Baseball’s spitting image
America’s favorite pastime has a bad habit, one that’s threatening to turn away fans
The pitcher steps back from the mound, his mitt arm extended to grab the ball from the catcher, he turns, he spits, faces the batter to focus on another pitch. The batter steps back from home plate, adjusts his gloves, spits into the dirt and returns to face the pitcher.
By the fifth inning, it got to me. By the eighth, I wanted to switch to a different channel or turn off the TV. The incessant spitting, whether in the field, at bat, on base or in the dugouts, is, pure and simple, disgusting.
Born and bred in the Bronx, I was a Yankee fan back when I watched after school on a black-and-white TV as the Yanks beat the Dodgers in World Series games. I didn’t see anybody spit, though camera close-ups were unknown at the time. Now you can see a pimple on a player’s face.
It may be heresy but, Yankee fan or not (and sometime Red Sox and Orioles fan, depending on where I lived or worked over the years), I couldn’t help but switch to the National League for the first time when I rooted for the Chicago Cubs to win their series against the Cleveland Indians. How could one not favor the Cubbies if you don’t live in Ohio? It’s been 108 years since they won a World Series — 1908, the year my father was born.
Baseball is the quintessential American sport, though football rapidly seems to be taking front and center, and basketball’s March Madness has millions glued to their sofas for evenings on end. Maybe it’s because folks no longer have the patience to sit through baseball’s agonizing crawls through nine innings in this age of lightning communications with smartphones and tablets. Game five of the series ran three and a half hours.
Which brings us to ball field spitting. Could it be because of boredom?
Theories and speculation abound about why baseball players, unlike their counterparts in other sports, regularly expel their saliva onto grass, dirt and concrete along with whatever else they’ve been chewing or munching or grinding between their teeth. And it’s not as if the spitting is an occasional expulsion of whatever; it’s repetitive. The supply of saliva must be inexhaustible.
Tradition is one reason, harking back to the 19th century when ball players regularly chewed tobacco to relieve themselves of the daytime heat, dust and grime; there were no night games. So what does one do with the tobacco juice since it can’t be swallowed? Spit it out. But ballplayers largely stopped chewing tobacco in the ’60s, when the product was labeled dangerous to health.
Maybe spitting is intended to relieve tension. There sure was enough nervousness to go around, chiefly among the Cubbie fans who often held their collective breath when the count got to 3-2 on the batter. But I didn’t see any of them spit.
Even Indians’ Manager Terry Francona chewed nonstop at what looked like sunflower seeds as he spat their shells onto the concrete floor of the dugout.
Then there’s the weird idea that spitting is cool, manly.
“If spitting can protect a person by evoking disgust in the observer, then, given the consequences, it might be considered as an aggressive or contemptuous display,” wrote Mary C. Lamia in the Nov. 4, 2010, edition of Psychology Today, in an article entitled, “Making Emotional Sense of Why Baseball Players Spit.”
“Evoking disgust in another person can be a way to cope with, or disguise, one’s own anxiety. It expresses a fearless attitude of disdain, condescension, or disregard,” she wrote.
Whatever the reason for expectorating, the result is unhealthy. The British Health Protection agency said as much when complaining about soccer players letting go on the pitch.
“Spitting is disgusting at all times,” it said in October 2009, in the midst of a swine flu outbreak, reported the Guardian newspaper. “It’s unhygienic and unhealthy, particularly if you spit close to other people. Footballers, like the rest of us, wouldn’t spit indoors so they shouldn’t do it on the football pitch. If they are spitting near other people it could certainly increase the risk of passing on infections. Certainly, spitting is a nasty habit that should be discouraged — and it should be discouraged by the clubs.”
Hear that, Major League Baseball? Now do something about it. Please.
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma spits his drink as he stands in the dugout during a game last month.