TAMPA, Fla. – The cardboard cutouts are long gone. Same with all that phony, pumped-in stadium noise. For players, there's no more face masks in dugouts or clubhouses. Far less spitting into testing cups, too.
Yet, amid COVID-19 restrictions in Canada and New York, one thing has become clear over the past week while baseball speeds toward the 2022 season:
“Life is not back to normal yet,” Yankees reliever Zack Britton said Wednesday.
Fans of the Yankees and Mets were shaken Tuesday by confirmation from New York City that the same private employer vaccine mandate that has sidelined NBA star Kyrie Irving for Brooklyn Nets’ home games would also apply at the outdoor baseball parks in the Bronx and Queens.
That concern ratcheted to another level after Yankees star Aaron Judge took a hard side-step when asked Tuesday if he was vaccinated.
The Mets also could be seriously affected. Last year, they were among six teams that did not reach the 85% vaccination rate among on-field staff, including players, necessary for relaxed virus protocols under Major League Baseball’s health and safety plan.
Yankees chairman Hal Steinbrenner said Wednesday that team president Randy Levine is speaking with the city about finding a solution before opening day April 7.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said at a news conference Wednesday that athletes were not his top concern but added that he would work with MLB.
“We’re going to do an analysis. Baseball season is not tomorrow. It’s not next week. We are going to work this out. We will ensure the safety of New Yorkers without continuing the spread of COVID,” he said, adding “but I'm not going to be rushed in based on a season schedule."
Britton, a member of the players’ association’s executive subcommittee, said Wednesday that the union was also in communication with government officials and had anticipated there might be complications.
“We knew just because the Irving stuff was going on,” Britton told The Associated Press. “I think the indoor-outdoor venue was maybe like a little bit of a question mark on that. But I think it was something that we knew might be something we needed to tackle before the season starts."
“Hopefully logic prevails,” first-year Mets ace and fellow subcommittee member Max Scherzer told reporters.
The union and league agreed as part of a new labor contract settled last week that unvaccinated players won't receive pay or service time if they miss games in Toronto against the Blue Jays due to Canada's vaccine requirement for entry. The boarder issues have led to speculation about an unusual homefield advantage for the Jays.
The Boston Red Sox are better prepared for that after several players were vaccinated this offseason, including Xander Bogaerts and Christian Arroyo. The club failed to reach 85% vaccination last year and was hit hard by the virus late in the season.
Ace left-hander Chris Sale said Wednesday he has chosen to remain unvaccinated, but he'll miss Boston's first visit to Toronto from April 25-28 anyway because of a stress fracture in his rib cage.
Much else about the sport will take significant steps toward normalcy.
Under updated health and safety protocols announced Wednesday, intake COVID-19 testing remains, but after that, players will only be tested when showing signs or reporting symptoms. Players and team personnel only have to wear masks in clubhouses and other indoor areas if mandated by local regulations.
“I know it does help guys’ mentality throughout the year, where they can have family and they can go see family,” Oakland Athletics pitcher Daulton Jeffries said. “Just to give them a little bit of a break from the baseball grind.”
The league is also maintaining an ability to move games if the public health situation in an area deteriorates and will “postpone games only if necessary to protect the health and safety of club personnel, players and umpires.” The COVID-19 injured list remains, but players with a positive test can exit with two negative tests.
“It’s good to have things feel more normal,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “And it definitely feels that way.”
HIGH FLYING BIRDS
The star-studded Blue Jays added a three-time Gold Glove winner to their infield, acquiring third baseman Matt Chapman from the payroll-shedding Oakland Athletics.
A five-year veteran, Chapman hit .201 with 27 home runs and 72 RBIs in 151 games for the Athletics last season. He was a first-time All-Star in 2019.
Since the end of the lockout, the A’s also dealt All-Star righty Chris Bassitt to the New York Mets and first baseman Matt Olson to Atlanta. The three trades cut Oakland’s projected payroll by about $30 million.
Oakland received right-hander Gunnar Hoglund, Toronto’s top pick in the 2021 amateur draft, minor league left-hander Zach Logue, left-handed reliever Kirby Snead, and infielder Kevin Smith.
Kyle Schwarber agreed to a four-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies worth about $80 million, a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement was subject to a successful physical.
A 29-year-old slugging outfielder, Schwarber split last season with Washington and Boston. He hit .266 with 32 home runs and belted a grand slam for the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series.
Schwarber also got a few reps at first base with Boston, but he's most likely to be utilized as a designated hitter for the Phillies as the NL adopts the DH.
FROM FAR EAST TO NORTH SIDE
The Chicago Cubs and star Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki have agreed to an $85-million, five-year deal, a person familiar with the situation told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because the deal was pending a physical.
The agreement signals the Cubs hope to speed up the rebuilding process after breaking up their 2016 championship core before last season’s trade deadline.
The 27-year-old Suzuki was a five-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner over nine seasons with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Japan's Central League. He batted .317 with 38 home runs and 88 RBIs in 132 games last season and had nearly as many walks (87) as strikeouts (88). He is a career .315 hitter with 182 homers and 562 RBIs for Hiroshima.
Chicago will pay an additional $14,625,000 as a posting fee to the Carp.
Freelancer Theresa Smith in Mesa, Arizona, contributed.
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