My White Whale Is The Story Of An MLB Veteran Paying His Teammates To Get Vaccinated
2:12 PM EDT on September 29, 2021
Reporters regularly get pieces of information that we can’t publish in the state they are given to us. It’s the most frustrating feeling in the world to be given choice gossip and then never get to see that gossip glow on the page. So many good rumors die on the vine, only feeling some weak rays of sunshine on their crispy brown leaves when I whisper them to friends at a bar, or share with my editors. But sometimes a tidbit is just so good that I can’t let it go even after failing over and over again. This is a blind item, but it’s also a story about obsession.
In early June, I was busy calling any and all MLB agents I could reach in a fruitless mission to get players to open up to me with their thoughts about the COVID-19 vaccine. It would’ve been, perhaps, a baseball version of this story. One agent told me he’d heard from another agent at his agency that a certain veteran MLB player and possible future Hall of Famer paid some of his teammates to get the vaccine. (He gave me a name; because I haven’t been able to run down the story satisfactorily, I’m not going to use it here. Sorry.)
“He basically offered to give other players money if they went out and got vaccinated so they could get over the hump,” the agent said. “And I think it worked. I think there were guys who didn’t [want it] who said, ‘Well if you’re going to pay me then I will,’ and it got them over it.”
Hmm. Vaccine bribery?! Now that was a choice tidbit. A great story if I could pin it down. This agent didn’t even feel comfortable telling me who had told him this, but I had a general idea of where it came from, since this agency only has a small number of players on that team.
The rumor made some sense. MLB set an 85-percent threshold for vaccinated individuals in their traveling party (this team had already reached that threshold by the point I heard the rumor), and when teams got there, they were, among other things, allowed to cut back on mask use and tracking devices, and to socialize in the clubhouse again with pool tables and video games. Player X, we’ll call him, has been around the bases a few times, and I’m sure he doesn’t have time or energy to screw around with wearing masks in the dugout and not being able to leave his hotel room or bring his family on road trips. What does he have? Money.
I’m an NFL reporter. I don’t have the first idea of how to cover Major League Baseball, and I don’t have sources among players. So I went through the agents. I made a list of every player on that team’s roster and I started calling the MLBPA to track down their agents. The MLBPA does not have a searchable database to find out who represents a specific player. The NFLPA provides reporters with this database, and it’s one of the most helpful tools in the business. In baseball, reporters have to call the MLBPA’s main office line, and even then, they will only look up three player agents per day for you. After one of the two nice women who always answered the phone there told me I was limited to just three players, I asked why this arbitrary limit existed. Is it because you don’t have time to do more? She said it’s always just been that way.
At one point, I had called so many days in a row that one of the women told me that this service may not be available for much longer, because agents had been complaining about it.
Most of the agents I identified ignored my calls, including the other agents from the same agency as my original source, but six of them did talk to me. None admitted to hearing what I heard about the veteran player paying his teammates to get vaccinated, but one agent did run the rumor by his client, a teammate of Player X’s. His player was not with Team X during the first part of the season, when they all got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine right before opening day, so he couldn’t speak to it firsthand.
“He laughed,” the agent told me. “He said, ‘I wouldn’t put it past [Player X] to do that. I don’t know but I could confirm it for you.’ I was like, no, I don’t want you snooping around and then it ends up in an article. But he was laughing and he thought it was totally accurate.”
I said, No, we do want him snooping around! But after another call with this agent, it was clear he would not be helping any further.
Player X’s team happened to be on the road in my city the weekend after I first heard this rumor. At MLB games in 2021, because of Covid restrictions, reporters aren’t allowed in clubhouses. But we can try to speak to players during batting practice, so I attempted to get credentialed for the series. I failed because I was a little too up-front with Team X's PR staff, telling them that I wanted to ask players how the team had reached the vaccine threshold so quickly. I received this email response to my credential request:
“Our players and staff addressed this topic several times in spring training and we were one of the MLB teams on the forefront of becoming fully vaccinated. We don’t have anything more on this to share at this point. We gotta win a baseball game tonight! Trust you understand.”
Understood loud and clear. So obviously I needed to go to the team hotel. I started following every player on that team I could find on Instagram, and in just a few minutes of Insta-stalking I was able to triangulate the exact location of where they were staying. One player posted a photo of the view from his hotel room, which included a big sign for a new apartment complex. I googled the name of the complex, and bam! It was right across the street from the Ritz-Carlton.
