Minor leaguers want a say in possible MLB vaccine mandate

MLB is finalizing a plan to potentially mandate that minor leaguers be vaccinated against Covid-19 ahead of spring training 2022, according to a report. Bill Frakes for ESPN

Noah Zavolas heard the news while standing in the driveway of his mother's home in Stow, Massachusetts. Weeks removed from pitching for the Biloxi Shuckers, the Milwaukee Brewers' Class AA affiliate, Zavolas had just learned that he and other minor league players face a possible COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Zavolas, 25, had gotten his shots. He knows the vaccine is aimed at protecting people's health and safety -- which is important to him. But he says that shouldn't come at the expense of protecting players' rights. No matter where minor league players stand on a potential vaccine mandate, several who spoke with ESPN said they ultimately don't feel they can voice their opinions in way that will make change.

"I personally support [the vaccine]," Zavolas said. "But I don't like the idea that minor leaguers don't have a seat at the table to discuss policy ideas."

A league source told ESPN that MLB is considering potential vaccine policies for minor leaguers and believes, after consulting infectious disease experts, that vaccination provides the safest environment for players. MLB is finalizing a plan to mandate that minor leaguers get their shots ahead of spring training 2022, according to a report earlier this month by Yahoo! Sports.

None of the four major men's U.S. professional sports leagues has a vaccine mandate in place. Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, told Sportico in March that the union was encouraging players to get their shots, but not mandating them. He said it's a reflection of what his constituents want. The NBPA, NFLPA and NHLPA have represented players similarly. The leagues do have rules that treat unvaccinated players differently from players who are fully vaccinated. The NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL each has reported vaccination rates of nearly 90% or higher, but some athletes have chosen to not get the shot, which means they are subject to regular testing, masking and potential loss of pay if they miss games.

"We have really spent a lot of time, focus and effort on promoting and encouraging vaccines because they are safe and very effective," Jon Coyles, MLB VP for Drug, Health and Safety Programs, told ESPN about the league's efforts throughout the 2021 season.

Minor league players weren't mandated to get vaccinated in 2021 but were encouraged to do so by MLB, which made educational videos, presentations and other materials available in English and Spanish. MLB also made medical experts available to players and organizations to address questions. At the expiration of the Professional Baseball Agreement in 2020, MLB assumed governance of the minors from the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which had done so since 1901. Players generally go through their affiliated MLB organization to provide feedback; the league then speaks to farm directors regularly.

This past season, because of COVID-19, restrictions at times included face mask mandates for fans, buffer zones between players and fan seating, and limited access to fields. In minor league clubhouses and dugouts, players discussed and debated the vaccine. Some got it, some got it grudgingly, and some didn't. A potential MLB vaccine edict for minor leaguers next season could have a practical purpose: The more vaccinations administered, the fewer games potentially missed, which is especially important after a 2020 season that was wiped out. In 2021, there were 106 games canceled because of the virus. The challenge in completing the season came in the sheer volume of players, coaches and staff -- between 7,000 and 8,000 people -- who were under minor league purview.

Players in baseball's farm team system who oppose a potential mandate can air grievances with minor league team staff members, and league reps speak directly with minor leaguers from time to time. "I have always welcomed the opportunity to talk to players when they call me," Coyles said, speaking about health and wellness issues, including vaccines. On MLB's web site, there's the Player Resource Center, which "is intended to provide all current and former Major and Minor League players with resources that support on-field development, including personal and professional endeavors." MLB also has information sessions called Ahead in the Count, where it advises minor leaguers on topics that range from financial literacy to healthy relationships.

A league source told ESPN that MLB likely would have points of contact for minor league players with questions about a potential vaccine mandate.

Still, players have little or no say about the implementation of a potential vaccine mandate -- and for some, that's one more challenge they're dealing with at a time when many already face hardships and don't have union representation to work on their behalf. To be sure, unions don't solve every issue. MLB recently said it would require teams to provide housing for minor leaguers in 2022, saving some players from sleeping on floors or in their cars. But there are wages, even with a recent increase, that are at or below the poverty line for many, and the mental anguish that comes with that reality. MLB added specific references to mental health resources in both its major league and minor league operations manuals this year. There's a 24-7 hotline for minor league players and their families. And there are mental health clinicians in each organization.

"It'd be a lot better if I -- and everyone in our clubhouse -- was food secure," Zavolas said. "No one is asking for a glamorous lifestyle. We're asking for a livable one."

