TORONTO – Tourists are staying away and concerts have been canceled, but the Toronto Blue Jays' first home game since the World Health Organization (search) issued a SARS advisory drew the largest crowd to the Skydome since the season opener.
The lone mention of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which has killed 19 people in Canada's largest city and sparked concern by visiting players, was a sign held by two fans that read: "What SARS (search)?"
One fan wore a surgical mask in jest at Friday night's game against the Kansas City Royals. All else appeared normal as fans and players cheered a homer by Vernon Wells at the bottom of the ninth that gave the Blue Jays a 6-5 victory over the Royals.
The crowd of 16,417, the largest since opening day, proved that life in the city of 3 million people can go on as normal even as the WHO advisory threatens to sink the economy.
Royals outfielder Raul Ibanez, who said he was worried before leaving Kansas City on Thursday, felt better Friday after seeing normal street life.
"I understand they have it pretty much under control, so I feel a lot better," Ibanez said. "People are walking on the streets."
Some players had said they would stay away from public places during the weekend series.
"I have a wife and a son back home. I'll take three days in our hotel to make sure I'm safe and my family's going to be safe," Kansas City outfielder Brandon Berger said before the game. "That's more important than seeing the city."
Canadian officials expressed optimism Friday that the WHO would rescind its travel warning as soon as next week, as three more people died and economic damage continued to mount.
More than 250 probable or suspected cases have been reported in the Toronto area, with 19 deaths and about half the cases making a full recovery. The disease has killed 110 people in mainland China and 109 in Hong Kong.
Outside of Asia, Canada has been the country most affected by SARS, with Toronto (search) as the epicenter of the Canadian outbreak.
Conferences scheduled for the city were canceled or postponed Friday, including a Canadian Cable Television Association meeting of 500 people scheduled to begin Sunday. An Elton John-Billy Joel concert scheduled for Monday night at the Air Canada Center also was called off.
Meanwhile, businesses that rely on tourists were struggling. A bus tour operator with daily trips from Toronto to Niagara Falls said business is "going down the tubes."
The WHO warning raised questions about whether the nine-game Blue Jays' homestand should proceed. Anaheim pitcher Kevin Appier suggested his team's series there next month be moved to California.
Health authorities, baseball officials and the Blue Jays assured players and fans that the risk of contracting the disease at SkyDome or in downtown Toronto was minimal. Only those directly exposed to SARS patients are considered at risk.
In a show of support, Ontario Premier Ernie Eves sat in the front row behind home plate, and Gene Orza, the No. 2 official of the players' association, also attended the game.
"I'm not going to lie you and say it has no symbolic value," Orza said. "I would never send the players where I myself wasn't perfectly willing to go, but I'm perfectly comfortable being here."
Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey said the WHO warning has unfairly fueled a perception of a SARS epidemic in Toronto.
"If you did not read a newspaper or did not watch a television station and came to Toronto, you would never know that SARS existed here," Godfrey said. "I'm afraid it's going to carry on for a considerable time."
He noted baseball officials have told visiting players to take precautions such as washing their hands more often than usual. If players are concerned, they can avoid crowded bars and subway cars where they would be face-to-face with strangers, he said.
Catcher Brent Mayne said he signed autographs, as usual, at the team hotel, but Ibanez and pitcher Jason Grimsley, the Royals' player representative, said they would decline autograph requests on this trip.
"You just have to be careful," Grimsley said. "I'm not going to go out of my way to put myself in a situation harmful to myself or my teammates. If that means staying in my room and not doing a whole lot, then that's what I'm going to do."
The apprehensive Royals packed bottles of disinfectant for the three-game series, while Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca seemed less concerned.
"It's a virus. There are other viruses out there," Tosca said. "We have to live our lives. We're not in danger, I think."
Godfrey said SARS has cost the club 10,000 ticket sales, and tourists making summer plans now would likely decide to go elsewhere. But if the illness posed any threat to players fans or staff, he said, he would cancel games without hesitation.