Baseball’s spit­ting im­age

Amer­ica’s fa­vorite pas­time has a bad habit, one that’s threat­en­ing to turn away fans

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Richard C. Gross Richard C. Gross is a for­mer opin­ion page editor of The Sun. He lives in Santa Fe, and his email is rcg51@com­cast.net.

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.

TED S. WAR­REN/AP

Seat­tle Mariners start­ing pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma spits his drink as he stands in the dugout dur­ing a game last month.

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