The Yankees traded for outfielder Andrew Benintendi last night. Benintendi was one of the dozen unvaccinated Kansas City Royals players and coaches placed on the restricted list before the team traveled to Toronto for a three-game series against the Jays earlier this month. As a kind of mean parting message to the Royals organization, Benintendi is reportedly willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine now that he plays for a contender. The New York Post‘s Jon Heyman said Benintendi indicated before the trade that he’d get the vaccine if necessary. Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic says his “vaccination status was never discussed.” Benintendi today denied agreeing to anything before the trade, but said he is now “open-minded.” Reports in the last week said as much—that the Benintendi trade market had remained lively even after the news of his vaccination status came out. Or in other words, that no team believed Benintendi’s commitment to be especially sincere.
Maybe they had a feeling after hearing what Benintendi’s Royals teammate Whit Merrifield straight up said out loud: “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,” he told reporters, after reassuring them of his “long thought process.” Stubborn baseball guys exist in every clubhouse, even in the winning ones. Nolan Arenado of the second-place Cardinals, for instance, told reporters last week that he’d consider getting the vaccine if it meant being able to play in the World Series, a “once-in-a-lifetime thing.” But when half a lineup wouldn’t mind missing a series, and when it is also an open secret that many of them would take the jab on the way to playing meaningful baseball elsewhere, you really do have to stop and contemplate the costs of playing hundreds of meaningless baseball games. The Royals are last in a terrible AL Central, sellers since Opening Day. Is it so surprising they couldn’t convince the players that any of this season matters?
Dayton Moore, the Royals’ president, vocally opposes tanking, which is funny, because it isn’t clear what exactly he’s doing if not that. The Royals are on pace for six straight losing seasons. Whatever you call it, the result is the same: a culture where players have no interest in taking care of themselves or their teammates. Forget the immunocompromised or the broader social reasons to get vaccinated—the players hanging out in the dugout together every single day do not even feel any obligation to each other. Something is so profoundly ugly and wrong here, and it is bigger than a couple of baseball players doing their own research. This is not to say the unvaccinated Royals don’t bear responsibility for their own poor decisions; other nowhere-bound teams have managed the trip to Toronto without having to call up the entire AAA affiliate. But when Moore, an easily disgusted guy, said in a radio interview that he was “disgusted” by Merrifield’s comments, I did wonder whether he was curious at all about how his organization had managed to breed this much apathy. Make fun of the Yankee Way—please!—but at least they’ve done the work of getting everyone invested.
Benintendi—and Merrifield, if he’s traded and then vaccinated—will get heat for being hypocritical, unprincipled and dumb. That is fine. They should, and they are all those things. But the real revelation to me has been less about Benintendi and more about the Royals, how easy it is to turn professional athletes (the world’s most hypercompetitive psychos!!) into a bunch of guys who can’t be bothered. There is such thing as a losing culture. Its consequences are pretty awful.