Jays are most disadvantaged with border restrictions

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It’s going to be a story all season.

Every time a team comes to town to take on the Blue Jays, we’ll be looking at their roster moves to see which players are on the shortlist. Just another way of saying they can’t cross the border because they chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

These players are allowed to be replaced on the roster, and the substitutes do not have to be added to the 40-player roster, nor do they have to go through waivers to revert back to minors. Players on the shortlist are not paid for missed time and do not accrue major league service time.

Last weekend, the Jays won two of three games at home against an Oakland A team that lacked relievers AJ Puk and Kirby Snead and receiver Austin Allen. On Monday, the A’s placed all three on the COVID-19 injured list, along with reliever Lou Trivino and infielders Jed Lowrie and Chad Pinder, all of whom played in Toronto.

Next week, the Boston Red Sox will arrive without starting pitcher Tanner Houck, among others. Houck, 25 and entering what he hopes will be his first full major league season, has made two starts this season, posting a 3.00 ERA. He’s been on the mound for 40% of Red Sox wins.

The right-hander told the Boston Globe on Sunday that he thought getting the shot was a personal choice and was “definitely disappointed that I couldn’t start (in Toronto).” Which is an interesting way to frame it, because the reason he’s not able to start is because of a choice he made. It is clear that this does not annoy him enough to change his mind about the vaccination.

Houck isn’t the only Red Sox player not making the trip north. Manager Alex Cora told reporters the team had several who would not be allowed to come and were preparing accordingly.

The story, as reported most often south of the border, is that the Jays have a competitive advantage this season due to Canada’s strict rules requiring visiting professional athletes to be vaccinated.

Of course, that’s not true. At all, in fact.

The truth is, the restriction goes both ways and the unvaccinated Jays would only be forced to play half the season. The Jays players have all made the choice to act in the best interests of broader public health, and in the best interests of their team more narrowly.

Seeing Snead’s name on Oakland’s shortlist this weekend was a pretty big clue as to why the Jays included him in the four-man package sent west in exchange for the third baseman. Matt Chapman during last month’s big trade. In an ironic twist, left-hander Zack Logue, who was also in that trade, traveled to Toronto to take Snead’s place in the A’s bullpen. Logue found himself sitting and watching all three games, and still hasn’t made his major league debut.

All talk of competitive advantage ignores a pretty important part of the discussion: players from other teams don’t have to miss these games.

They are not turned away at the border because of something over which they have no control. No mainstream religion prohibits vaccination, including Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s 2019 Review of Immunizations and Religions. To be fair, I don’t know how many MLB players are members of the Dutch Reformed Church or Endtime Ministries. But I would say that if there are, they would be extremely few.

There’s probably no one who plays in the major leagues who “can’t” play games in Toronto. Many have made the conscious choice not to get vaccinated in the midst of a global pandemic, fully understanding the consequences of that choice.

But it’s not as simple as saying the Jays have a competitive advantage because all of their players have chosen to act in the best interest of public health. In fact, due to cross-border travel regulations, the Jays are at a distinct disadvantage.

The Jays are the only major league team that is required to test players for COVID-19 before they leave on every road trip.

As we well know, being vaccinated – even reinforced – does not mean that one cannot be infected, although the overwhelming majority of cases among fully vaccinated people are mild. Many wouldn’t even know they were infected without a test.

Blue Jays director of travel and clubhouse operations Mike Shaw says players have to take a rapid antigen test every time the team flies to the United States, which is a huge burden for the only Canadian team in the league.

Other teams also have to take tests when they leave Canada, but it’s only three times for the Red Sox, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles and only once for all the other teams the Jays play in Toronto.

It’s entirely possible that the three vaccinated Oakland players were asymptomatic and never would have been tested if it weren’t mandatory to return to the United States, but this is the only time the team has will cross the border this year. The Jays have already undergone two travel tests and will have to do so another dozen times during the season. The playoffs are an entirely different animal, with back and forth within the same series.

Much more than a competitive disadvantage for the Jays that any opposing team will face, of course.

That won’t preclude stories from south of the border, though.

Mike Wilner is a Toronto-based baseball columnist for The Star and host of the “Deep Left Field” baseball podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @wilnerness

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