A few days after going to a grocery store over the winter, Milwaukee Brewers reliever Brent Suter woke up feeling off. As the day went on, he grew tired and achy, and his back stiffened. He tested positive for the coronavirus the next day, and so did his wife soon after. Suter, 31, said his lungs were inflamed, and he lost his sense of smell and taste for two weeks. He paused his off-season throwing.
“I’ve been sicker in my life, but I’ve never been that out of it that long,” Suter said in a video news conference last week. He added later, “Not a fun 10 days.”
With that experience in mind, and after consulting with team and independent doctors, Suter said the decision to stick out his right shoulder — his nonthrowing arm, to be sure — for a Covid-19 vaccine was easy. Wearing masks and practicing social distancing are to curb the virus, he said, “but now we can beat this thing.”
Vaccination rollouts are in full swing, and the Biden administration has directed state, local and tribal governments to make all adults eligible for Covid-19 vaccines by next Monday. But not everyone is eager to be vaccinated, including baseball players, despite additional incentives offered by their own union and the league.
“I know a lot of the guys really aren’t getting the itch to really go out and mingle or outdoor dining or go to bars or restaurants and have that kind of normal lifestyle,” Mets third baseman J.D. Davis said, somewhat surprisingly the day after the season began. “We are so focused on baseball right now.”
When asked whether he would get a vaccine, Davis said he hadn’t thought much about it. But he called whatever decision he made a personal choice. The hesitancy of several Mets teammates prompted team officials to schedule additional educational sessions with doctors last week ahead of offering the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Thursday.
“We want to get as many players vaccinated as possible,” said Sandy Alderson, the team president. “And that’s in the best interests of the team, it’s in the best interests of their families, it’s in the best interests of those who work with the players. So I hope that in addition to their own personal medical considerations that they take all of those things into consideration.”
Much like in the N.B.A., M.L.B. and the players’ union recently dangled a carrot in front of teams, players and key staff. On March 29, they sent them a three-page memorandum detailing how the strict health and safety protocols would be loosened for individuals who are vaccinated and for teams that reach an 85 percent vaccination threshold.
Among the many rewards for individuals who are fully vaccinated (two weeks after the last dose): Vaccinated people can gather on team planes, trains or buses again (read: card games are back); indoor gatherings without masks or distancing with other vaccinated people is permitted outside of team facilities; virus testing can be reduced from every other day to twice a week; vaccinated family or household members can stay at the team hotel on the road.
Among the many benefits for a team reaching the vaccination mark: Masks are no longer required in the dugout or the bullpen; mandated contact tracing sensors can be tossed aside; eating indoors at restaurants is allowed; nonvaccinated family or household members and vaccinated nonfamily can stay with players and staff at the team hotel; shared clubhouse activities (such as pool tables and video games) can return.
(Even fans are being given incentives: The Cincinnati Reds are offering $10 tickets to select games in April and May for people who show proof of at least one dose.)
While this doesn’t add up to a full return to pre-pandemic life, it would be much closer to it than what players and key staff have experienced since the 2020 season began.
“I’m ready to get back to normal,” pitcher Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals told reporters as his team was dealing with a virus outbreak that broke a streak of six weeks of largely virus-free baseball for major league teams.
And when the Nationals’ regular season began five days later than expected, they were without nine players who had either tested positive for the virus or been in close contact with infected teammates. Last year, larger outbreaks on the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals nearly derailed an already shortened regular season.
“We’re very mindful of the way that we get back to normal, the way we keep our players healthy, the way we keep our community healthy is to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” David Stearns, the Brewers’ president of baseball operations, said last week.
He added later: “This benefits the game. The more players and people within our universe we can get vaccinated, the more assurances that we have that our games are going to go off without a hitch for the entirety of the season, and the faster we get back to full houses at American Family Field.”
So far, the Los Angeles Angels and the Cardinals are among the few teams to say they have reached the 85 percent threshold. Before they opened the season, against the Reds, the Cardinals received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Cincinnati.
Scherzer, who sits on a high-ranking union committee, couldn’t wait for his turn. “I tend to follow the science,” he told reporters.
Other teams were optimistic they would reach the magic number. The Houston Astros, for example, made a pit stop in Texas after leaving spring training in Florida and before starting the regular season at Oakland to be vaccinated.
“I’m confident we’re going to be well past that 85 percent,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. Boone, who was vaccinated during spring training, said players and members of their traveling party were offered their turn at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, which coincided with a day off on Thursday in case of reactions.
(A few players in the league have missed time after their shots. Yankees third baseman Gio Urshela, for example, missed Friday’s game.)
Some teams were unsure if they would reach the threshold. Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said some teammates were eager to get a vaccine while others were in wait-and-see mode.
“That’s probably how it’s going to be for the next couple months,” he said. “It’s such a tough situation, just because each guy has their own opinion on it and it’s something that’s obviously been such a polarizing topic not only in our game but in our nation.”
Chicago Cubs Manager David Ross told reporters the team had continued talking to players about the vaccines. While their vaccination percentage has crept up, it hasn’t reached the target. Kaycee Sogard, the wife of Cubs infielder Eric Sogard, took to social media recently to criticize the incentives as pressuring players unwilling to get a vaccine.
While the league has worked to get players vaccinated, it has not mandated that they do so. It was “very important” to players that they be given the option to make their own choice for themselves and their families, Tony Clark, the union’s executive director, said in a phone interview. But he and the union, like the league and its teams, are encouraging players to get the shots.
Various factors might explain the players’ hesitancy. The majority of them are white, and they tend to skew conservative in their politics. According to the Pew Research Center, demographic groups like Republicans, Black Americans and white evangelicals were among those least likely to say they would get a vaccine.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, said in a phone interview that the willingness to receive a vaccine improved within the school’s medical center — and misinformation surrounding it was abated — when its outreach targeted specific demographic groups’ concerns. Discussions about a vaccine, he said, should be honest and free of judgment, and emphasize responsibility.
“This is clearly an individual choice,” he said. “There are no mandates, but we hope that everybody makes the best choice. Vaccines protect individuals, but they also protect groups. These are communicable, contagious infections. And recognizing that these vaccines, at their best, are 95 percent effective, you want everybody on the team and everybody associated closely with the team to be protected.”
On the Brewers, Stearns declined to say what percentage of the team had been vaccinated, but he said “a good chunk” had. What helped achieve that? Suter said it was conversations in the clubhouse about any mistrust or concerns surrounding the vaccines and a meeting in which a team doctor answered anonymous questions. Mark Niedfeldt, a Brewers doctor, commended outfielder Christian Yelich and Suter for encouraging their teammates.
And when the Brewers joined Milwaukee officials in a public service campaign meant to highlight the efficacy and safety of the vaccines, players such as pitcher Freddy Peralta, infielder Keston Hiura, Suter and Yelich received the Johnson & Johnson shot on camera and talked about its importance.
“It’s a way of showing I care about you,” Suter said in the video. Yelich said, “I’m looking forward to getting back to normal life.”