While the Cardinals were amid a brutal slump in the weeks leading up to the All-Star break, Nolan Arenado took it upon himself to speak to the media on behalf of the team. It came on the heels of a 4-0 loss to the Dodgers, the Cardinals’ fourth loss in a seven-game stretch, and the message Arenado delivered couldn’t have been clearer.
“Absolutely you want to win the division,” he said. “I don’t want to win the wild card anymore. Obviously, if you get to the playoffs, it’s great — if we get in, great — but you want to win the division. It’s important to win the division. I’ve never won it. I’d like to be a part of that.”
Just 10 days later, however, it was revealed that Arenado and fellow All-Star Paul Goldschmidt will take a step back from that pursuit. Neither player has his COVID-19 vaccination, making them ineligible to enter Canada, per the country’s vaccine mandate. As such, the team will be without its two best players for a two-game series in Toronto beginning Tuesday, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak announced Sunday morning.
Arenado, Goldschmidt and catcher Austin Romine will be placed on MLB’s restricted list and forfeit two days of service time and pay. Reliever Johan Oviedo — a Cuba native — has an expired passport and isn’t expected to make the trip either, barring special circumstances, leaving the Cardinals four players short.
However, the absence of Goldschmidt and Arenado couldn’t loom any larger, as the Cardinals will be without their impassioned clubhouse leaders and heart-of-the-order bats for two games against a potent Blue Jays team.
“It’s a personal decision,” Mozeliak said to reporters Sunday morning via Zoom. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve all been dealing with a pandemic. Everybody’s had to make their own choices on how they participate with some of the rules that were put in place, whether that was wearing masks versus not wearing masks or getting the vaccine versus not. The one sort of positive here is that it’s only two games, and from that standpoint, life will find a way of going on.
“I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest to try to pass judgment or try to make this more than what it is. They’re not available, and we’re going to have to go play the game.”
In the grand scheme of things, missing two games out of 162 doesn’t seem particularly glaring. Yet the Cardinals got off to a fairly sluggish start coming out of the All-Star break, dropping two of three to the Reds, and now sitting 2 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the division. Two games could make or break a division crown.
So, how did the team’s two best players make a choice that will result in an absence, a choice that clashes with the type of competitors they’ve established themselves as?
“I talked to as many doctors and medical professionals as I could try to gather as much info on what they know, what they don’t know and all of that type of stuff,” Goldschmidt told The Athletic. “For me, I just determined that the potential risks of taking the vaccine outweigh the potential benefits.
“It’s obviously not an easy decision; there’s a lot of stuff going on. The last thing I want to do is what’s going to affect the team. But I just felt that the risks outweigh the benefits for me, and (I’m) just trying to make the best medical decision I can for myself.”
When asked whether he’d like to expand on those risks, Goldschmidt declined.
“This has been a very controversial subject for a lot of people and probably really should be a pretty private, personal medical decision,” he said.
For Arenado, the Toronto series was something he was aware of when the schedule was released, but he was hoping Canada would have relaxed its mandates by this point.
“It’s my own personal reasons why. I don’t really want to get into too much detail about it,” Arenado said on a separate phone call with The Athletic. “It’s unfortunate because I don’t want to miss games, especially when I’m healthy. I was just kind of hopeful that Canada was going to turn.”
Hundreds of millions of Americans have safely received a COVID-19 vaccination, with the CDC citing 599 million doses being given in the United States from Dec. 14, 2020, through July 13, 2022. Canada follows the same vaccine mandates as the United States: Non-citizens are unable to enter the country unless they are vaccinated against COVID-19. Athletes are not exempt from this mandate.
“For anybody that pays attention to the news or what’s happening in our country, a lot of these issues can be quite polarizing,” Mozeliak said. “What I’m hoping to do is avoid that polarization with our club or inside the clubhouse because we all have strong opinions on what we think the right answer should be. But I think we also all understand that it’s hard to convince people to do something they’re not comfortable doing.”
Arenado and Goldschmidt understand the implications of their absences. They also understand the weight of their decisions in the clubhouse.
“The last thing you want to do is potentially think you let the team down — or not be able to perform,” Goldschmidt said. “There’s always choices of trying to balance life, your health or different decisions compared to baseball. I hate the situation. I was hoping this wouldn’t happen. But I really tried to take that out of it because it’s an important medical decision.”
“Me being able to go to Toronto, I don’t think it guarantees us anything,” Arenado said. “It doesn’t guarantee us a win. I understand that our chances are a lot higher when Goldy and I are in the lineup. … I can’t sit here and say I’m not disappointed I’m missing games. I am. Obviously, I’m not happy about it. I don’t want to miss games when I’m feeling good health-wise. But those are the rules going on in Canada, and I just have to follow the rules.
