Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo: Face of team now face vaccine shortfall

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Rizzo: Face of team now face of Cubs’ vaccine shortfall originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Cubs’ vaccination shortcomings just got personal.

If not for thousands of Cubs fans, then certainly for fan-favorite Anthony Rizzo — who on Friday became the highest-profile player in Major League Baseball to acknowledge publicly that he has chosen not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It’s not an easy decision to make, but I think it’s the right decision for me and my family right now,” said Rizzo, who mentioned “taking some more time to see the data” on vaccines that were FDA approved for emergency use after shorter-than-usual trials.

Rizzo, who said he tried to keep his choice private until being asked about it Friday morning on ESPN 1000’s "Kap & J.Hood" show, said his role as a team leader and so-called face of the franchise the last several years made the decision especially tough.

“Big time. Big time,” he said. “I love my teammates. I love this franchise, and I do everything I can to win here. But with this stuff, this is bigger than baseball. This is a life decision. This isn’t a career decision right now.”

To a man, teammates and management have said they respect others’ vaccination decisions.

“It doesn’t change my outlook on Rizz,” said Cubs manager David Ross, who’s also a former teammate of Rizzo and several other players on the roster. “I still respect Rizz a whole lot and his decisions. He’s one of my best friends. He’s one of the biggest pieces on our team, and we’ve moved forward in a great way this year with everybody’s decisions, not just his.”

But even Rizzo seemed to understand Friday that his decision now makes him the face of the Cubs’ inability to reach the 85-percent Tier 1 vaccination threshold that 22 other teams have achieved, according to MLB’s latest report Friday.

“Obviously, there’s people that are going to hate me and think I’m disgusting,” Rizzo said, “and there’s going to be people that side with me.”

Team officials and several players have said even in recent days that they’re not optimistic the team will reach the threshold that has allowed National League rivals such as the Cardinals, Brewers, Reds, Giants and Dodgers to be exempt from several safety protocols — including dugout/clubhouse mask mandates and contact-tracing rules that can compel shutdowns of players who test negative if tracing sensors track contact with someone testing positive.

That’s a clear competitive advantage for fully vaccinated teams that Ross, Cubs president Jed Hoyer and players such as Kris Bryant, Ian Happ and Willson Contreras have acknowledged.

All of them are among those who say they’ve received the vaccines, along with several others who have told NBC Sports Chicago they’re vaccinated: Nico Hoerner, Adbert Alzolay, Kyle Hendricks and Craig Kimbrel.

Teammate Javy Báez, who is part of a pro-vaccination campaign, said he respects Rizzo’s decision to not get the shot but says efforts have been made among teammates to persuade more to vaccinate.

“We discussed it. If you want to call it ‘we argued about it,’ we did,” Báez said. “But at the end of the day we …respect each other.”

So far, the Cubs have been able to avoid the level of outbreak the Cardinals endured early last season that nearly derailed their 2020 season — and prompted the Cards to become the first major-league sports team in the country to reach the 85-percent vaccination threshold this year.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed we didn’t get there,” said Hoyer, who wasn’t “comfortable” commenting on Rizzo or other individual choices.

“I wish those individual choices led us to being at 85 percent; they haven’t,” Hoyer said, adding: “I believe the science is clearly behind it. But not everybody agrees with that. If everyone did agree, we’d be well above 85 percent.”

The Cubs survived an early-April outbreak that sidelined two coaches and four players briefly — none of the players testing positive but forced to sit because of contact-tracing protocols.

They’re one of the hottest teams in baseball since the end of April, have overtaken the Brewers and Cards for first place and look headed to next month’s trade deadline as buyers.

But if another contact-tracing shutdown costs them the wrong player(s) at the wrong time down the stretch in a close race for a playoff berth?

That’s not only a potential competitive disadvantage on the field, but potentially on the bottom line if it means lost playoff revenues at a time the organization is trying to regroup from revenues lost because of last year’s COVID-19 shutdown and stadium crowd limits.

“I’m not really thinking that way,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said when asked about that Friday. “Right now it’s with the guys, however they decide to play it. I respect all the decisions in the clubhouse; I respect how the manager wants to handle it. Whatever it is, we'll deal with it.”

For what it’s worth, Ricketts said he, too, is vaccinated.

Hoyer said he’ll keep trying to persuade the unvaccinated even if he’s long past optimism the team will get to 85 percent.

“Any one person that we can change their mind at this point is a positive for the group, even if we’re not at 85 percent,” Hoyer said. “We shouldn’t just focus on the 85 percent. We should focus on getting guys vaccinated.

“But am I optimistic? No.”

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