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On its return, baseball must deal with one messy issue: Spitting

Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte opts to spit rather than swallow that sip of water during a game against Washington. Can't have that sort of thing now. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte opts to spit rather than swallow that sip of water during a game against Washington. Can't have that sort of thing now. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Credit: Mark Goldman

Credit: Mark Goldman

The sight of a player standing on a baseball field spitting like he’s the world’s grossest garden fountain may now be endangered.

Spitting has been banned in Korea as part of baseball’s return there in the age of coronavirus; and certainly, the habit will need to be addressed here before Major League Baseball resumes. This no longer is a matter of taste or civility. Now it’s a public health issue. Spitting is a pandemic’s relay man.

Dare we dream of the day when the long idle minutes of baseball are not punctuated by great, foamy expectorations from every facet of the diamond? Of when a dugout is not rendered an EPA superfund site nightly by the sputum of those who have tapped into an unnatural and unending supply of it. Where does it all come from?

It really didn’t require a global health crisis to fix baseball’s spitting image. The remedy has been available all along. It’s very complex, so try to stay with me here: Swallow instead.

Pablo Picasso once said, “If I spit, they will take my spit and frame it as great art.” There aren’t too many Picassos on a ballfield – although Greg Maddux came close – so there goes any aesthetic excuse for the panoramic display of digestive juices.

Were you were born in the 19th Century and dependent upon chewing tobacco to keep your mouth moist during all those day games on dry and dusty fields, then a certain amount of spitting is understandable. Otherwise, here in a time when we’re supposed to be discouraging tobacco use in any form, just keep your mouth shut and play.

Spit may come in handy when throwing an illegal pitch or breaking in a glove, but through the wonders of chemistry, many modern lubricants have come along to improve upon human saliva.

I love to chew on sunflower seeds (and spit the husks) during a game but, honestly, on closer inspection even that is borderline disgusting unless you’re a goldfinch.

If baseball does ban spitting, no one is saying it will be an easy habit to break. In some sports, spitting is a venial sin. Tiger Woods spat on the green during the final round of the 2011 Dubai Classic and was cited for a fineable breach of conduct. But the act is woven into the ritual of baseball, a sort of gross baptism of the ballfield. It is a time-honored activity that has risen to the rank of cliché – and here we refer you to a classic scene from the movie “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad.” Warning: A mental umbrella is required before viewing.

Look at it another way: Even boxing prefers to confine its spit to a bucket.

So fundamental has spitting been to the very personality of baseball that it has been even a topic of scholarly work. In her 2010 article in Psychology Today entitled “Making Emotional Sense of Why Baseball Players Spit,” Mary Lamia, PhD, concluded:

“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. 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.

“Admiration by little league baseball players of the big guys in baseball often leads them to mimic certain behaviors. I've seen them imitate the spitting. There is so much to admire about major league players, aside from the courage, skill, and ability to cope in stressful situations that it takes to stay in the game. If only they could refrain from making spitting part of their identity.”

Going inside the ballplayer’s head is always a perilous journey. And in Lamia’s case – a brave woman, indeed – it must have required a full hazmat suit.

Hear tell that Tom Sawyer was a prodigious spitter, per Mark Twain’s accounts. That earned the great respect of his peers. But surely even Twain would be amazed today, and slightly put off, by a one-week tour of the NL East.

Enforcement and punishment of any anti-spitting ordinance will be fun to watch and surely fodder for another baseball statistic: Times Caught Spitting.

They’d be taking on such a common, reflex action; it will be like trying to outlaw snoring at a foreign film festival. Hopefully, offenders will be made to clean up and disinfect after themselves. The poor grounds crew has had to deal with players’ emissions long enough.

And spitting is just the start, once the lords of baseball get a taste for enforcing polite behavior.

Beware, scratching. They’ll come after you next.

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