Major League Baseball hails itself as an institution drawing players from a diversity of backgrounds, and the numbers bear this out – foreign-born players accounted for 28% of personnel on Opening Day rosters, hailing from 21 countries and territories.
Yet unvaccinated players barred from competing in Canada is almost an exclusively American phenomenon.
Canadian vaccine mandates have kept 36 players from traveling to Toronto for games against the host Blue Jays, and 34 of them – a whopping 94% – hail from the United States, according to USA TODAY Sports research.
The vaccine issue has been a key part of the MLB landscape each of the past two seasons. In 2021, teams could relax COVID-19 protocols if 85% of key personnel – including many non-playing members of their traveling parties – were vaccinated. Roughly 23 teams reached this plateau.
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Before the 2022 season, the Canadian government required that personnel traveling between Canada and foreign countries be vaccinated, which created an obstacle for unvaccinated ballplayers in games played against the Toronto Blue Jays.
A handful of teams responded in full: The Blue Jays, with little choice, began the year fully vaccinated, and the Texas Rangers, Houston Astros and New York Yankees did not place any players on the restricted list when they visited Toronto. Players on the restricted list can be replaced on the roster but will not be paid nor accrue service time.
Ten other teams visiting Toronto, however, were forced to leave players back in the USA and temporarily replace them with vaccinated minor leaguers.
The unvaccinated problem will peak just before the end of the first half: The Kansas City Royals, manager Mike Matheny confirmed, will leave 10 players behind Thursday as they begin a four-game series before the All-Star break, more than double the amount of unvaccinated players on any team that preceded them.
Three teams left four unvaccinated players behind – the Reds, Twins and most recently the Phillies, whose All-Star catcher, J.T. Realmuto, said receiving the COVID-19 vaccine wasn’t worth the more than $250,000 in salary he will lose, nor was having “Canada tell me what to do.”
While MLB only released the percentage of “Tier 1” employees who were vaccinated in 2021, the Canada conundrum has forced teams to show their hands before taking on the Blue Jays. And so far, the percentage of MLB players vaccinated roughly aligns with the USA’s general population.
Entering the All-Star break, 354 of roughly 390 players on 13 teams that visited Canada were vaccinated, or 90.8%. That largely mirrors the 89.7% of Americans 18 or older who have received a second COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the three dozen unvaccinated players differ widely from the general MLB player population.
Of the 36 players, only two – Minnesota’s Max Kepler and Baltimore’s Anthony Santander – were born outside the USA; Santander hails from Venezuela while Kepler was born in Germany to a Polish father and American-born mother. Just one of the 36 players – Kansas City’s Michael A. Taylor – is African-American, a group that comprises around 8% of MLB’s player population.
Three of the the 34 American-born unvaccinated players are at least partly of Latino descent. A state-high six were from Florida and four hailed from California.
The Blue Jays resume their home schedule at the end of this month with series against St. Louis and Detroit, and they’ll play host to their four AL East rivals – Boston, New York, Tampa Bay and Baltimore – at least one more time in the second half. The Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Red Sox series may prove particularly key for both teams, currently tied at 47-42 and in a three-way deadlock with Seattle for the final two wild-card berths.
The Red Sox have been among the more scrutinized teams of the pandemic era, as a brutal COVID-19 outbreak sidelined players both vaccinated and unvaccinated late in 2021, imperiling their playoff chances before they rallied for a wild-card berth. At least two players – infielders Xander Bogaerts and Christian Arroyo – had changes of heart and decided to get vaccinated before spring training 2022 began.
Another – outfielder Jarren Duran – was on the restricted list for his first trip to Toronto, but said he’s decided to get vaccinated before their potentially key series at season’s end.
“I love this game too much to miss out on opportunities to play baseball,” Duran told reporters.
That leaves reliever Tanner Houck and starter Chris Sale – who was rehabbing from injuries during the first two Boston trips to Toronto – as core Red Sox who remain unvaccinated.
While the scores of unvaccinated opponents have been framed as a home-field advantage for the Blue Jays, they’ve been better – but not dominant – at home compared to the road, posting a 27-18 record at Rogers Centre, the second-most home losses of any AL East club. Toronto fired its manager Charlie Montoyo on Wednesday and then completed a two-game sweep of Philadelphia – which was playing without its four unvaccinated players.