Yesterday afternoon, Kalyn Kahler of Defector dropped a fascinating report, published under layers of anonymity, about a Major League Baseball player, labeled “a possible future Hall of Famer”, who took an aggressive approach to making sure his teammates were vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, going so far as to offer payments to vaccine-hesitant teammates in order for the team to clear the 85% threshold required for relaxed restrictions on COVID-19 protocols. And while the comments section of Defector, as was the case with its spiritual predecessor Deadspin, can be the source of some utterly moronic takes, it is also populated with intrepid sleuths, who used context clues from throughout the post. And the overwhelming consensus is that this story had to have come from the St. Louis Cardinals.
Kahler notes in the piece about tracking down players while covering an unrelated sporting event in their hometown–she had covered Olympic trials in St. Louis within a time frame consistent with what is covered in the article. Kahler referenced the team coming to her hometown; she is based out of Chicago, a city with which the Cardinals are obviously quite familiar. Probably most obviously, an unnamed pitcher referenced being quarantined in a hotel for six days in August 2020 (which the Cardinals were) as a major factor in his decision to get vaccinated.
I don’t want to speculate any further on which specific player was behind the vaccine payola, though the obvious candidates for a player with at least some modicum of Hall of Fame candidacy approaching are Nolan Arenado (though he arguably doesn’t quite fit the age threshold of the grizzled veteran implied in the writing, and his lack of team seniority, which not disqualifying, does make it a tad harder to envision), Paul Goldschmidt, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright (while some have noted the use of the phrase “has been around the bases a few times” seemingly implies a position player, I don’t buy that whatsover and think it’s just a turn of phrase about being around the block a few times). Molina is probably going to the Hall of Fame; Wainwright, excellent late-career renaissance notwithstanding, probably is not; Arenado and Goldschmidt may find themselves in discussions some day but almost certainly are not Cooperstown inevitables yet. But let me say, unflinchingly and without reservation, that the veteran subject of this article, listed as Player X, should be in the Hall of Fame.
On playing merits, possibly, but as a representative of a higher cause, definitely. Cooperstown is an institution which has excluded “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and to a lesser extent Eddie Cicotte, on the grounds that they sullied the sport by not being sufficiently competitive and throwing the 1919 World Series. This is the opposite–a player willing to sacrifice his paycheck for a noble purpose. He was a player willing to do something that millions have called upon governments to do this year–offer financial reward for taking an action that, yes, people should be willing to do for free, but which will in the long term more than pay for itself both financially (the economy cratered due to our collective inactivity last year) and socially (as much as labor shortages are blamed on a lazy work force, the death of 600,000+ disproportionately working class Americans does not help with staffing, even beyond the emotional toll of the situation). Were his incentives motivated out of concern for the health of his teammates? Was he trying to keep the team healthy for a World Series run? Was he just trying to get increased freedom of mobility throughout the baseball season? Does it matter?
Professional athletes have done a far above-average job of getting vaccinated for COVID-19; for all of the recent criticism levied towards Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal, and Andrew Wiggins in the National Basketball Association, the league-wide rate of vaccination is still 90%, far above the national average yet considerably behind that of the National Hockey League and especially the Women’s National Basketball Association. While some fans love to point and ridicule at the dumb jock stereotype, they are by and large leaders, and the actions of players such as Player X are a big part of why. While most professional athletes have been fairly quiet about their vaccinations publicly, many are being vocal with their peers.
Athletes are known to be hyper-competitive, and Cardinals players in particular are valorized by local fans for their hyper-competitiveness. Even when it is not optimal, Cardinals fans love that Yadier Molina wants to play every game. I joked early on that Molina would be the first person in line to get vaccinated if somebody simply pointed out that it would greatly decrease the odds of him contracting COVID and therefore allowing Andrew Knizner to play.
It’s not an unfair point to ask why any player wouldn’t feel the same way. One of the primary defenses of the voluntarily unvaccinated (some people are unable to get vaccinated either due to age or health–I can assure you that if this is you, I understand that this is a real thing) is that vaccination is a “personal choice”, which is technically true in accordance with the law, but by the same extent, it is also a personal choice to exercise, or to come to the ballpark early to take extra batting practice, or just generally giving maximum effort during games. If a player is visibly not giving effort on the field, he is not arrested, nor is his contract even voided. But he will be rightly excoriated for his lack of effort. The old cliché about the most important ability in sports being availability is not untrue–besides being a net social positive, a COVID-19 vaccine is a super easy way to avoid being sidelined for big games.
I was quite proud when I learned that the St. Louis Cardinals were one of the first teams to reach the 85% vaccine threshold. As a Midwesterner, I’m used to hearing a lot of coastal snobs thumbing their noses at us, and I hate it, far more than I probably should. And to merely have a representative of me, even one comprised mostly of non-Midwesterners, doing well, filled me with joy. And I don’t care how that threshold was met–I was more proud of that accomplishment than I was about a seventeen-game winning streak. Teams can luck into a long winning streak. Reaching 85% was a test of commitment, which the St. Louis Cardinals passed with flying colors.