Shortly after using his right arm to help pitch the Minnesota Twins to a 10-2 win over the Seattle Mariners during the team's home opener at Target Field on Thursday, José Berríos headed to the team's family room at the ballpark, removed the shirt sleeve on his left arm and let a Cub Foods pharmacist jab it with a syringe.
Thursday was a significant day for the Twins, and not just because it was the first day fans were allowed back at Target Field in a year and a half. A majority of the group was administered the one-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine after the game, a large step towards normalcy for the group.
“I want to be back to a normal life,” Berríos said. “It’s for our health — my family, my teammates, all the Twins staff.”
The Twins partnered with Cub Foods to offer the shot to players, their families and staff members on Thursday. Two weeks from now, vaccinated players will see some of the strict protocols they’ve been adhering to eased up. Should the Twins reach the 85 percent vaccinated mark of all Tier 1 employees — players (both on the Twins and at the alternate site), coaches and some others staff members, like trainers — even more restrictions would fall away two weeks later.
President of baseball operations Derek Falvey said Friday that 85 percent of Tier 1 has not yet been vaccinated, but he is hopeful the Twins will be able to get there. There are around 90 people in Tier 1, he said, which would mean around a dozen people could opt against getting vaccinated and they would still reach that mark.
Tier 2, he said, has been 100 percent vaccinated or close to it. That group includes Falvey, who got his vaccine earlier this week, but does not count towards the 85 percent mark.
“We’re pretty close, and some of that will come potentially as a few of our players and just people within the environment had decided not that they were not going to take it but that they weren’t quite ready yet and there’s still some people processing. But we’re really close to that mark, that line right now,” Falvey said.
Thursday was a long time coming for the Twins. Medical director and director of high performance Dr. Chris Camp said the team has been running through vaccination scenarios and what that might look like since as early as December.
At one point, they had hoped that the rollout might have gone quickly enough to allow shots to be administered during spring training, Camp said. That obviously didn’t happen, and so they quickly shifted their focus to when they might be able to get their shots in Minnesota, waiting until eligibility opened up for everyone 16 years and older.
“It’s been a big priority for the Minnesota Twins and the other professional teams not to jump the line at all,” Camp said.
They also wanted to be respectful of local demand, and they eventually found a date where Cub was in a situation where it could project out when it would have enough doses to give the Twins what they needed. The Twins chose Thursday, the day before an off day, for their shots in case anybody experienced adverse side effects. Though the Twins would have been fine with any of the three vaccines because all have shown a high level of efficacy, Falvey said they preferred the Johnson & Johnson one over the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which can potentially lead to side effects after both shots.
The education campaign came even before the Twins had a firm plan in place. Camp said the Twins started it in spring training, giving players an introduction to the vaccine and letting them ask questions.
That continued up until Thursday — and will continue beyond for those still on the fence about getting the shot. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association also circulated educational material recently, and before Thursday’s game, Camp was among those who spoke to the group and was available to answer questions.
“Overall the vast majority of players were very interested and willing and were vaccinated,” Camp said. “We certainly had some that had questions and we were available to them and we had a lot of great discussions and open discussions about pros and cons and the merits and risks and all of those sort of things with those players as well. So everybody was either open to it or at least open to having a very mature and educated discussion about it.”
Path to normalcy
The decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal one and is something that will not be mandated by MLB or the Twins. It is, however, heavily incentivized with promises of loosening the tight protocols that players and staff have grown accustomed to.
Two weeks after their first Johnson & Johnson shot or second Pfizer and Moderna shot, vaccinated players will be allowed to drop testing from every other day to twice per week if they’d like. They’ll be able to have their vaccinated family members stay with them on the road. The close contact rules will be less rigorous, meaning vaccinated players will not have to worry about having to quarantine if a contact comes down with the virus as long as they don’t have symptoms. Easing up on mask-wearing at the park is another change, among many others.
Should they get to 85 percent as a team, benefits would include removing the Kinexon contract-tracing devices that they are required to wear and vaccinated players would be allowed to dine indoors again, among other loosened protocols.
Infielder Luis Arraez said he would prefer “the injection instead of spitting every other day,” to get tested. Arraez, who revealed that he had COVID-19 this offseason, is eager to avoid going through that experience again.
“I think if we all do it as a unit, it will be better in the long run. To be honest with you, I’m a little tired of using the mask and all the protocols and things like that,” Arraez said. “I’m also doing it because of my family and I think that in the long run, it’s going to help everybody.”
Within the clubhouse, Camp said there were veteran players who were big proponents of the vaccine and helped alleviate some of their teammates’ concerns. Among them: Designated hitter Nelson Cruz.
“Nelson is a leader in really every aspect, and this was no different,” Camp said.
Manager Rocco Baldelli, who got his shot on Thursday, has also played a big role in furthering the messaging from the medical staff.
“I said this this offseason, but I do currently believe the world is a better place because of vaccines and because of protecting people through them,” Baldelli said. “If we didn’t have vaccines, I think we’d be in a pretty ugly spot in a lot of different ways, and I still feel that way.”
But still, there were some who were staunchly against getting a vaccine. Among them, shortstop Andrelton Simmons tweeted in late March that he would not be getting vaccinated, saying “for personal reasons and past experience,” he would not be taking or advocating for it.
While the Twins don’t seem likely to change his mind, Falvey said there is still a group on the fence about taking the vaccine and for that group, they plan on continuing to educate and answer questions.
“If you have very specific reasons as to why you don’t want to get it, that’s a total individual choice. But if you’re someone who's just hesitant because you lack a little bit of information about it, then I think it’s our responsibility to some degree to help them get that information and ultimately make whatever informed decision they’re going to make going forward," Falvey said.
That won’t stop once they get to 85 percent if they still think there are still people who are open-minded to learning about the benefits of the vaccine, Falvey said. Their focus is to try to continue to get players to see this as something that will be valuable to them from a health standpoint, he said.
After all, that’s the pathway they see back to normalcy — back to focusing on the sport they all love.
“We all want to go back to normal. As normal as we can. So that's the plan for most of my teammates and myself, including my family,” Cruz said before taking his shot. “Definitely, we're going to have less time to worry about masks and tests and all that and all the protocols and focus more on what's more important: baseball games."