A shaken hornet’s nest likely awaits Tanner Houck when he rejoins the Red Sox in Chicago Friday. All of it will revolve a simple question that he’s going to keep getting asked:
What means more to Houck: his desire to remain unvaccinated or the success of his team going forward?
The Red Sox went into the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday leading 5-4 over a Toronto team they started the night a half-game ahead of. It was the exact sort of moment when a manager wants to hand the ball to a closer he trusts. After months of struggling to find that guy, Houck had seized the job.
But because he’s unvaccinated, Houck isn’t allowed in Canada and can’t play in this series. Alex Cora was forced to turn first to untested Tyler Danish and then to Hansel Robles, who already had four blown saves this season.
Predictably, the Blue Jays scored two runs and leapfrogged the Red Sox in the Wild Card standings. Maybe Houck would have blown the save, too, but the optics are unavoidable. The guy who was supposed to be pitching wasn’t and things went wrong.
This issue isn’t going away.
For teams in the National League or out of the playoff races, this isn’t a big deal. But the Red Sox are back in Toronto in September for Games 157, 158 and 159 of the season. Those could determine whether Boston gets into the playoffs or what seed it gets. In normal times, those are the sort of games that guys would do anything to play in.
But with Tuesday’s loss, if the season ended today, Boston would face the Blue Jays in the Wild Card round. Under MLB’s new playoff rules, all of the games in the best-of-three round would be played in Toronto.
It’s not just Houck who’s out. Jarren Duran had to shut down for three days in the midst of the best stretch of his Major League career. The last time Chris Sale was asked, he wasn’t vaccinated either. He isn’t healthy enough to pitch yet, but presuming he returns, he wouldn’t be able to play in that September series or a playoff series in Canada unless he’s changed his stance on vaccination.
But because of the way things transpired Tuesday, Houck is now the face of this.
His teammates and the coaching staff will certainly continue to support him publicly. Privately, who knows? It’s a safe bet that none of them like the distraction and none of them like losing big games.
The noise surrounding it is only going to get louder at the end of the regular season. This is an unforgiving fan base made up of the same fans who were calling talk radio to criticize Celtics guard Derrick White for missing a playoff game to be at the birth of his son. Imagine how loud the argument is going to get when key players are missing games for refusing a vaccine that most people have received without incident.
It won’t just be on the Sports Hub, WEEI and ESPN’s argument shows either. With the midterm elections approaching, candidates will use this as an arena to debate the necessity and effectiveness of vaccine mandates. Freedom vs. public health concerns. USA vs. Canada policies etc.
From a baseball perspective, whether Canada’s mandates are right or wrong or too strict is irrelevant. This isn’t a Major League Baseball directive. It’s from the Canadian government. If they didn’t bend for hockey, they’re not going to for baseball. It’s simply the way it is. Many sports fans who think the vaccine rules are wrong would still understand bending for the good of a team.
Since the vaccines were first approved for usage, some athletes have refused to get one, calling the decision, “a personal choice.” The choice may be personal, but the ramifications are very much team-encompassing.
If the Red Sox decide to make another run at convincing their hold out players, there isn’t a lot of time to waste. Each player has to receive his second dose of Moderna or Pfizer, or their single dose of Johnson & Johnson, 14 days before arriving in Canada.
If a player’s objection to the needle is medical and not political, doing their own research will tell them that Moderna and Pfizer have been better received and have had better results than J&J. But taking either of those — with the first and second doses four weeks apart — means deciding to get vaccinated in mid-August. That’s well before they’d know if a playoff series in Toronto is possible.
Unless they get vaccinated or Canada changes its laws — unlikely with new COVID strains predicted for summer — the players and Cora are going to keep getting asked about it.
Or Houck can get to Chicago early. There’s a CVS on Addison Street in Chicago. According to Google, it’s a two-minute walk from Wrigley Field. There are nine vaccine appointments available on Wednesday and even more on Thursday and Friday. Houck can put this all behind him and focus on baseball for the rest of the season.
Story by Matt Vautour, MassLive.com.