Cubs preach unity, safety amid clubhouse split on COVID-19 vaccines

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How Cubs dealing with clubhouse split on COVID-19 vaccines originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Kris Bryant of the Cubs didn’t hesitate to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as the shots became available, and yet Major League Baseball didn’t hesitate to go after him for not wearing a mask in the dugout when it caught him on TV, including fining him.

“Two or three times already,” he said, “with tons of warnings, too.”

Call it hypocrisy if you want. Call it irony if you’re Alanis Morissette.

Bryant calls it a strange price to pay after choosing to do what MLB says is the right thing to do and because “I wanted to, one, be on the field the whole year and be healthy, and, two, to be able to live my life.”

The problem for Bryant and vaccinated teammates such as Javy Báez, Kyle Hendricks, Willson Contreras, Ian Happ and Adbert Alzolay is that not enough teammates have taken the advice of the team’s medical staff and other experts to get their shots — leaving the Cubs among just eight MLB teams that have failed to reach the 85-percent vaccination level for players and other “Tier 1” personnel.

MLB announced Friday that 20 of the 30 teams have reached the threshold and been approved to have some safety requirements lifted, including mask mandates in the dugouts and contact-tracing sensors — with two more in the post-shot waiting period for approval.

Among those no longer subject to the same contact-tracing shutdowns of players if somebody tests positive: the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds in the National League Central and the NL West-leading Giants the Cubs play tonight — the team with “Vax up!” painted on the grass along the first-base line, in front of the Cubs’ dugout.

Whether it makes any difference in the Cubs’ in-house vaccination efforts is doubtful. The numbers haven’t moved much in weeks; they’re not one or two players away from reaching the magic number; and team officials are not optimistic they’ll ever get there.

“That’s a huge advantage for a guy getting the vaccine,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. “That’s something that a few guys need to think [about].”

Meanwhile, the city is opening up again; the Cubs on Friday got approval for full capacity at Wrigley Field starting next week against the Cardinals; and even the 10 baseball writers who regularly cover the team all have been fully vaccinated.

Imagine being one of the handful of Cubs refusing to get vaccinated or counting on somebody else on the team — or enough somebody elses — to raise the percentages to achieve the freedoms and competitive advantages that the majority of MLB teams already enjoy.

Or imagine being fully vaccinated as restrictions are eased outside the bubble but still restricted within it because of others’ decisions.

Or getting fined for not wearing a mask in an outdoor dugout.

The Cubs, of course, don’t have to imagine. This is their reality two months into the season.

Whatever frustration might be rising — on either side of this — in the Cubs’ clubhouse as the stakes potentially rise for their team on an already important issue, players are striking a pose of solidarity.

“I’m a proponent for it, but I’m not going to push my agenda or influence anyone one way or the other,” Hendricks said. “It’s a very important decision for people. Whether they go one way or the other, these are my brothers, my teammates; they make their decisions; I stand by them.”

Said Bryant: “I don’t sense any frustration.”

Well, except maybe a little bit with MLB and those fines.

Bryant, Contreras, Hendricks and several teammates struck similar tones in conversations with NBC Sports Chicago the past two weeks, as they focused on a season that could be the last with the Cubs for many of them and that has become increasingly successful on the field — despite an off-field shortcoming that team president Jed Hoyer recently called “frankly disappointing.”

Even Contreras, who is one of several Chicago athletes involved in a pro-vaccine public-service campaign, said of the vax vs. non-vax debate: “That’s a personal choice”

In fact, Hendricks said it’s not a debate within the clubhouse.

“I think that’s all from the outside,” he said. “In there, it’s not talked about at all. We’re aware. but we’re not going to push each other one way or the other. We know it’s an individual choice, and we have respect for everyone of the guys in there.

“I really couldn’t even tell you who’s vaxxed and who’s not on our team, to be honest.”

A year ago the Cubs were a model for COVID-19 prevention, their internal safety standards exceeding those negotiated by MLB and the union. They were the only team during that abbreviated season that didn’t have a player test positive.

But already this year, they experienced a weeklong outbreak in April that involved two coaches testing positive and — because of the contact-tracing rules — four players sidelined briefly despite negative tests.

If that were to happen during a critical series against the Cardinals or Brewers during a tight division race late in the season?

“We play 162 games, and a lot of times it’s decided by one game at the end of the day. This just adds another wrinkle,” Cardinals pitcher Andrew Miller said.

That’s how the Cubs’ top rivals see the issue. The Cards became one of the first teams to reach MLB’s 85-percent herd-immunity mark — largely, they say, because they saw first-hand last year how devastating an outbreak can be to the team’s ability to compete.

And as the list of teams reaching herd immunity grows, while the numbers of Cubs getting their shots does not?

“I don’t sense any frustration between anybody who has been vaccinated or not,” Bryant said, “Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to be policing anybody to get it or not. I got it and I feel great. And I feel comfortable and safe, and that’s all that matters.

“That was my prerogative, and I chose to do it.”

By contrast to their top challengers in the division, all the Cubs have left to do at this point is to count on discipline within their bubble to stay COVID-free the next four months like they did for three months last year.

“That’s really where we’re at,” Hendricks said. “We’re still doing all the right things, on and off the field. This is our product; we’re going to be out on the field. Whether you’re vaxxed or not, we’re being safe. We don’t want to get it; we’re not going out; we’re not doing anything; we’re winning ballgames.”

Whether they can keep it up — on the field or off — for the next four months, it seems only fair that the guys refusing to get their shots should at least pay the other guys' fines.

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