I showed up the next morning and pretended to be waiting for a friend in the lobby. But I made a grave error and did not properly scout the layout, so I ended up talking to exactly none of the players. The Ritz-Carlton’s lobby is not on the ground level; you have to take an elevator up to it. And from there, you take a second set of elevators to the guest rooms. But I confused the two elevator banks and by the time I started recognizing players, they were headed down to ground level to get on the bus. I thought they were headed up to their rooms and would have to come back down and pass by me again. By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late.
A few weeks later, I found myself traveling to Team X’s city for an unrelated story. I tried again to get credentialed, for a home game this time. At first, the same PR staffer I had dealt with told me that my editor needed to apply online via MLB’s online credentialing system. So my editor applied for me just as instructed, but it didn’t make any difference. The next day the PR staffer emailed me this: “Thank you again Kalyn for your interest in doing a story on MLB vaccines, etc., but our players and staff are done speaking on the topic after weighing in on this topic many times earlier this spring.”
A reasonable reporter probably might have stopped there. The story would’ve been great to get, but it wouldn’t have been some huge, career-making scandal. It was more funny than anything else. But by this point, I was in too deep. I would either nail this story down, or I would bankrupt Defector in the process.
I figured that Team X’s Triple-A affiliate would have much laxer gatekeeping. I got in touch with the Triple-A PR guy. He said Sure, come on down anytime! I love the minor leagues.
I flew to the Triple-A city at the end of July. It was unbearably hot and humid, and before the game I spoke to a catcher. He said that Player X had encouraged teammates to get vaccinated so that the team could cross the threshold, but hadn't heard about Player X paying any teammates to get the vaccine. The Triple-A team's manager also said he hadn't heard the rumor.
Just as I was about to lose hope and accept this trip as a waste of your hard-earned money, dear subscriber, the PR guy waved over an outfielder who I’d specifically requested to talk to because he’d been on the MLB club's opening day roster. Here was my first and best chance at learning something from a player who had been there when the vaccine bribe had allegedly been offered.
“How did you guys get to the vaccine threshold so quickly?” I asked. I carefully chose this open-ended question to see where he might take it.
“We were strongly encouraged to take the vaccine,” the outfielder said.
Hmm, strongly encouraged. “What do you mean by that? What was the encouragement?”
“Seeing family, just respecting the veteran guys, the older guys, respecting their opinions.”
“Which veteran guys?”
“All of them, for the most part, were like, Hey, if we reach 85 percent, we can see our families sooner, keep that in mind.”
Then the outfielder described the sales push that took place on the team plane to the first series of the year, where Team X would receive the J&J shot. He said that one veteran player, who he did not initially name, got on the plane’s intercom and made an announcement. “It was like, ‘Hey, get the vaccine, we got three more guys to hit 85 percent.’ And then guys got the vaccine and everything was OK.”
I asked him who it was who took over the intercom, but the PR guy, who was standing right next to me, cut in before the outfielder could answer. “You don’t have to say,” the PR guy instructed him. I sighed. Really dude? We’re gonna do this?
“So on that day, you only needed three more guys to commit to getting the vaccine, and whoever it was who got on the mic said that?” I asked.
“Right before we landed,” the outfielder said. “[He said], ‘We have a couple guys that didn’t say yes or no to the vaccine, so we’d strongly appreciate it.’ Might have been a little bribery in there.”
He gave me a knowing smile as he said that last part. Bribery! Wow. I hadn’t even told him what I’d heard and he’d offered it up on his own.
I then told him the rumor I’d heard, naming Player X. “Can you confirm?” I asked.
“That may or may not be true,” he said, smiling and laughing.
“How much did he pay?”
“I don’t know personally,” he said.
“So if I’m understanding this correctly, three guys may or may not have been bribed to get the vaccine so you guys could reach the threshold?”
“Yeah,” he said, laughing again.
“And it may or may not have been [Player X]?”
“It may or may not have been, that’s right,” he said. “I am neutral with my response.”
I asked him the names of the three players who originally had not committed to getting the vaccine and may or may not have been bribed to do so. “I know one, I don’t know the other two,” he said. “I know one of the guys, he’s not here anymore.”
