A pandemic in nine innings

“Writing about science can be really fun,” says NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid. She takes her own advice to heart as she describes the current pandemic as if it were a baseball game.

baseball in the grass

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From the National Writing Project:

Writing, like any other art, teaches the entire range of “tools for thinking” that are required to be creative in any discipline (Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein 1999). To be a lucid writer, one must observe acutely; abstract out the key information; recognize and create patterns; use analogies and metaphors to model in words some reality that takes place in another dimension; translate sensations, feelings, and hunches into clearly communicable forms; and combine all this sensual information into words that create not only understanding but also delight, remorse, anger, desire, or any other human emotion that will drive understanding into action.

Do you have some students who would rather write than solve problems or build models? They may be the same ones who think that science isn’t for them. But they might find that writing about science can be really fun. They can weave scientific ideas into a short story, a romance, a video game scenario, or a TV sit-com plot. So maybe your next assignment can be to ask your students to write creatively about the pandemic — feel free to send us the results.

I decided to describe the coronavirus pandemic as a baseball game:

A Pandemic in Nine Innings

Once upon a time there was a baseball team that had not lost a game in over one hundred years. Its name was Team Winsalot. Once in a while an opposing team might score a run or two, but Team Winsalot was always able to gut out enough runs by the end of the game to shut the opponents down.

Team Winsalot had gotten so used to winning that it took winning for granted. The team was so confident, it went so far as to eliminate positions! The first position eliminated was the second baseman. So few opponents ever even got to first base that it seemed unnecessary to have someone standing at second base for the whole game when there was never any threat of a steal. The next position to go was center field. Big hits were so rare, after all. So rare, indeed, that the two remaining outfielders even stopped wearing caps and gloves. And they often just hung out in center field chatting.

You’d think that fans would stop following a game with so little suspense, but many people became devoted to this new approach, assuring themselves that the team’s winning streak was due not to the weakness of its opponents but to its great attitude, that the rejection of precautions like gloves, center fielders, and second basemen was evidence of its pride and belief in itself.

Things began to change in March 2020. A new opponent showed up and in the very first inning managed to get several hits. Runners who made it to first base strolled to second. Outfield hits were rarely caught by the gloveless pair of outfielders clumped together in center field. By the end of the first inning, the new opponent had 186,025 hits and 3,612 runs. This was clearly no ordinary opponent.

When the second inning began, Team Winsalot had made some changes. The manager found a second baseman somewhere, added back the center fielder, and suggested that the outfielders spread out. The team still claimed, however, that gloves were unnecessary —Team Winsalot had its pride after all, and its owners were already grumbling about fielding two additional players. The second inning went a lot better. Admittedly, the opponent got another 875,862 hits and 58,824 runs, but the rate of hits and runs was definitely trending down. You might even say that Team Winsalot was flattening the curve.

Maybe baseball is never going to be exactly the same again.

In the third inning, the situation seemed to stabilize. The opponent got fewer hits — just 725,569 — and only 41,991 runs. Things were definitely trending in the right direction. Now some people said that things would improve even faster if the outfielders would start wearing gloves, but an even louder constituency argued that it was time to go back to the old system. Who wanted to watch baseball with those extra players everywhere and those stupid gloves? They took all the fun out of the game. We’ve sacrificed long enough, they said!

One thing everyone agreed on: if Team Winsalot could just train a new pitcher with pitches the opponents wouldn’t recognize, the entire situation could be resolved. However, training this new pitcher would take time. Maybe it wouldn’t even be possible before the game was over. But Team Winsalot began training several new pitchers and everyone put their hopes on them.

Fresh pitching was several innings away, but for right now, the curve was pretty flat. So the constituency begging for a return to the good old days won out. For the next few innings, Team Winsalot went back to playing with two outfielders and no second baseman, and gloves were optional. Some players chose to use them;others exercised their right to refuse. For a couple of innings, this seemed not to be too disastrous. The number of hits and runs was staying pretty much the same each inning. (Mind you, by the end of the sixth inning, the opponents had scored 230,046 runs!)

Unfortunately, in the seventh inning, things got really bad. First of all, the number of hits and runs skyrocketed when the two outfielders went back to hanging out together in center field and the shortstop went on strike because he was tired of playing two positions. Even more worrying, the opposing team’s hitters started to hit at a much higher percentage — where their collective batting average had been around .250, now they were batting .350. By the end of the seventh inning, the opponents had scored over 344,854 runs.

In the eighth inning, Team Winsalot caught a break. Those pitchers they’d begun training back in the third inning were improving faster than anyone predicted. They started pitching in the eighth inning. At first, they could only strike out about 10% of the opponent’s players, but everyone could see that eventually they’d have all those hitters figured out, and while this particular game would definitely end in a loss (in fact the opponents were scoring at a faster rate than ever), the next game would be no problem, back to normal.

So here we are in the ninth inning. The pitchers are doing better every day, but the opponents are still racking up hits and runs. And the more often they come up to bat against these new pitchers, the more likely they are to figure out all the pitcher’s new tricks. Maybe the next game won’t be such a piece of cake after all. Maybe Team Winsalot really should insist on fielding a full team, wearing gloves and staying in position. Maybe they should keep investing in pitcher training so that they can keep ahead of the opponents’ improving batting skills. Maybe baseball is never going to be exactly the same again.

NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid
Short Bio

Ann Reid is a former Executive Director of NCSE.