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Inside the Red Sox’ Push to Vaccinate Their Players

Boston was one of the least-vaccinated teams last season. Here’s how and why they are trying to change that.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Red Sox team meetings this spring will run through the standard issues: punctuality, hustle, attention to detail. They will cover logistics. And at least one will include another element: COVID-19 vaccine education.

Canadian law prohibits unvaccinated people from crossing the border. The Red Sox are scheduled to play the Blue Jays in Toronto 10 times this season, beginning with a four-game set in late April, and they could meet in the playoffs. Toronto looks like one of the most loaded clubs in the league; its opponents cannot afford to play at partial strength. For Boston, a team that was among the league’s least-vaccinated last season, the regulations could pose a real problem.

Team president Sam Kennedy said vaccination status would factor into acquisition decisions. “It has to, right?” he said. “You want guys who are available.”

Oct 5, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts (2) reacts after hitting a two run home run against the New York Yankees during the first inning of the American League Wildcard game at Fenway Park.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts was unvaccinated when he tested positive for COVID-19 last season. He has since gotten the vaccine.

The Red Sox know that as well as anyone. They were one of six teams that did not surpass the league’s 85% vaccination threshold. Teams that exceeded that percentage, in addition to being better protected against infection, had some rules relaxed, such as the mask requirement. They also stood to lose fewer players to contact-tracing protocols—an issue that could have derailed Boston’s season in August and September, when 12 players, including three All-Stars, and two staffers tested positive for COVID-19. Another player and staffer had to quarantine because they were unvaccinated close contacts. The Red Sox at times struggled to field a team as they went 8–8 and dropped 3 ½ games in the standings.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that vaccines are safe and effective. Kennedy said he was sensitive to family and cultural concerns but would continue to try to educate players on that point, and he hoped they would have fewer unvaccinated personnel this year. Indeed they might: Three players said they had gotten or intended to get their shots before the first Toronto series.

All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who was not vaccinated when he became the sixth player to test positive during the outbreak, said Tuesday that he has received the vaccine. He smiled and claimed not to remember when he got it but said he had done so before he learned of the Canadian policy. He declined to explain what had made him hesitant or what had changed his mind. “I had my reasons,” he said.

He said he planned to address his teammates and encourage them to make the same choice, to help the team. “Go get it,” he said he would say. “It’s either you get it or you don’t. It’s either you want it or you don’t.”

Bogaerts will not have to persuade catcher Kevin Plawecki, who said Tuesday that he would receive the vaccine this spring because of the law. “At the end of the day, I want to be here for the guys,” he said. “Those 10 games mean a lot. I want to be there for them. It just sucks. … I have to do something that I don’t want to do.” He said he had avoided getting the vaccine to this point because he felt he was not at risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes. “I’m not anti-vax,” he said.

Plawecki “somehow slithered through” the outbreak last year, he said. “They never got me,” he said. “[Fourteen] guys went down—it’s pretty easy to take down a guy who’s not vaxed. I was shocked I made it.”

Infielder Christian Arroyo was not vaccinated when he joined the outbreak. He said he had always planned to receive the vaccine, but “it just so happened I ended up getting [the virus] before [the shot].” He added that he “felt like crap” when he was sick. He said he got vaccinated in December. “It was the right time to protect myself, protect my family,” he said.

Unvaccinated players will have to weigh their reservations against playing time, health—and in some cases, another factor: The new collective-bargaining agreement states that teams do not have to award players pay or service time for games they miss because of vaccination policies.

“That was a huge emphasis for me,” said righty Nick Pivetta, the team union representative, who is vaccinated but who fought against the inclusion of that provision on behalf of some of his teammates. He ultimately voted for the CBA but said he had concerns about the policy. “I think every individual should be able to have the freedom of their choice of whether they want to be unvaccinated or vaccinated,” he said. “I don't think they should be punished for that in any sort of way.”

He said he could not disclose anyone else’s vaccination status but was not aware of any unvaccinated players who are within a few days of a year of service time and would stand to have their free agency delayed if they miss games in Toronto. Still, he added, “It’s definitely an issue.”

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Maybe not as big an issue as the Red Sox feared, though. “We added three now,” said manager Alex Cora. “So it doesn’t look as bad as people were making it seem five days ago.”

The Canadian government requires players to be fully vaccinated, meaning they are two weeks past their final dose, so anyone who intends to play in that first series must have his second shot (or his only shot of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine) by April 11. If he chooses Moderna, he must have his first shot by March 28; if he chooses Pfizer, March 21.

Bogaerts said he is optimistic that many of the remaining players will come around. “We got some people on board last year that weren’t on board at the beginning,” he said. “So it’s not like it’s not possible.” He would know.

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