Despite Small Zika Risk, Major Leaguers Cancel Puerto Rico Series

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Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 1.51.36 PM Major League Clubhouse

Today's modern, professional baseball clubhouse is home to an interesting, and at times fascinating, subculture of elite, physical specimens. When a visitor is offered temporary access, with the chance to survey these plushly-carpeted confines, complete with wood-paneled locker stalls, leather couches and other comforting amenities, it's easy to see that it's an unique environment which caters to the needs of a very special clientele. Just by getting to the major-league level, these players are nearly always treated well by their handlers and organizations, which see to it -- as long as they perform, of course -- that their concerns are addressed to their satisfaction.

And when that concern happens to be the Zika virus, you can bet that if they want to steer clear of even the smallest possible risk of exposure (short of being contractually obligated to do so) that is exactly what will happen. And it just did.

While the downtrodden, Zika-bitten island of Puerto Rico was desperately hoping to host the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins for a special, two-game series on May 30-31 --  which would also have served as an uplifting distraction to its multi-billion dollar financial budget crisis and overall sense of economic doom --  many of the best players decided against traveling to the island over concerns of contracting the virus there, since it  "has had 785 confirmed Zika cases, including its first death from the virus," according to the Associated Press. And when enough players opted out, creating a critical mass, Major League Baseball, ceding to a request from the MLB Players Association, cancelled the event, shifting the games to Miami instead.

The league said that, "[p]layers and staff of both Clubs received full briefings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) science staff regarding the risks associated with the Zika virus, and the recommended precautions for travelers including those with partners who are pregnant or attempting to conceive." The statement went on to say that, "Commissioner [Rob] Manfred decided that the players who objected to the trip because of their specific family situations should not be forced to travel to Puerto Rico. Because too many regulars on both Clubs fell into that category, Commissioner Manfred had no choice but to relocate the games."

Now, while we have written extensively about the risks of transmission and the efforts to combat the disease, the prevailing feeling thus far is that while microcephaly (babies born with abnormally small heads) is awful, the actual risk of contracting that disease is rather small. So despite those odds that Zika could actually strike these 50 ballplayers (over just a few days, mind you), it's really not surprising that when given the choice to avoid the issue altogether these elite athletes -- whose income after all is based on their good health -- passed on this Puerto Rican excursion. And given that we've learned that Zika is also transmittable through sexual intercourse, as well as by bites from a mosquito carrier, it's a pretty safe bet that child-bearing-aged wives and girlfriends probably had important input into the decision, as well.

Perhaps the players are feeling even better about their decision in light of the commentary just published in the Harvard Public Health Review, advocating that the upcoming Olympic Games in August be moved out of Rio de Janeiro where the Zika virus has produced a full-scale health emergency. Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa, a Canadian professor of law who specializes in public health, the Montreal Gazette wrote, said "the expected half-million visitors to the Olympic and Paralympic Games could spread the virus once they return to their home countries." (As for relocating the games to one or more cities, that's quite an unrealistic proposal, given that it's less than 100 days before the start of the games. But Attaran is mostly focusing on the health side of this equation.)

If the Pirates and the Marlins were looking strictly at the slim chances of contracting Zika, the evidence would have demonstrated that a two- or three-day trip would probably not have constituted a health threat. But these being big-league players, multi-millionaires who have been used to having their needs addressed time and time again, even a slight risk was too great to take. And as a result, through this slight, Puerto Rico now has yet another reminder of their troubled state of affairs.