The American League East's last-place Blue Jays have been floundering on the mound and at the plate, yet the prospect of playing in Toronto makes some rivals queasy with fear. The city, a favorite among ballplayers for its restaurants and nightlife, has been added to the World Health Organization's (WHO) list of places to avoid because of SARS. No city outside China has been more affected by the virus, which has killed 20, infected 257 and forced the quarantine of at least 10,000 people in Toronto since February.
Because the Raptors didn't make the NBA postseason and the Maple Leafs were eliminated from the NHL playoffs, baseball was the only major sport active in Toronto when the WHO issued its April 23 advisory. Unlike in Asia, where events such as the women's world hockey championships in Beijing and the Singapore Airlines horse race have been canceled, few Canadian sports have been affected. In a call to Blue Jays trainers last Friday, baseball's medical adviser, Elliott Pellman, suggested players wash their hands frequently, use their own pens to sign autographs and avoid hospitals.
Many major leaguers would prefer to avoid Toronto. Pitcher Kevin Appier of the Angels, who visit the Blue Jays on May 2, suggested the series be moved to Anaheim. Several visiting players plan to quarantine themselves in their hotel rooms when not at the Skydome, and some have contemplated wearing surgical masks to games. Sterling Hitchcock of the Yankees, who played in Toronto last month, complained, "There are people keeling over in that town."
In contrast, the Blue Jays have been calm, and many players are making a point to mingle with fans. "It's a shame [Appier and others] are so out of touch," says Jays president Paul Godfrey, who estimates that his team has lost out on the sale of 10,000 tickets because of the SARS scare. "By some reports you'd think it's the realm of the bubble boy here."
The number of reported cases in Toronto is, in fact, on the decline, prompting Health Canada to issue a statement rebutting the WHO and declaring Toronto safe for travel. The Jays were offering more than 30,000 tickets at a dollar apiece to their game against the Rangers in an effort to bring back fans. Among the loyalists is Toronto mayor Mel Lastman, who urged his constituents to "eat at your favorite restaurant, go to the theater, cheer for the Blue Jays. I'm going to the Jays game, although I don't believe they are going very far."