That's where Simon Rosenblum-Larson comes in. A right-handed pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, Rosenblum-Larson is a co-founder of the More Than Baseball nonprofit organization, which provides money, equipment, advice and more to players who need it. What the players seek most, Rosenblum-Larson said, is respect.

"They never consult with the players about what we want," said Rosenblum-Larson, who talks with players across organizations. "If they do, they do it after the fact. ... If the players collectively were in favor of a vaccine mandate, then yeah, great, we should have a vaccine mandate. It's just a top-down decision like everything else in minor league baseball."

Rosenblum-Larson said even some vaccinated players have gotten their shots reluctantly. He said that in recent months he sat down with 15 players, explaining to them why it was important that they get vaccinated -- a gesture that was appreciated by those who often feel forgotten.

One minor leaguer in an American League organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said most of the vaccinated players with whom he spoke wouldn't have gotten the vaccine if they thought they'd still have a job without it. Even without an official mandate, this player believed others were worried about running afoul of organizations, which have encouraged getting the shots.

"It's pretty scary how unprotected we are," the AL minor leaguer, who is not vaccinated, said about the lack of representation. "And I never really thought too much about it until something like [a potential vaccine mandate] came up."

For those who don't get it, their reasons vary. Rosenblum-Larson said minor leaguers who eschewed the vaccine haven't done it for political reasons, in his experience, but sometimes did for religious ones. And, for some, it can be for fear that it will hamper them on the field. Rosenblum-Larson was forced to miss a scheduled appearance in a game when he got his shots during spring training. Instead, after a day at home, he threw a bullpen session on shaky legs brought on by mild side effects.

"I think everybody should get vaccinated," Rosenblum-Larson said. "There's no good reason not to. But one of the reasons players used [for not doing so] was because they didn't want to miss an opportunity to prove themselves."

The U.S. has surpassed 45 million COVID-19 cases and approached 738,000 deaths since the outbreak began spreading globally in early 2020. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 190 million people (57.5%) in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated as of Oct. 27.

Vaccines are effective in preventing people from getting sick or severely ill, according to the CDC, which has called long-term health problems related to them "extremely unlikely." But minor league careers often are defined by the here and now. "A couple innings in front of a player development staff can trump their own health," Rosenblum-Larson said.

That's why the question of getting the shot was a fixture in minor league clubhouses and dugouts.

"It was a constant topic of conversation," Rosenblum-Larson said.

It was cold and raining in the Brooklyn Cyclones' bullpen, where Conner O'Neil had a front-row seat for a debate. Vaccinated players from the Mets' High-A club were on one side; unvaccinated players were on the other. O'Neil estimated the Cyclones could have up to 12 guys in the bullpen on a given day, depending on how many starters got bored and joined the crew. On this day, as O'Neil remembered it, there were eight.

One vaccinated pitcher simply asked a counterpart: "Why don't you get the vaccine?" The back-and-forth between three vaccinated players and three unvaccinated ones -- with the others as spectators -- ended three innings later.

O'Neil, for his part, is vaccinated. He said he trusts doctors and medical professionals who recommend the vaccine and reassure that it's safe. But he also believes getting the vaccine should be up to an individual. He said a potential vaccine mandate in the minor leagues is possible for the same reason that minor leaguers are paid low wages -- because MLB has the power to do so without any push back. Minor league players don't have any recourse like big leaguers do.

"[MLB says], 'Jump,' and we say, 'How high?'" he said.

O'Neil, who said the Cyclones fluctuated between four and six total unvaccinated players, remembered a clubhouse that was focused on keeping its freedoms. If the team stayed above the 85% threshold of vaccinated players -- before the Delta variant made things more strict -- those who got their shots wouldn't have to wear masks indoors. That meant if a vaccinated player was promoted and replaced by an unvaccinated one, it could affect the threshold and bring masks back. Swarming a new player to get his status became a ritual.

That won't be an issue if a mandate comes down, but that doesn't guarantee players will unanimously follow. Asked if a player would be willing to give up his career because of his opposition to the vaccine, O'Neil said it depends.

"There are some people that, maybe, this is the final straw," he said. "They're already not getting paid a whole lot. Now they don't even get to decide."

For games in the Arizona Complex League on Mondays and Thursdays, Daniel Nunan arrived before the 1 p.m. report time for a 6 p.m. matchup, making sure to not have eaten anything in the 30 minutes prior. He spat in a tube and placed it in a FedEx box. Then he took a bar code that matched the one on the tube and slapped it next to his name on a list. Those test results returned in two days. Once vaccines were made available, testing was part of the protocol for individuals who were unvaccinated, symptomatic or a close contact of someone who had a confirmed COVID case.