“I’m not trying to be a political figure here. I’m not hardcore right-wing or left-wing; I’m just a man making a decision about my health.”
As for how Arenado’s and Goldschmidt’s choices affect their status in the clubhouse, the players and Mozeliak are hopeful there can be some understanding.
“I don’t know that answer,” Mozeliak said. “I guess time will tell. It hasn’t been something that we’ve been talking about internally down there. Most people respect what they do on the field and in the clubhouse. My assumption or my guess would be that even though some people may view this as disappointing, I still think they’re going to have a lot of political capital in the clubhouse and will still be respected.
“What we don’t want to do is have this become the first step in fracturing what a positive clubhouse we have. Could we have convinced them to do this? I don’t think it was really something we were pounding the table for. We sort of talked about it, but it wasn’t something I thought anyone was going to change their minds (on).”
“I think the conversations about this entire subject has happened with many different teammates,” Goldschmidt said. “There’s many different opinions and ways guys feel about it. But the great thing is I’ve had plenty of those with guys, and I can respect that they may have differing opinions. They can respect the choices I’ve made, and I respect the choices they made. I think that’s very healthy that guys are coming hopefully without judgment.
“What’s happened in the last two years, I think that’s where I bring in some perspective. My situation of not getting to play in two games pales in comparison to what’s really happened to a lot of people. There’s been some very terrible things, from people dying to losing loved ones and jobs — I mean, the list goes on and on. So, I try to keep some perspective. It’s a very serious thing. But again, I think being in a locker room and being with guys, we have a family bond, so to have times where you can disagree, I think that’s just a normal part of the process.”
Time will reveal the magnitude of Goldschmidt’s and Arenado’s decisions, at least from a baseball perspective. Perhaps this is simply a small note in the middle of a stretch of uninspiring baseball from the Cardinals. Perhaps two missed games end up having a much more significant impact over the final two months of the season. But what can be measured immediately is how two of baseball’s biggest names handle any controversy sure to come their way.
“(The team) knows we give everything we have,” Arenado said. “I think throughout this whole year we’ve shown them we’re all in. It’s unfortunate we have to miss two games, but that doesn’t take away from how much we want to win and how important we know those games are. ”
• Starting pitching woes continue to plague the Cardinals. Steven Matz was placed on the 15-day injured list before Sunday’s game with a left knee strain that was sustained when the 31-year-old attempted to make a play on a slow groundball in the sixth inning Saturday. After Sunday’s game, manager Oli Marmol revealed to reporters in Cincinnati and later confirmed to The Athletic that Matz suffered a torn MCL and will miss the next several weeks. It’s unknown if Matz will need surgery, and the injury doesn’t necessarily rule him out of the remainder of the season, but it does deliver a significant blow to a rotation already prevented by injury. It’s also a brutal result for Matz, whose outing Saturday marked his first start since he was placed on the IL in mid-May with a left shoulder impingement. His start — 5 1/3 innings, three hits, two earned runs, one walk and seven strikeouts — was by far the best he’s looked as a Cardinal.
• Harrison Bader (right foot plantar fasciitis) was shut down from his rehab assignment after experiencing a flare-up in his heel after his first rehab game Friday with Triple-A Memphis, per Mozeliak. The Cardinals were optimistic their Gold Glove center fielder could return for the Toronto series. Instead, Bader will seek a second opinion over the next week.
• Dakota Hudson (neck strain) notched five innings of one-run ball with three walks and six strikeouts for Memphis in what is expected to be his only rehab start. Andre Pallante and Adam Wainwright are the probable starters in Toronto (with Wainwright able to pitch on full rest thanks to an off day Monday), but the Cardinals have Hudson penciled for a return during the next series in Washington.
• Drew VerHagen (right hip impingement) is set to begin a throwing program Monday. This is the third IL stint (and second involving the hip) for VerHagen, who has struggled in his first season with the Cardinals.
• Juan Yepez (Grade 2 forearm strain) progressed to taking swings in the batting cages Saturday but experienced soreness. The team is expected to be cautious and patient with Yepez and does not have an immediate timetable for a potential rehab program.
• Mozeliak intends to speak with Jack Flaherty (right shoulder strain) and Yadier Molina (right knee inflammation) over the next two days — both have been rehabbing away from the team — in hopes of establishing a clear route for their returns. Flaherty is on the 60-day IL and isn’t eligible to return until late August at the earliest. The Cardinals have tentatively planned for Molina to return to the big-league club Aug. 2. They’d like for him to play at least a few rehab games with a minor-league affiliate, but they have not selected where that will take place . The hope is Molina can begin his rehab assignment by early next week.
(Photo: Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)