccinated traveler to Canada, you must have received at least 2 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine accepted for travel, a mix of 2 accepted vaccines, or at least 1 dose of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine. . .”

Neither the trade deadline approaches, nor the playoff races narrow into a sprint, no line in the CBA has proven more influential than Canada’s vaccine requirement. (The United States has a similar policy.) The ruling has affected outcomes on the field and shifted the landscape of the trade market. That reality resurfaced this week, after a depleted Phillies squad straggled into Rogers Center without four players and the Royals announced they would soon set an ignominious record with 10 players placed on the restricted list ahead of a trip to Toronto.

If the 60-game campaign in 2020 was defined by the risks baseball players were willing to take in order to conduct a season, then 2022 may well be defined by the stubbornness of some in refusing to protect against still-prevalent risks. Hospitalization rates for COVID-19 have risen this summer as a new variant sweeps North America. Team officials in Kansas City and elsewhere have spent months counseling players on the benefits of vaccination. The recalcitrance of certain individuals only enters the public eye when their team visits the Blue Jays.

“I’m not going to let Canada tell me what I do and don’t put in my body for a little bit of money,” Phillies catcher JT Realmuto said on Monday. To make his stand against the Great White North, Realmuto forfeited $260,000. He planned to host his fellow unvaccinated teammates for workouts in Miami. Playing without Realmuto and third baseman Alec Bohm, the Phillies struck out 14 times on Tuesday and lost ground in the National League wild-card chase.

Left short-handed, Philadelphia met a fate similar to those experienced by Boston and Tampa Bay earlier in the season. The Royals are not contending for much of anything in 2022. But the pace of their rebuilding effort has been altered by the mandate. Because the double-digit contingent of players on the restricted list includes Kansas City’s most appealing trade asset, outfielder Andrew Benintendi.

“For me,” Benintendi told reporters, “it was a personal decision.”

But, as with all vaccine-related issues, the decisions of the few have ramifications for the many. The most pressing problem is the continued death and disruption caused by the pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on the American medical system and flattened the economy. But this is a sports website, and you came here to read about baseball, so we can focus, in this limited instance, on how Benintendi’s status hampers his trade value. There are a variety of contenders who could use a player of his caliber. That interest would be reduced if Benintendi is unavailable for road games in Toronto, let alone a potential playoff series. And the Blue Jays, of course, are precluded from acquiring unvaccinated players — unless they only want them to play road games in America. (You can ask the Brooklyn Nets how that works out.)

So Kansas City will approach the Aug. 2 trade deadline with a damper put on its assets. Benintendi might fetch less. Same with any potential return for fellow outfielder Michael A. Taylor. Whit Merrifield, who has posted a .635 OPS this season, volunteered that he would consider getting vaccinated if he got traded to a playoff team. So there is that.

There is also the public embarrassment of losing nearly half a roster because players prized “a personal decision” over the collective goal of winning baseball games. Even if it is only for a handful of days, the stink will linger. Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Royals president of baseball operations Dayton Moore emphasized the two years of effort from his organization’s medical department, front office and coaching staff to “educate everybody in our organization” and provide “the proper amount of space and grace along the way to make very informed decisions.”

“But at the end of the day, it’s their choice,” Moore said. “It’s what they decide to do.”

The teams cannot force players to receive the vaccine. They can only try to convince them. During spring training, questions hovered around the Mets and Yankees because of the city of New York’s vaccine mandate for workers. Mayor Eric Adams announced an exemption in March to allow unvaccinated athletes and performers to work. The Yankees traveled to Toronto in early May without incident, nor did the Astros several days prior.

Perhaps it is just a coincidence that the Yankees and Astros hover well above the pack in the American League. Getting vaccinated does not make you a better ballplayer. But it does demonstrate a commitment to a shared purpose, the sort of step that teams with championship aspirations ask players to take. At a time when clubs circle trips to Toronto with trepidation, the Astros and Yankees will not have to worry about that nonsense.

Not every American League contender can say the same. Robbie Ray, who signed a five-year, $115 million contract with Seattle over the winter, did not make the trip to Toronto in May. A month later, the Twins visited without outfielder Max Kepler and three other relievers. The White Sox did not bring pitchers Dylan Cease and Kendall Graveman.

Few teams have confronted the Canadian law more directly than Boston. The Red Sox spent a series there last month without closer Tanner Houck and outfielder Jarren Duran. Those absences were acute. After the bullpen blew a lead against the Blue Jays, manager Alex Cora indicated the team would continue to lobby players to get the shot.

When the Red Sox return to Toronto in September, Cora said, “it’s going to be different.” And he did not mean the law would change. The minds of the players might. Duran has since indicated that he will get vaccinated in time to make that trip. Houck was less committed. Same story with Chris Sale. When asked about his status after a rehab outing in June, Sale suggested the inquiry was a downer. “I just had a lot of fun,” Sale said. “Let’s not ruin that, all right?”

Fair enough. Boston has some time to change some minds. But not that much time. The vaccine mandate has affected the standings. It might affect the trade market. Canada may not get to decide what certain players will or will not put into their bodies. But it may alter who does and does not make the playoffs.

(Top photo of Whit Merrifield and Andrew Benintendi: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports)

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