Last season, Nunan estimated that he missed 15 days in Angels rookie ball because either a test came back inconclusive, or he was deemed a close contact. He considered getting the vaccine to avoid having to be out, but ultimately decided against it. He remains unvaccinated.

The CDC, using recent data, said that an unvaccinated person is six times more likely to test positive for COVID and 11 times more likely to die. In the U.S., the 18-29 age group has the highest percentage of cases (22%) but one of the lowest percentage of deaths (0.7%).

Though he doesn't consider himself anti-vaccine, Nunan called the vaccine new and cited a need for more years of evidence on its efficacy. Ultimately, he doesn't think he needs it and values a freedom to choose.

"I take pride in taking care of myself," he said. "Doing things to make sure my immune system is working properly. It's a lot cheaper to have the vaccine be mandated versus ... better nutrition and better pay for players."

Nunan, 21, said he still enjoys the game, the feeling he gets when he climbs the mound to pitch, but doesn't like the conditions in the minor leagues. There's the pay, but also the uniform contracts that lock players in for seven years when they arrive in the game. There's no negotiation and no leverage, including regarding a potential vaccine mandate.

Nunan said he is still trying to figure out whether he wants to continue to play baseball. He had been on the fence about his future before the report of a potential mandate, which added to his uncertainty.

"I feel very strongly about how I've handled this vaccine situation so far," Nunan said. "Why should I go against my truth just for the purpose of working for this organization that's paying me pennies on the dollar anyway?"

But Nunan acknowledged that's not the only question that's going through his head.

"The biggest question for the past year now," he said, "[is] what's the right thing to do morally? Am I responsible for other people?"

Nunan paused.

"I'm still working through that," he said, "because I don't have the answer."

Connor Van Scoyoc and his brother, Spencer, are minor league baseball players. They're also the only two people in their family to get the vaccine. The Van Scoyoc family is from Norway, Iowa, a small town about 20 miles outside of Cedar Rapids.

"Very, very conservative," said Connor, who finished this past season with the Inland Empire 66ers, the Angels' Low-A affiliate. His brother is in the Philadelphia Phillies' organization.

Connor disagrees with a potential mandate and thinks it should be up to the individual. His parents told him it was his choice as to whether to get it or not, but they believe the vaccination push is politically motivated. Connor tries to avoid the conversation and dislikes how politicized the topic has become.

"If the president gave away free ice cream to everybody, he's still going to disappoint some people," Connor said recently. "Some people would want chocolate instead of vanilla."

Connor described himself as indifferent about the vaccine but got it because the Angels recommended it. He also hated the hassle of protocols for unvaccinated players. As for the role of a potential union in mitigating, Connor acknowledged there are limitations there, too.

"There's power with numbers," he said, "but you only get so far when the minor leagues don't have the popularity of the major leagues."

When the 66ers were on the road to play the Stockton Ports in late August, three games were canceled because of COVID. Connor wasn't sure what to make of it all. He didn't think that, if he did get COVID, it would be that bad. And he also wasn't worried about vaccine side effects.

"That's how my baseline is: 'Well, I work out all the time. I'm healthy,'" he said.

But did he consider some of those with whom he'd be in contact? Did that play a role in him getting vaccinated?

"Honestly," Connor said, "not at all. ... I'm going to be around professional athletes, or coaches that are still active. I figured, if we're going to be in the clubhouse together, they're going to be healthy, athletic people.

"I didn't think it'd make much of a difference."

On that New England autumn afternoon, Zavolas, the pitcher in the Brewers' organization, considered the landscape of minor league baseball. Players come from many different perspectives. Some will take the vaccine if it means they'll get on the field. Others will be more apprehensive. A third group simply won't do it no matter the circumstances.

These factions could be represented at a bargaining table. But the minor leagues, Zavolas lamented, have no formal collective direction yet.

The new housing policy is seen as a step in the right direction. Zavolas said it has helped form a different -- and better -- minor-league landscape. Advocacy groups such as More Than Baseball have given players a seat at the table when it comes to housing. The players should have one when it comes to the vaccine, too, Zavolas believes.

"MLB has an opportunity," he said, "to include minor league stakeholders in the boots on the ground implementation of these policies."