Sources: Baseball close to canceling Puerto Rico trip because of Zika concerns

·MLB columnist

About 100 scouts and executives descended upon Puerto Rico this week to watch high school shortstop Delvin Perez, a possible top-five pick in the June draft. One of the officials texted a picture of bug spray with 30 percent DEET, accompanied by a two-word caption: “I’m prepared.”

The fear of Zika virus, palpable as ever in the aftermath of the Center for Disease Control report this week that linked a death in Puerto Rico to the mosquito-borne illness, is not scaring away all of baseball. It has, however, pushed the series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins, scheduled in San Juan on May 30-31, to the brink of cancellation, multiple sources familiar with the situation told Yahoo Sports.

Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico (AP)
Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico (AP)

Players from the Pirates and Marlins banded together in recent days to let Major League Baseball know they want to move the two-game series at Hiram Bithorn Stadium to Miami instead, sources said, a view shared by some club officials and staff members as well. Despite the widespread implications – including a possible effect on league relations with Puerto Rico as well as opening a Pandora’s box for athletes leading up to the Summer Olympics in Brazil, another Zika-affected country – MLB is not expected to oppose the players’ choice, sources told Yahoo Sports.

The disappointment is nevertheless palpable. Puerto Rico’s problems extend far beyond Zika, which health officials expect to afflict about 700,000 of its 3.5 million people this summer. The country’s crippling debt crisis reached its lowest point yet with a missed payment of nearly $400 million on Monday, and with more of its $70 billion owed to creditors due in the coming months, the possibility of further default and the chaos that accompanies that seems likely without intervention. Puerto Rico, in other words, is a nation that could use a dose of good news, of goodwill. This is not to wax on about some sort of mystical healing power baseball might provide. Seeing famous, beloved athletes stand up to the Zika concern, not let it stop the series, would be a bold statement of support for Puerto Rico and tolerance to a situation with so many unknowns.

It’s a lot to ask, certainly. After the players met with CDC officials in recent days and were told nobody could guarantee they would leave the island Zika-free, the concerns grew. Players answer to their families before anyone else, and the fear of birth defects among babies born to Zika-infected mothers rightfully scares those who plan on getting pregnant in the near future – particularly considering the disease can be transmitted sexually, and doctors believe it stays in men for months at a time. A study from French Polynesia’s outbreak of Zika in 2013 linking the virus to cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the immune system attacks the body’s nerves, further clouds a virus still shrouded in mystery.

Here’s where it gets thorny: Zika experts believe infected mosquitoes will be in the United States this summer and think climates like South Florida’s are particularly ripe for it to spread. Surely players don’t plan on canceling games in the U.S. because of Zika. Even though the Marlins play in a stadium with a roof, the idea of keeping it mosquito-free strains credulity.

Fans enjoy the World Baseball Classic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in 2013. (Getty Images)
Fans enjoy the World Baseball Classic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in 2013. (Getty Images)

Baseball players have been the most outspoken about Zika, even as the Rio Games dawn with nearly 5,000 Brazilian babies suffering from microcephaly, a birth defect that leads to smaller heads and is linked to Zika. While fans have altered plans to travel to Brazil, no Olympic athlete has withdrawn from competition. The effect baseball’s Zika-related decisions have on the Olympics, as well as future international competitions, go beyond influencing other athletes. Baseball wants to return to the Olympic program, and officials fear the decision to withdraw because of Zika could cause the same for other athletes and anger international Olympic officials. Two officials expressed concern about the league’s relationship with Puerto Rico, once a baseball stronghold and still a source of significant talent as well as a regular host of World Baseball Classic games.

Even though Zika was first diagnosed nearly 70 years ago, our knowledge remains in its infancy, which complicates decisions even more than politics and fear already do. Republicans are finally starting to back President Obama’s request for more funding to address the problem domestically. The delicate push and pull of educating the public without scaring it into a panic and adding tourism woes to Puerto Rico’s financial crisis make it that much more difficult.

For some players, especially those who plan on having children within the next year, going to Puerto Rico never felt right, even with the teams planning on spending their days in hotel rooms and leaving only for the games. While MLB agreed to test players immediately upon their return, the prospect of a positive test and forgoing unprotected sex for up to six months does not rest well with many.

Balance that with the good that could be done by taking the trip, and it obscures the seeming ease with which the players made their decision. There’s enough history with the Pirates and Puerto Rico to see the profundity of selflessness.

On the day after the devastating earthquake that hit Nicaragua in December 1972, Pirates star and Puerto Rico native Roberto Clemente dispatched the first of four relief-aid flights. The supplies from the first three were not distributed to those in greatest need, so Clemente himself accompanied the fourth flight to personally deliver items. The plane crashed and Clemente died, a hero to everyone, the epitome of altruism.

This situation is different because it places the players in harm’s way, and MLB knows better than to push the players. But the singular act of showing up in Puerto Rico, of standing with a people who need any show of solidarity they can get, would do more than any amount of money baseball will send in lieu of playing the games in San Juan. It is the sort of thing Roberto Clemente might have done.

Time remains for the players and teams to amend their choice. It’s unlikely to happen, and the cancellation of the series is completely understandable, but it’s unfortunate. So much good can be done for a place that truly needs it.