While vaccinations to thwart COVID-19 are not mandatory for Major League players, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association told Sportico Thursday that he strongly advises everyone in his cohort to get their shots as they become readily available.
“We’re encouraging guys to consider it, yes, based on the backdrop of our advisors and it’s efficacy and safety,” union executive director Tony Clark said in an exclusive phone interview from his home in Phoenix. “But It’s not mandatory. That’s what our players wanted to make sure was front and center.”
To Clark’s knowledge, players have begun getting their shots in certain states based on the local health and safety protocols.
“My understanding is that some have,” he added. “And what we’ve seen now is that in certain areas access to the vaccines is being provided, and players are able to make determinations. Whether it’s here in Arizona… or it’s in one of those states where our players will be migrating to, the access to vaccines is increasing daily at this point, and guys will have those opportunities.”
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced Monday that vaccinations to all 16 years of age and above in the state would be readily available.
It could be a game-changer for the way baseball is played in its second season since the pandemic shuttered the sport for four months on March 12, 2020, leading to an abbreviated 60-game season sans fans in the stands. Opening day of what’s expected to be a full 162-game season is this Thursday.
Last year, the threat of a team being sidelined by coronavirus spread was constant, as 54 players tested positive, and 48 games were postponed. Three teams—the Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds—were shut down for protracted periods, while three others had a short hiatus.
Players being vaccinated could change all of that, as the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are supposed to have a 95% efficacy rate of warding off the disease, which has caused the deaths of nearly 550,000 in the U.S.
To that end, Arizona Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall swung into action, offering to facilitate vaccination appointments for all D-backs players—Major League and minor—as soon as they became available locally Wednesday.
In Arizona, at least, pro sports athletes no longer have to be concerned with the ethics of “jumping the line” ahead of older people, healthcare workers or those with serious medical problems.
“That’s over,” Hall said.
The D-backs will open the home season April 8 at 25% capacity of the 48,405-seat Chase Field. But another Ducey executive order Thursday lifted all restrictions on crowd size at public events in the state, while still encouraging “adequate safety precautions, including physical distancing to limit and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
Ducey cited the fact that 3 million vaccine doses have been administered to 2 million of the state’s population of 7.5 million, and that 1.85 million have already been fully vaccinated.
It gives the D-backs the ability to immediately increase capacity. All of their spring training games at Salt River Fields sold out in an hour, and the home opener against the Reds is already sold out.
Because of the relaxation of health safety protocols in their state, the Texas Rangers are the only MLB team opening the season at 100% capacity, at Globe Life Field in Arlington. That won’t happen soon in Arizona.
“There’s a real demand for tickets, but we’re going to take our time,” Hall said Thursday during a tour of the ballpark. “I can’t see us going to 100% right away.”
As in other local pro sports venues, fans must wear masks, seats are socially distanced, and all transactions for food, parking and souvenirs are cashless.
“We want our fans to feel very comfortable and very confident, especially on their first visit,” he said.
Unlike New York, D-backs fans will not need proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test result to be able to attend a game.
Hall, a prostate cancer survivor, said he’s already received his two shots and will recommend everyone in the front office get theirs. He said he thinks some of the D-backs players have already been vaccinated and others are awaiting the availability of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it’s just one shot.
“We [in baseball] need to get to 85%, and we’re at herd immunity,” Hall said.
It’s an area where baseball owners and union leadership seem to be on the same page as the sport returns. Almost as soon as the season begins, volatile collective bargaining discussions on a new Basic Agreement will be imminent.
“It can be a helpful tool,” Clark said about the vaccines. “The climate beyond the ballpark is going to be helpful as well. So, the decisions the players make, along with the decisions our communities and our country make are all part and parcel to all of us returning to a greater sense of normalcy. Normalcy in air quotes. Normalcy may be a little bit different now than what we recall.”