Phillies vax issues put focus on what athletes owe fans

For a few fleeting moments prior to Major League Baseball’s all star break, it all started to come together for my Phightin’ Phils.

The lineup was finally healthy and the bats were making contact. The suspect bullpen found some footing as young Ranger Suarez was finding success after being plugged into the team’s closer role. The Phillies had battled to a 45-45 mark, and due to the chaotic nature that is the National League East, had, even at .500, found themselves within shouting distance of first place.

Never at a loss to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, however, the shoe dropped Saturday, July 10 at Boston’s Fenway Park when the team's third baseman, Alec Bohm, tested positive for COVID. Homegrown ace pitcher Aaron Nola was pulled from his scheduled start the next day due to contact tracing.

Along with Nola, two of the team’s more consistent relievers — Connor Brogdon and Baily Falter — were also sidelined by the protocols. The Phillies are one of MLB’s teams that have not had at least 85% of their traveling party of players, coaches and essential staff vaccinated. And don’t look for that to change anytime soon. Asked by the Philadelphia Inquirer if he or any of his teammates would be motivated by the last week’s events to get the shot, Nola said he thinks things remain unchanged.

“I don’t think it motivates anybody. It’s a personal choice,” Nola said Friday after rejoining the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. “I’ll leave it at that. I don’t know what other guys are doing. I think you just have to be careful.”

I, as much as anyone, support the idea of personal choice. Mine was to be vaccinated, but on a personal level, I can’t say I have much fault with those who decide not to. Everyone has the same information available, if at this point they decide against vaccination and get sick, they knew what they were getting into, so long as they don’t put others at risk. 

Baseball is far from alone in the sports world in vaccine hesitancy. In a Yahoo Sports article touting the WNBA’s 99% vaccination rate, it was noted that only a reported 65% of NFL players had received at least one shot, while more than 70% of NBA players had. The MLB commissioner's office and players' association claims 23 teams have reached the 85% vaccination rate. In addition to MLB, the NBA and NHL have seen positive tests in the past few weeks.

By a stroke of luck, the Phillies announcement came on the weekend before the all star break, when the game takes a week off, mitigating some of the damage. Nola only missed one start and the others would only be lost for a few games. Plus, few believe these Phillies sustain this run. They don’t hit consistently, they don’t run the bases well, they make poor decisions in the field, the starting pitching lacks depth and the bullpen can’t hold on to a lead. 

But, stranger things have happened, and this is a competitive disadvantage the team will likely face for the rest of the season, according to The Athletic’s Matt Gelb.

“The clubhouse’s contentious relationship with the vaccine is driven by a handful of influential players who have voiced opposition to it. Some of them have already contracted COVID-19 and consider the antibodies as enough protection, although the CDC recommends people who’ve had the virus still be vaccinated. Other Phillies players have questioned whether injuries they’ve suffered were a result of vaccine side effects.”

There’s no satisfying answer here, but what this puts into perspective is that while our decisions may be personal, they do have an effect on those around us. The risk of exposure was something Nola, Brogdon and Falter (and likely others) each took into account prior to Bohm’s diagnosis, yet, the fact that three members of the pitching staff were lost for nearly two weeks has to be something that rubs management and ownership the wrong way, not to mention more than a few fans who spend their hard earned cash to see them play.

Considering all that sports asks of fans, from the cost of the game day experience to the taxes many are forced to shell out for facilities, should a personal choice result in losing out on a chance at the playoffs or a championship? Even in a town as accustomed to “For who? For what?” as Philadelphia, one might be forgiven for feeling a bit cheated. It often seems that in the give and take relationship between fans and professional sports, it’s the fan that gets the short end of the stick. 

On the other hand, there is the common knee-jerk belief that a celebrity or sports star “owes” us something. We pay good money so they can make movies or “play a game.” But our jealousy of their success does not override their right — the rights we all share — to say yes or no to the vaccine (or decide to stop speaking to the media, or to make a political gesture, for that matter).

Folks can say “shut up and dribble” until they are blue in the face, but athletes are under no obligation to do so. No satisfying answer, to be sure, but it is an American one.