“Can you say who that player is?”
The PR guy cut in: “No.”
“I can’t?” the outfielder asked, looking back and forth between me and the PR guy.
“No, that’s personal stuff, you can’t say that,” the PR guy said.
“People know other people’s vaccine status,” I noted.
“They do,” the outfielder agreed.
“That’s not OK,” the PR guy said.
Fine. I’ll move on. The outfielder said that he originally didn’t want to get the vaccine because he was afraid of long-term effects, but he didn’t want to be the only holdout, so he agreed to get it even before the mysterious veteran made the announcement on the team plane. “I should have said no and maybe I would have been compensated,” he deadpanned. “I am kidding, I am totally kidding.”
The PR guy quickly escorted me to the press box and let me know that would conclude my interviews for the day, because the players wouldn't have any more time to talk. I checked the clock, and there were still almost two hours before first pitch.
I grabbed my notebook and recorder and went back down to the stands, as close as I could get to the dugout. There were still two more players who had been on the major-league team’s opening day roster that I wanted to talk to. I pulled up their photos on my phone and their jersey numbers so I could identify them. (As I sat there, the outfielder I had spoken to caught my attention. “Hey!” he said. “Are you going to publish that? I’m afraid I said something I shouldn’t have.”)
I flagged down one of my other targets, a pitcher. He told me he had made the decision that he would get the vaccine as soon as it was available way back in August 2020, when he was stuck in a hotel room for six days because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the organization. He could only leave his room to go get food and get tested. “I have never been to jail or anything, but I had to imagine it was pretty close, other than it being a very nice hotel,” he said.
The pitcher had been on the fateful team flight this spring, and he remembered it similarly —a veteran player took to the intercom to urge three more players to get vaccinated. “Once they smelled how close they were [to the threshold], the politicking got pretty hard,” the pitcher said.
He also wouldn’t reveal the identity of the veteran who took over the intercom “like a flight attendant doing a safety check,” only going so far as to describe the person as “an older player.”
When I told the pitcher who I’d heard Player X was, and that the outfielder had told me there might have been bribery involved, the pitcher laughed and said he didn’t know about it. “I mean, it could have been,” he said. “I wish I would have known about it sooner, I would have held out a little longer. I personally haven't heard it and I don't know that it actually happened but I would have liked to know about it a little sooner and I would have held out a little.”
I asked if Player X was the same veteran player who’d gotten on the plane intercom.
“I cannot confirm or deny,” he said, smiling.
As soon as I got home, I set about tracking down players who had been on Team X's opening day roster but were no longer part of the organization. This was pre–trade deadline, and I came up with only one player who fit the bill, an infielder.
By the time I got around to calling him, he’d just been DFAed by another organization. He had no phone number listed on Whitepages or Nexis, so I decided to use one of my favorite reporting strategies. I called the number listed for his dad.
“Hello?” a voice answered, and it sounded too young to be a 60-something dad.
“Hi, is this [infielder]?”
“Yes it is.”
I explained to him that I was writing about Team X and the vaccine and would like to ask him some questions about it. He agreed to talk and said that he was initially not “all for it” but he got vaccinated that opening week because he knew he was right on the edge of making the team and he didn’t want to risk having to miss 10 days if he tested positive. “That gives somebody else an opportunity," he said. “That was the biggest thing for me, if I could get that vaccine and stay up.”
He said that the vaccine was basically a requirement for borderline guys like him. I asked him if any of the veteran players in particular took an active role in the vaccine education.
He laughed. “Yeah, like how so?”
I told him about the plane scene, but he said he didn’t remember it. “It sounds like it could have happened, but I am not 100 percent sure on that,” he said. “I was there but I might have been asleep or something.”
Then I told him what the outfielder had said, that there might or might not have been bribery involved in the politicking. “[He] said that?” he said. “Shoot, I don't know, it sounds like [he’s] got a good memory though.”
It felt like everyone I talked to was in on the secret, like they were waving around one of those feathery jingly cat toys and I was the cat. I tried a few former Team X staffers who had left in the last year, but none wanted to talk. I stalked Team X players’ Venmo transactions, but there were no smoking guns.
