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Outrage in Puerto Rico as MLB nixes Pirates series

| Friday, May 6, 2016, 4:39 p.m.

ST. LOUIS — Pittsburgh Pirates players, concerned about the Zika virus, never wavered in their opposition to playing a two-game series this month in Puerto Rico.

After a closed-door meeting with health officials last Saturday, the players voted on whether they would meet the Miami Marlins May 30-31 in San Juan. The answer was no.

“It was unanimous,” said pitcher Gerrit Cole, the team's union representative.

Marlins players expressed the same concerns. Failing to find a compromise, Major League Baseball and the Players Association on Friday opted to relocate the games to Marlins Park in Miami.

“I'm not surprised,” pitcher Jared Hughes said. “It's up to the Players' Association to protect the security and safety of the players, and that's what came into play here. It's also disappointing, because we would have loved to have played in Puerto Rico.”

The decision enraged officials in the hometown of Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.

“More than just the cancellation of two games. These players are turning their backs on Puerto Rico and casting unnecessary and unfounded doubts on the safety for others considering a visit to Puerto Rico,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told the Tribune-Review.

“We are very disillusioned over the decision,” Luis Clemente, son of the late Puerto Rican great, told the Tribune-Review from Puerto Rico. “This will cause enormous damage to our economy. The island was really counting on the support of Major League Baseball and the Pirates.”

Clemente, 49, said he hopes to meet with league officials in the near future.

“I was born being part of the Pirates, and we've always had a solid relationship,” he said. “But as a Puerto Rican who lives in Puerto Rico, I can tell you there's great disgust over what has transpired, and I can understand it.”

Pirates President Frank Coonelly said the Pirates are “disappointed'' that they are not making the trip.

“We very much looked forward to this opportunity,'' Coonelly said. “However, the health and safety of our traveling party must be and is our first priority. As a result, the Pirates fully support the decision by the commissioner and the Players Association to postpone the trip to San Juan.

“We are saddened by the circumstances in Puerto Rico and elsewhere that led to this decision. We are hopeful that the public health institutions can quickly eradicate the health risks that are regrettably affecting the Puerto Rican people. We look forward to an opportunity in the near future to return to Puerto Rico to play before the great Pirates fans who were so excited for these games.”

The Zika outbreak is affecting large parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, with Brazil the hardest hit so far. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, has confirmed 683 Zika cases.

The virus is spread by mosquito bites and sexual intercourse.

The day before the Pirates' meeting, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first death caused by Zika in Puerto Rico.

“There are a lot of unknowns about the virus,” Cole said. “Ultimately, we just didn't feel comfortable.”

Cruz, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate and former Pittsburgh resident, said she was dismayed about a decision she believes was “based on fear and not on the facts which are available.”

“Decisions based on fear are undoubtedly decisions that mask other issues such as discrimination,” she said. “I sincerely hope this is not the case.”

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at UPMC, said he does not support the league's decision.

“It's hard to know all the behind-the-scenes calculations that Major League Baseball took into consideration, but I do not think canceling the games in Puerto Rico was justifiable medically or scientifically,” he said. “Zika, for the vast majority of those infected, poses little risk. It is pregnant females who should avoid travel to areas of the world in which Zika is prevalent. Men would have to consider the risk of sexual transmission upon return, but that fact doesn't preclude them going.”

Adalja cautioned that the decision to move the games sets a bad precedent.

“Many people travel to and from these areas on a daily basis, and Olympians soon will,” he said, referring to the upcoming Olympics Games in Brazil. “These types of actions send the wrong message about this virus when other parts of the United States such as Florida, Texas and Hawaii may have local mosquito transmission of the virus.”

The University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg baseball team played six games March 4-8 in Puerto Rico in the inaugural Clemente Cup tournament. Athletic director Tony Berich said he and the team were aware of the Zika situation before going on the trip.

“It never got to a level where we considered backing out,” Berich said. “No parents or student-athletes ever raised any issues. The kids were excited about the Clemente Cup and just wanted to go play. We heard about (the virus), but it seemed like it was so far away so it was not an issue.”

Berich said none of the players or coaches has been tested for Zika since they returned, and no one has been ill.

“There have been no issues that we're aware of,” Berich said.

Puerto Rico officials said they invested more than $2 million to prepare for the Pirates-Marlins games, including $750,000 to replace the artificial turf at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, where the games were scheduled.

“We have kept our word. We have made the necessary investments. We continue to take all the necessary precautions and, as such, we expected the players to keep their word,” Cruz said.

The Zika virus generally produces a relatively mild illness but has been linked to birth defects and brain damage in newborns. Cases in the United States have been contracted through foreign travel. The virus has not yet been transmitted by mosquitoes in the United States.

Zika is primarily transmitted by Aedes aegypti, a species of mosquito that thrives in tropical areas and exists in the southern United States, surfacing in warmer months. Experts say cases of mosquitoes carrying Zika could start surfacing in states such as Florida, the Gulf Coast and Texas by late summer.

The CDC confirmed last month that the Zika virus can cause microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with smaller than normal heads and often improperly developed brains.

MLB later this month will hold several youth baseball and community events in Puerto Rico. Commissioner Manfred and several former MLB players are expected to attend.

MLB and the union also will make contributions to the CDC Foundation to assist efforts to eradicate Zika in Puerto Rico.

Staff writers Ben Schmitt and Jerry DiPaola contributed to this report. Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Luis Fábregas is the Tribune-Review's deputy managing editor for news.

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