Thursday, April 24, 2003

Baseball teams get SARS warning



By Hal Bock
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - When the Kansas City Royals play in Toronto on Friday, they'll be cautious about where they eat meals, with whom they spend time, and how they sign autographs for fans.

Major league baseball warned teams to take precautions when playing the Blue Jays in Canada after health officials posted advisories about the dangers of SARS in the area. Players were told to avoid crowds and contact with fans as the city deals with 140 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome and 16 deaths.

The Reds don't play in Toronto this season; the Blue Jays play in Cincinnati June 6-7-8.

Canada has been the most SARS-affected area outside Asia.

"The fact is SARS is there," said Dr. Elliot Pellman, MLB's medical adviser. "The other fact is there are 11 1/2 million people in Ontario, 2 1/2 million in the greater Toronto area. Take those figures and it's not an epidemic or the black plague. With proper precaution there is very little risk. Is there some risk? Yes."

Teams will be told to avoid crowds, hospitals and public transportation. If they want to sign autographs, Pellman said, players should use their own pens.

Baseball originally said it would advise players to avoid signing autographs, but later amended that.

"While it is a concern, the risk of actual infection is still incredibly small," said Rob Manfred, executive vice president of labor relations for the commissioner's office. "The advice we're giving to the teams is basic health advice: wash your hands, avoid sharing food."

Toronto pitcher Tanyon Sturtze agrees with the precautions.

"I think right now we have to back off a little bit and make sure everybody stays safe until they find out what's going on," he said from Tampa, where the team is playing through Thursday.

"I think (fans) should understand what's going on because people are dying from this thing. It's not like people are just sick. People have died."

Angels pitcher Kevin Appier is worried enough about the threat that he wants his team's series against the Blue Jays in Toronto from May 9-11 shifted to Anaheim.

"I think we should just switch and play that series here and move the one scheduled later in the season up there," Appier said.

Representatives of baseball's players' union planned to meet with the commissioner's office Friday to discuss SARS. Medical consultants will also attend.

"I think we're on the same page," said Gene Orza, the union's No. 2 official. "The important thing is to make stre the players have a good feel for what's going on."

Some players were already taking precautions. Blue Jays pitcher Cory Lidle said his wife has left Toronto for their home in Las Vegas and is not coming back.

The Blue Jays open a nine-gamd homestand Friday, beginning with the Royals, and there are no plans to postpone the games.

But Paul Godfrey, president and CEO of the Blue Jays, said the SARS scare has already had an impact on the team's bottom line.

"There are people who are concerned. Our patronage is off. We've lost in excess of 5,000, close to 10,000 in group sales," he said. "And that doesn't count people holding back who have second thoughts. We can tell walkups are down 500 to 1,000 a game."

He also thinks there's been an overreaction to the SARS cases.

"Toronto is not quarantined," he said. "As a city, it's OK. It's business as usual. We're still open for business."

Other games are being played; most recently the Maple Leafs were in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"If you go back and follow it carefully, arenas have been packed and we've had no reported cases," Pellman said. "This is brand new. We're not sure where it's going. My advice is we need to be cautious."

To emphasize that, he planned to talk to head trainers of each of the 10 teams scheduled to visit Toronto through the All-Star break in mid-July.

Signs of the SARS scare are evident in Toronto.

When Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees dislocated his shoulder on opening day in Toronto, he wore a mask while being examined at a local hospital.

"I try not to think about it," Sturtze said. "I try to be careful on things I do and places I go. It's scary seeing people walk down the street wearing masks. It's scary hearing about hospitals being quarantined. It's not an everyday event for us here in the United States.

"It is a little bit unnerving."

Kansas City pitcher Kyle Snyder, making his first major league start Friday night, consulted with his father, a cardiovascular surgeon in Sarasota, Fla.

"My dad called me this morning and he just wanted me to be aware of some things," Snyder said. "He told me to be sure to take some disinfectant up there and some special hand soap. He told me to get my hands as clean as possible."

Snyder's father also advised him to wear a mask in crowds.

Meantime, the World Health Organization advised travelers to avoid Toronto, as well as other sites in China, because of SARS. Dr. Paul Gully of Health Canada said the organization will appeal the WHO's decision.

"We do not support the World Health Organization's position," he said. "We believe that it is safe to travel to Toronto. We do challenge WHO's assertion that Toronto is an unsafe place to visit and we will make our challenge formally through a letter that will be sent to the World Health Organization.

"There is no evidence of casual transmission of SARS in Toronto."

The WHO advisory angered Toronto's business community.

"You could have watched the hockey game two nights ago in Toronto and you had 20,000 screaming fans all together and not a single mask in the entire place," said Rick Naylor, head of Accucom, a company that organizes trade shows.

The travel warning will be active for at least three weeks - double the maximum incubation period for SARS.

SARS has sickened more than 4,000 people worldwide and killed at least 251.

World Health Organization SARS site: http://www.who.int/csr/sars/en/




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