My last-ditch effort was an attempt to get credentialed for a Team X road series in my city in September. I went through the proper channels, with plenty of advance notice. But a few days before the series, I hadn’t heard anything, so I decided to send an email to the home team’s PR staff to check in. I hadn’t told them what I was working on and this time, I didn’t plan to.
The team’s PR director replied a day and a half later. “Thanks for reaching out and your interest in covering the team. Unfortunately, we will not be able to grant credentials ... as we have limited space and prioritize media who have covered both clubs throughout the year.”
Ugh! I replied that I actually did not need a press box seat, just pregame access for batting practice, so I would not even physically take up a seat. They never replied. Naturally, I complained to a Team X beat writer, who told me, on the last day of the series, that “there have absolutely been empty seats in this press box both yesterday and today.”
Now I was convinced the fix was in. The Man did not want me sniffing around. I had no choice but to use my Ritz-Carlton reconnaissance from June and try to stick it to everyone. I didn’t need their permission! I knew which elevators were which this time!
So there I was, in the Ritz-Carlton lobby at 7:30 a.m. ahead of an afternoon game, doing “work” on my computer to look less suspicious. Soon enough, I spotted a man wearing very nice jeans and a jacket and an expensive looking backpack. This must be a Team X player, I thought. "Are you a [Team X] player?" I asked. "A what?" he replied.
"Oh sorry, they are here and your clothes looked nice."
"Oh thank you," he said.
I shuffled away.
I went over to a Ritz employee who I thought was hotel security, and who I was convinced was following me around. He seemed to know all the players and staff so I introduced myself and explained that I was a reporter who had not been given access to the game, so the best I could do was come to the hotel. “Oh I don’t care,” he said. “I’m just the bellhop.”
I moved closer to the elevator bank that led to the ground floor. Around 9:00 a.m., the players started to come down.
First up was an infielder, who patiently listened to my spiel and then said, “I’m in a huge rush, I’ll grab you on my way back up. Will you still be here?” He was gone for about 10 minutes. He returned with a heavy-looking Walgreens bag, and walked right past me to the other elevator bank. I did not follow him over there to beg him to talk to me again. I do have a little bit of pride.
Then came an outfielder, who I knew had only just gotten vaccinated last month, one of Team X’s few holdouts! He was on my list of guys. He would have answers to my questions for sure. I jumped out of my chair and walked towards him with my notebook. He completely ignored me when I shouted his name twice. I was honestly impressed he could so easily ignore the natural instinct to respond to one’s name. No eye contact either, as he hurried into an elevator. I made a mental note to identify myself as a reporter more quickly, so they wouldn’t assume I was some sort of groupie.
Next was a utilityman, who I stopped in front of the elevators going downstairs at 9:29 a.m. “Oh I’m sorry, the bus is leaving in one minute!” he said, hammering the down button.
Then I spotted another outfielder by his easily identifiable mullet, strutting through the lobby in a very cool black and white swirl-patterned short-sleeve shirt. He walked towards the coffee bar and then headed outside to the terrace, where he sat alone eating his breakfast. I guess the bus hadn’t been leaving in one minute. I opened the door to the terrace and approached him to explain my mission. He listened intently, and nicely explained that he couldn’t answer any questions without the team’s permission, so I would need to go through the team. I said yes, I understood that, but I’d already tried twice and the team PR staff said that the players are done talking about the vaccine and nobody will credential me. He said he was sorry to hear that, and then I asked him if I could talk to him off the record. He said no, so I left the man to eat his banana and drink his coffee in peace.
Feeling defeated, I returned to the lobby, and that’s where I spotted him: Player X. He and another player were exiting the first elevator bank and walking to the second that would take them to the ground-floor exit. I rose from my seat and power-walked up to Player X, who was wearing a set of noise-canceling headphones. “[Player X]! I’m a reporter. [Player X]! I’m a reporter!” I said, as he looked straight ahead and never once glanced in my direction. The other player, a tall fellow I didn’t recognize in the moment, did notice me—unfortunately. “Hey! Not here! Not in here,” he shouted at me.
“I couldn’t get a credential because of COVID capacity limits,” I said, helplessly gesturing with my notebook.
“Still. This is our hotel.”
They got into the elevator and left.
It should probably go without saying that a message left for Player X's agent was not returned. So that’s it. I give up. I will never write this story, and it will, perhaps, never be reported. Please do not email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any tips, because I would have to chase them.