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A conversation with ‘Billy the ballplayer’

Last Thursday at about 3 p.m., I had just left the high school after picking up something I needed from the school office. I was driving south on Division Street toward the News Advertiser office.

School had been let out early for conferences that day, and as I looked to my right, I saw a young boy about 9 years old standing in the ball field near the Division and DeVoe intersection, holding a ball in one hand with a baseball glove on the other.

He was alone, just as I had been hundreds of times in my yard as a kid, pitching a rubber coated baseball toward a strike zone outlined in chalk on our brick garage.

Years ago, I might have even stopped and talked to the boy, encouraging him at such an unsettling time. But these aren’t the times for a strange older man to park and walk up to an unattended young kid. So, I drove on.

Since I didn’t get to meet him, I’m going to refer to him here as “Billy.” This would be my sit-down message to Billy, after a few more days and a whole lot more fear and anxiety have swept over us. There isn’t much ball playing going on as we hunker down to avoid making each other sick.



I was once you. I played alone, pitching against those imaginary batters. I remember the innocence of those times, the pure joy of playing out those successful outings in my head.

These aren’t the same carefree times, and I am sorry about that. I’m sorry you can’t play without the burden of a pandemic sweeping the world, causing us all to stay home, grumbling about no NCAA tournament games today, and cussing out the hoarders creating a toilet paper shortage in your house. You shouldn’t have to live this way as a kid just trying to be a kid.

There’s a daily blitz of information that could seem very scary — up to 8,525 cases of the COVID-19 virus in the nation Wednesday, with 145 deaths. Nearly 40 of those diagnosed are in Iowa, with many more coming as testing gets amped up. About 11% of infants and kids who get the virus get seriously or critically ill, so it’s not just an ailment of the old people. Please be careful.

Someday in your history books — err, I mean in your online history studies — you will read about this chapter in American life. It will seem a little surreal, like it does to us adults now. The closest I’ve experienced is the brief halting of activities after Sept. 11, 2001. My parents and grandparents talked about the events of World War II, and I’m guessing this more resembles that period in terms of a nation’s unsettled mindset.

It’s because we haven’t experienced anything like this. And, to be honest, we’re trying to all come together in a divisive time. I don’t think it helped that despite the blizzard of warnings and suggested precautions coming from European nations experiencing this earlier than us, our nation wasn’t as quick to take it seriously as many medical experts were hoping. News from an affected Communist country (China) was very slow to reach the rest of the world.

The best way to fight a pandemic is to have an extensive testing program in place early, so those diagnosed can be separated and treated and their family members quarantined for two weeks. That minimizes the spread from peaking all at once, overwhelming the hospital system, which is already experiencing shortages of protective equipment. If the demand exceeds the available number of ventilators and respirators, some older people could suffer, or perhaps die, without getting the treatment they need. That’s what happens when a pandemic isn’t handled with caution by everyone in a shared responsibility.

Jeff Angelo, a very nice man who was a broadcaster at KSIB and represented us for a time as a State Senator, is shut in his rented place in Spain while he and his wife are on vacation. They are experiencing everything we are here, about a week ahead of us. He’s seen how it occurs in stages, and that the population there began to understand that altering daily life can save lives by spreading out the timeline of those getting infected. It has been much worse in Italy. A positive from the top levels of government was closing incoming travel from China early on, when news of the virus began circulating.

Don’t listen to those who say it’s nothing more than the common flu or a bad cold. There is no immunity built up to this yet, no real effective treatment and no vaccine to deter it. The fatality rate is low in young populations, but in folks your grandparents age it’s higher than 14%.

That’s why you’re not in school next week, or the week after that. We’re trying to take this seriously as numbers rise toward a peak that should occur very soon, hopefully. Then, later this spring, you’ll see folks acting more like themselves, and maybe even your favorite baseball team will start getting ready for the season again!

Unfortunately, the leader of this nation had a cavalier attitude about the serious nature of the virus for a long time, suggesting an overreaction was some sort of plot orchestrated against him and his administration. How the Chinese, Italians and French all got in on this political ploy does seem ridiculous, but it was a narrative for a long time, especially on Fox News. We are fortunate that everyone at all levels of government seems to be realizing this serious threat for what it is now, instead of what it isn’t.

A man named Alex Azar, who has a job called Health and Human Services Secretary, spoke in January that the coronavirus was a serious threat that required action, but leaders around him scoffed and said an unnecessary panic would curtail the economy. The lower the numbers getting the virus, the better image for the country and its financial markets.

It’s kind of an absurd theory, I know, in the face of a serious health threat, but it was a real thing until this week when the President spoke on TV and urged us to stay in groups of smaller than 10 wherever we went for awhile. He announced mobilization of resources to help citizens in this situation.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a smart man who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has suggested that the worst of this country’s outbreak could occur around May 1. We may start feeling some hope after that, but there could be lingering effects for 18 months.

There will still be other illnesses sweeping areas of the nation in the years to come, but we will have things in place to better control this particular virus. This way of life is not permanent, I promise you.

The good thing is, the federal and state governments have been working hard to provide some relief measures for those affected by time lost from work, a business shut-down or people trying to complete their educational training. You will eventually go back to school and see your friends, and you’ll actually look forward to it!

I’m hoping your Asian-American friends don’t have to bear the stigma attached from those deciding to call it the “Chinese virus” now instead of the original label of COVID-19. Yes, it originated there and we’ve had other diseases with geographical names, but we are in a time of blame shaming. Innocent people are often targeted with slurs and threats simply for how they look and how they sound when they talk. They are not to blame for anything.

Let’s do better this time, than when our collective spirit shortly after 9/11 dissolved again into a divisive nation quick to scorn and label.

And, Billy, tell your parents that the local newspaper is a great place to get the latest news of value to them. You can probably even show them how to read it online! We really are there to help you, not fan the flames of hysteria. We want to inform, not alarm.

I hope to see you on the ball field when I drive by in a few weeks!


Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson


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