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Puerto Rico irked by likely loss of Pirates-Marlins series

| Wednesday, May 4, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
This Jan. 28, 2015 photo shows an aerial view of beachfront houses in the exclusive neighborhood of Ocean Park in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
This Jan. 28, 2015 photo shows an aerial view of beachfront houses in the exclusive neighborhood of Ocean Park in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico officials on Wednesday expressed indignation over the potential cancellation of a Pittsburgh versus Miami baseball series scheduled on the island, saying concerns about the Zika virus are overblown.

Calling off the games would be disrespectful to the family of the late Pirates star Roberto Clemente and, more importantly, could cost the cash-strapped U.S. territory millions of dollars in lost revenue, lawmakers and tourism officials said.

“It's an outrageous situation,” Rep. Angel Matos, head of the tourism commission for Puerto Rico's House of Representatives, told the Tribune-Review. “The reality is that this cancellation is unfair, disproportionate, and makes our country look bad. It's an act of touristic terrorism.”

Major League Baseball has not officially canceled the series, scheduled to be played May 30 and 31 in San Juan. MLB officials and the players union have declined to comment. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto told the Trib that all indications point to the games being canceled.

“I haven't given up,” Cruz said. “We are still reaching out and hope they will reconsider.”

Players from both teams have held meetings to discuss concerns about exposure to the mosquito-borne Zika, which is responsible for an outbreak ravaging Brazil. Puerto Rico has confirmed 683 Zika cases, including 65 pregnant women, and five suspected cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome from Zika, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The odds for them to contract Zika are less than them hitting 20 home runs in a game,” said University of Pittsburgh professor Ernesto Marques, a physician and microbiologist who has been immersed in the fight against Zika for a year.

The virus, which has spread to more than 40 countries, 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. Marques said cases of mosquitoes bearing Zika could start surfacing in states such as Florida and Texas by late summer.

Marques, who divides his time between Pittsburgh and his hometown of Recife, Brazil, said Pirates players should travel to Puerto Rico and play ball. Mosquitoes tend to be less active after sunset, which is when the games are scheduled, he said.

“For adult males, there is not much concern at all,” he said. “It's true that the mosquito activity greatly decreases when the sun goes down. If the game is in the evening and the players wear long sleeves and mosquito repellent, they should be fine.”

There's also a probability that a player's symptoms could be mild enough that he would never know he was infected, Marques said.

He did cite one exception: Players with wives or girlfriends who are trying to conceive should skip the trip.

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

“If they are currently trying to have a baby, then they probably should not go,” he said.

Experts still do not know the duration that Zika can remain in a male's sperm, so Marques suggested those players not go or couples not try to conceive for at least two months after the visit to Puerto Rico.

Other than that, he said, “if they like Roberto Clemente, why not play the game?”

Cruz, the San Juan mayor, said she is deeply saddened because both teams have made decisions “based on fear and misinformation.”

“Fear is not the American way,” said Cruz, who earned a master's degree from Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College and lived in Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Bethel Park from 1984 to 1992.

“This has been totally blown out of proportion.”

Matos said Puerto Rico, which is in the midst of a $70 billion debt crisis, has been making preparations for the series for more than a year and invested close to $2 million. That includes about $750,000 to replace the artificial turf at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, where the games are scheduled to be played. Projections call for about $5 million in revenues, he said.

Special events in San Juan extend beyond the games, officials said, and include concerts and tributes to Clemente, the Hall of Fame outfielder and Puerto Rico native whose widow and three sons live just outside the capital city. Clemente got his 3,000th and last hit during the 1972 season and was killed a few months later in December in a plane crash while trying to deliver relief supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.

“This is not only a game; it's an opportunity to pay homage to a wonderful human being,” Cruz said.

The Clemente family has been active with the Pirates in recent years and plans to participate in a tribute, Matos said. The family could not be reached for comment.

Luis Daniel Muñiz, deputy executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., said calling off the series will lead to the cancellation of roughly 2,000 hotel reservations.

Many organizations from the United States continue to hold conventions on the island, including a meeting last month of the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians.

“We are an island in the Caribbean, and we've been dealing with mosquitoes forever,” Muñiz said. “We really believe we are the most prepared jurisdiction in the Caribbean to deal with this situation.”

He said all hotels and areas around the stadium, which seats about 12,000, are continually sprayed to ward off mosquitoes.

If the MLB cancels the Pirates versus Marlins series in Puerto Rico and plays instead in Miami, Matos questioned what the U.S. Olympic Committee will do about the Summer Olympics in Brazil. The South American nation registered 91,387 likely cases of the Zika virus from February until April 2, the health ministry there said in its first national report on the epidemic.

There have been 90 travel-associated cases of Zika in the state of Florida, according to the CDC.

“So they're not coming (to Puerto Rico), and they're going to play in Miami, where there's also Zika?” Matos asked.

Luis Fábregas is the Tribune-Review's deputy managing editor for news. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com. Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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