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Unvaccinated Royals Lay Bare Their Lack of Commitment

Ten Kansas City players will miss a series in Toronto due to their unwillingness to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Their ignorance is hurting themselves and their team.

Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning during the regular season you’ll get a fresh, topical story to start your day from one of’s MLB writers.

Canada’s vaccine mandate saves lives. It promotes good public health. It also helps baseball fans figure out which players can be bothered to care about winning.

Canada, as does the United States, requires all noncitizen travelers to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter the country. That means anyone whose team is scheduled to play a road game against the Toronto Blue Jays has a chance to demonstrate his priorities.

Sometimes players tell you with their actions, as when unvaccinated Red Sox closer Tanner Houck watched from afar as his team coughed up late-inning losses in four games in Toronto. And sometimes they tell you with their words. Royals second baseman and outfielder Whit Merrifield, whom Kansas City announced on Wednesday is one of 10 players—that’s nearly 40% of the roster—who will be ineligible for this weekend’s series in Toronto, told reporters, “The only reason that I would think about getting [the vaccine] at this point is to go to Canada. That might change down the road. Something happens and I happen to get on a team that has a chance to go play in Canada in the postseason, maybe that changes. But as we sit here right now, I’m comfortable with my decision.”

Did you catch that? If Merrifield played for a good team, he would care about his teammates. But he doesn’t, so he’ll take four days off.

Actually, it will be eight days off, because the Blue Jays series is the last one before the All-Star break, and Merrifield has not been selected to the American League All-Star team.

That makes sense: He is not a winning player. None of these scientists in baseball pants are. (This is a uniquely American breed of stupidity: Foreign-born players had to contend with U.S. entry requirements to play the season, so almost all of them are vaccinated.) Professional athletes have more resources than nearly anyone on earth, yet some of them cannot muster the energy to do enough research to come to the conclusion that every expert has: Vaccines are safe and effective. They give us our best shot at tamping down a pandemic that has already killed a million Americans and reshaped the lives of millions more. And players who refuse to get those vaccines—in addition to contributing to the extension of that pandemic—run the risk of fracturing their clubhouses and extinguishing their teams' playoff hopes.

Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield (15) turns to make a throw to first base during the sixth inning against the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium.

The best squads in baseball have figured this out. The Yankees (who are 61–26) are fully vaccinated. The Astros (57–29) are fully vaccinated. The Dodgers (56–30) are not scheduled to play in Toronto during the regular season this year, so we do not know the vaccine status of specific players, but they hit the 85% vaccinated threshold MLB imposed for reduced COVID restrictions last season. Catcher Kevin Plawecki of the Red Sox (47–41) told SI this spring that he would get vaccinated so he could be present for his team’s playoff push; center fielder Jarren Duran told reporters this month that he would do the same.

“I think if our team was in a different part of the standings, I think it would be different,” Royals (35–53) president of baseball operations Dayton Moore told SI on Wednesday night. He added, “It’s disappointing.”

The 10 ineligible players barred from playing against the Blue Jays shattered the previous record, set by the Phillies with four. Moore contended that the number is not quite as disproportionate as it seems, because the Royals did not manipulate it by optioning players or sending them to the injured list, as he said some other teams have. “That would have been the easy thing to do,” he said.

Still, it could have been worse—Moore said multiple Royals have received vaccines since spring training. He declined to specify how many or when, but he said that team officials have spent two seasons encouraging players to get vaccinated. They have made doctors available at all hours to answer questions and have sent staff from the University of Kansas Health System to vaccinate players and their families at their homes.

“It's the players’ choice,” he said. “It became at times—I wouldn't say combative, but you get to a point in time where you're not making much progress with it. … It's been more challenging to convince players to become vaccinated over the last three to four months than it was the first three to four months when the vaccine first came out.”

So he is left with 10 players who would rather watch their team lose on TV than try to help it win. And indeed, he might be stuck with them—it’s hard to imagine a contender, which might meet the Blue Jays in the postseason, will target a player who would be ineligible for those games. Red Sox team president Sam Kennedy told SI during spring training that vaccination status would affect acquisitions.

“It has to, right?” he said. “You want guys who are available.”

You also want guys who want to win games. 

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