The Phillies’ anti-vaccine issue is much more than a personal choice. It’s a cultural phenomenon that starts at the very top, and doesn’t end with No. 1 pitcher Aaron Nola. Two sources connected to Phillies ownership and management have said in the past weeks that about half of the 26 players on the current roster have refused the vaccine, a number confirmed by team and league sources Sunday.
This vaccine resistance has left the ownership group and the management team terrified and exasperated. The playoffs are within reach, but a COVID-19 shutdown hovers over the season like the sword of Damocles.
As the Delta variant pushes a nationwide surge in new cases, largely among the unvaccinated, a large portion of the clubhouse has ignored pleas from the team to accept protection. The Phillies even gave away free tickets, refreshments, and a promotional item to any fan who accepted a free vaccine at a series against the Braves in early June.
An Aaron Nola bobblehead doll.
Walking on eggshells
Since three devastating, late-game divisional losses between June 23 and 26, the Phillies are 12-6, have won five of their last six games, and sit in second place behind the disintegrating Mets.
Yet, disaster looms.
It could come in the form of a COVID outbreak like the one the Yankees are experiencing. It also could come in the form of a contact-tracing shutdown such as the Phillies just endured after Alec Bohm tested positive, after which three other players went into quarantine, including Nola, who missed starts last Sunday and, likely, this past weekend.
Nola, who will pitch Tuesday, acknowledged his unvaccinated status and called it a “personal choice.” It is a personal choice that cost his employer two of his 34 starts this season, for which he is being paid $11.7 million. Further, as the Phillies continue their unlikely surge into the National League East title race, Nola and his fellow anti-vaxxers live each day with the possibility that they might not be available for upcoming games — usually at least five but possibly as many as nine or 10, depending on the schedule.
Nola, an All-Star in 2018, entered the season as the Phillies’ No. 1 pitcher and the leader of the pitching staff. Our sources say that ownership and management are distraught that the clubhouse has shown such meager leadership.
If this guy won’t get the shot, then why should I?
The Phillies haven’t made the playoffs in a decade. Their $184 million payroll is the fifth-highest in baseball and they appear ready to add talent as the trade deadline approaches July 30.
A COVID crisis could ruin it all. In fact, a COVID crisis could have sabotaged the team just last week.
Bohm, the starting third baseman, tested positive for COVID on July 10. The earliest he can return is Wednesday at the Yankees. Team sources say Bohm was not vaccinated.
Neither were Nola or relievers Connor Brogdon and Bailey Falter. This became known when they were placed on the COVID list, since only unvaccinated teammates who were close contacts are subject to COVID sequestering, as reported in The Inquirer last week. The protocols took effect July 11, the day before the All-Star break, which minimized the number of games they all missed. The Phillies won three of four games since Bohm tested positive.
The beleaguered Phillies bullpen cobbled together a win in Nola’s absence last Sunday. Back-end starters Matt Moore and Vince Velasquez pitched well enough to cover what would have been a Nola start Friday or Saturday. The Phillies won all three of those games, then won again Sunday. They went 4-1 during their COVID crisis.
They might not be as fortunate the next time. And, with such a high percentage of players performing without protections, a “next time” seems inevitable.
Major League Baseball and other sports, including the Olympic Games, have so far declined to mandate vaccinations to avoid conflict with unions and to maximize every athlete’s availability. If athletes refuse the vaccine, the last thing a team wants to do is bench a player for not being vaccinated. After all, the entire point of getting players vaccinated is to keep them on the field.
Some of the resistance is rooted in the players’ unsupported belief that getting the vaccine might keep them off the field.
Phillies reliever Brandon Kintzler last month blamed his vaccination for making him so fatigued that he strained his neck in his third appearance of the season, which eventually sidelined him for three weeks with a back problem. Then again, Kintzler chose to pitch while fatigued ... and Kintzler also is 36, an age at which necks and backs often cause players pain, independent of their inoculation history.
These latest numbers explain why Phillies manager Joe Girardi has been so pessimistic that his team will ever reach the 85% vaccination rate among the traveling party that would ease MLB’s COVID restrictions. Six other teams remain below the threshold (the Yankees are not among them).
Vaccine resistance is not unique to baseball. Unvaccinated stars in other sports have risked forfeiting their success. Two of professional golf’s reigning major champions, Jon Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama, contracted COVID and missed tournaments in the past five weeks; neither said he was fully vaccinated. The Yankees lost six players to positive COVID tests last week, including slugger Aaron Judge. At least one of them was unvaccinated. Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 17-year-old tennis star Coco Gauff, both COVID-positive, will both miss the Tokyo Olympics, which begin next week. Neither has said if they were vaccinated.
Perhaps they were all worried that the vaccine would somehow weaken them, but this concern seems absurd compared with the actual concern a COVID infection can bring, including long-term heart, lung, and brain damage.
It seems incredible that well-educated athletes who depend on real science to develop their bodies depend on anecdotes, pseudoscience, and misinformation in deciding to put themselves and their peers at risk of a deadly disease that still ravages the globe and has killed more than 4 million people worldwide.
From dietitians to personal trainers to sleep monitors and blood tests, elite athletes use all sorts of science to help them perform.
The trouble is, as the men who scout the talent and write the checks fear, nobody performs at all when they’re on a COVID list.