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Rob Manfred would like to see a higher vaccination rate among MLB players

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said in Denver during

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said in Denver during the All-Star festivities: "Look, I'm a believer in vaccination. I understand that people have different views. I wish everybody would get vaccinated. I think it would be a good thing for us generally. But you've got to work it through with the people who represent the players."   Credit: TNS/Justin Edmonds

The game you didn’t see during All-Star week in Denver took place Tuesday morning inside a Hyatt conference room, a few blocks away from Coors Field.

That’s where commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark (separately) discussed a number of issues with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, ranging from rules changes to the ongoing negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

Of more immediate concern, however, was the lag of vaccination rates among some players, especially with the unsettling spike of Delta-variant infections in the United States. Despite the very real threat of more interruptions to the season, Clark, who is vaccinated, would go only as far as to say the union has "encouraged" players to get the shot [or two] rather than "push" them.

As of June 25, the most recent update by MLB, 23 of the 30 teams had reached the 85% threshold for vaccination, which in turn activates relaxed protocols for those clubs. Overall, 86.5% of all Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals had received at least one dose, with 85.4% considered to be fully vaccinated. These groups extend beyond the players to include numerous coaches and staffers, so a high percentage among that support crew would help bring the number up, even if many players had opted not to be vaccinated.

"We’ve encouraged them," Clark said. "And we continue to look into the science and the experts that we rely on. So if guys ask, we’ll put players directly in touch with those experts and make sure they have access to that information. So not push, but encourage.

"We’ve seen the number continue to climb. I think that’s reflective of the guys — and perhaps their families as well — becoming more comfortable as more data comes in. That may continue. But at the end of the day, the players have the ability to make that determination — that personal determination — for themselves."

But only 48 hours later, the first game of the season’s second half, between the Red Sox and Yankees, had to be postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak that included Aaron Judge, Gio Urshela and Kyle Higashioka, all of whom tested positive when they returned from the All-Star break.

The team’s May outbreak featured the infection of vaccinated individuals — or "breakthrough" cases. The Yankees said the current outbreak involves both vaccinated and unvaccinated players.

Also, Boone said not all of them were asymptomatic, though none were described as severe reactions.

An outbreak of any kind is worrisome, as COVID-19 remains extremely dangerous to unvaccinated individuals. But this one had more far-reaching implications beyond the Bronx. Judge had spent the break at Coors Field participating in the All-Star festivities, sharing a clubhouse and dugout with fellow AL stars, escorting Hank Aaron’s widow, Billye, during a pregame ceremony and also speaking with dozens of media members — in close proximity, unmasked but outdoors — at Monday’s workout availability.

Judge has not revealed his vaccination status, and the Yankees had this outbreak — which includes six players total — despite being among the clubs to reach the 85% threshold.

At minimum, MLB engaged in very risky behavior to stage the All-Star Game without insisting the participants be fully vaccinated, given the increased exposure of so many players sprinkled throughout 29 teams (the four Astros did not attend any of the All-Star activities). As of Saturday, it appeared that MLB was fortunate to a degree that, despite Judge’s interactions in Denver, the Yankees’ outbreak was limited to just them.

Manfred expressed some frustration earlier in the week that MLB’s vaccination rate isn’t higher, and the Yankees-Red Sox postponement was a sobering reminder that the sport is not beyond getting shut down by more outbreaks. The Delta variant is far more contagious than the earlier strains, and as the infection rate ticks up nationwide, it should be of greater concern to baseball in the months ahead. Still, insisting that players get vaccinated is something the union will push back on.

"We have a mandatory vaccination policy in the commissioner’s office," Manfred said. "So it would be hard for me to say rule that out. To date, our conversations with the [Players Association] hadn’t gotten us to that. Look, I’m a believer in vaccination. I understand that people have different views. I wish everybody would get vaccinated. I think it would be a good thing for us generally. But you’ve got to work it through with the people who represent the players."

From the media’s perspective, there is no option for reporters who cover baseball. In order to be credentialed for last week’s All-Star festivities, reporters had to show proof of full-vaccination status. The same applies to having field access at ballparks during the regular season, though the mask mandate was lifted earlier this month.

And for those wondering when the media will have clubhouse access restored — a key component to providing the stories and insight baseball fans have always appreciated — that continues to be an ongoing negotiation. Based on Clark’s comments, it does not sound as if that is imminent.

"The science isn’t quite as clean as we would like it to be," Clark said. "Just because you are vaccinated does not suggest there is 100% safety for anyone involved. Even at its highest level, 95 out of 100, a pretty good place, five out of 100 could find themselves in a tough spot.

"Vaccination is important. It’s afforded us an opportunity to keep the wheels on the tracks. The more that are vaccinated, the better off we’re going to be. Our players have heard us say that to them. But the idea that there are still games being adjusted. We’re contact tracing even as we stand here with a few issues you may not know about yet. It is a daily interaction, while putting us in the best position — as a result of guys being vaccinated — to give us the best chance of completing the season."

How Clark can so clearly lay out the benefits of vaccination for his industry as a whole and still struggle to get the players totally on board reflects the larger problem plaguing the nation. And it’s not going away anytime soon, either.

The Yankees-Red Sox postponement was a grim reminder, without even getting into the health concerns of the virus-positive players. For a data-driven sport that plays the percentages above all else, some of this behavior is difficult to comprehend.

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