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Kansas City Royals patching up image among fans, roster for series in Toronto

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Royals spent Thursday patching up a roster missing 10 players barred from traveling to Toronto because of their COVID-19 vaccination status, while also trying to smooth over their damaged image among fans.

Among the nearly 40% of players on the 26-man roster who were left home were All-Star outfielder Andrew Benintendi, two-time All-Star Whit Merrifield, future cornerstones Kyle Isbel and MJ Melendez, and outfielder Michael A. Taylor.

Merrifield was the most expansive among the seven players who discussed their decision Wednesday, claiming "the vaccine, what it's supposed to do, it's not doing. If it was doing what it was supposed to do and stopping the spread of COVID [then] I would have a little more willingness to take it, but it's not doing that."

While it's true that people who are vaccinated for COVID-19 can still get infected, research has shown that inoculation is effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death.

Merrifield then drew the ire of Royals fans when he said, "Something happens and I happen to get on a team that has a chance to go play in Canada in the postseason, maybe that changes" -- which many in Kansas City took to mean he won't get vaccinated for his current team but is open to doing it for a contender.

"You wish he could have said what he needed to say or wanted to say differently," Royals manager Mike Matheny said before Thursday's game, which the Royals managed to win 3-1 with their makeshift roster. "That happens, unfortunately. Every time we get in this scenario, there's a risk of something not being said the way you wanted to. But once that's done, you need to move forward, and there's some work to be done."

Merrifield is a two-time All-Star who has spent his entire career with Kansas City, debuting with the Royals in 2016.

"What he's done is remarkable, the kind of player he's been for this organization and will continue to be," Matheny said. "There's just things at times where we've got to work around mistakes."

Royals president Dayton Moore also defended Merrifield earlier Thursday during an interview with local talk radio, saying, "He was caught in a situation where it just didn't come out right. ... He's very sorry for what he said."

Later in the day, the club tweeted: "The Royals have hosted multiple free COVID-19 vaccine events for the community and encourage all to be vaccinated and safe so we can live our fullest lives, in and away from the ballpark."

The post included a link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, which says vaccines are proven "to reduce the risk of COVID-19, including the risk of severe illness and death among people who are fully vaccinated." But new omicron variants are driving COVID-19 hospital admissions and deaths higher in recent weeks.

It has been an embarrassing two days for a franchise trying to build goodwill for a new downtown ballpark -- with major public funding -- but struggling with fan apathy. There were just 11,016 on hand for the Royals' win over Detroit on Wednesday, dragging their season average down to 15,768, better than four other clubs.

"We've always been an organization that promotes and encourages individual choices," said Moore, who insisted the Royals' medical staff, coaches and front office have tried to educate players about the efficacy of vaccines.

"Unfortunately, some of this affects the team," Moore said. "We're disappointed in some of that."

Like Merrifield, Benintendi and Taylor are potential trade candidates for the last-place club, and their vaccination status might impact what kind of return Kansas City could expect for them ahead of the Aug. 2 trade deadline.

"For me, it was a personal decision," Benintendi said, "and I'm going to leave it at that."

The other Royals players barred from making the trip to Toronto were first baseman Hunter Dozier, right-handed starters Brad Keller and Brady Singer, reliever Dylan Coleman and backup catcher Cam Gallagher.

Pitching coach Cal Eldred, assistant hitting coach Keoni DeRenne and bullpen catcher Parker Morin also did not travel, while Triple-A Omaha manager Scott Thorman was brought along to assist Matheny's staff.

There had been 25 players all season placed on MLB's restricted list for being unvaccinated before the 10 from Kansas City, and the most any team had been without was four. All but two of the 35 were born in the U.S.

The Royals players will forfeit four days of pay and major league service time in accordance with the terms of MLB's collective bargaining agreement. That means they will collectively lose $726,128 in salary, headlined by Benintendi losing $186,813, Merrifield losing $153,846, Keller losing $106,044, and Dozier and Taylor losing $98,901 apiece.

"We've talked to these guys," Dozier said of his vaccinated teammates. "They're not judging us at all."

Nevertheless, they were left to play alongside minor leaguers in their last series before the All-Star break.

The Royals recalled infielder Nick Pratto and purchased the contracts of infielders Nate Eaton and Michael Massey, catcher Freddy Fermin and outfielder Brewer Hicklen from Triple-A Omaha on Thursday. They also recalled infielder Maikel Garcia, catcher Sebastian Rivero and left-hander Angel Zerpa from Double-A Northwest Arkansas.

"Any time you get an opportunity to play the game that you've dreamed of since you were 4 years old, it's a dream come true," Hicklen said. "All of us are just embracing the moment, taking advantage of it."

Rivero has appeared in 20 games over the past two seasons. Zerpa had made two career appearances before he started and won Thursday night's game by allowing one run in five innings. Hicklen struck out in his first two big league at-bats in May.

Eaton homered Thursday night in his big league debut, starting in center field. Pratto started at first base in his first big league game, striking out three times and walking once.

The moves left Kansas City with two roster spots they will be able to fill this weekend.

"I think it would be absolutely accurate to say that this group sees it as an underdog situation," Matheny said. "I don't know if that's realistic or not. We have good players. They don't have the major league experience, but there's guys that have got major league ability. I'm excited to see how it plays out."