On June 29, Major League Baseball (MLB) released its new health and safety protocols for the shortened 60-game season which begins later this month. Most notable among the rules is the ban on spitting and any spitting paraphernalia like sunflower seeds, peanut shells or tobacco. Chewing gum is allowed, and pitchers will be allowed to carry wet rags in their back pockets to be used for moisture instead of licking their fingers.
The ruling was expected. Several football federations and national leagues have restricted spitting and ICC’s saliva ban became a major talking point in cricket. The sport of baseball has already seen a saliva ban when the South Korean competition became one of the first professional sports to resume in April.
Accepting the ruling, however, is a different story for baseball players in the US. Spitting is as much a part of “America’s Pastime” as hitting or pitching. There are other tweaks to the rules and calendar, but the ban on spitting will be the biggest adjustment forced upon the players.
Why is the ban on spitting such a big deal?
Spitting is a time-honoured baseball tradition, and as integral as hitting or pitching. In the batter’s box, hitters prepare by spitting in their hands and on their bats. The dugout floors are famously filthy with wads of chewed gum, sunflower seeds husks, and spat-out water.
It isn’t any better on the ballpark. Batters spit on the plate, catchers lift their masks and spit to the side. Umpires spit and pitchers lick their fingers to get a better grip on the ball.
The ritual is depicted faithfully on celluloid as nearly every baseball film has iconic shots of characters spitting. Actors can be seen using “chew”, “chaw”, “snuff”, “baccer”, or “dip” — tucking tobacco inside lips or cheeks before spitting; from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own to the young actors in The Sandlot Kids, who compel each other to “dip” because “all the pros do it”.
Oscar-nominated Moneyball features Brad Pitt, chewing tobacco and carrying a waste cup as Oakland Athletics general manager and serial spitter Billy Beane. MLB requested for the scenes to be removed, Sony Pictures retained them for authenticity.
In fact, the prevalence is paid a yucky homage in the Leslie Nielsen-starrer The Naked Gun.
But why are baseball players constantly spitting?
Spitting became part of baseball in the 19th century when players chewed tobacco to keep their mouths moist during the long games on dustbowls. The sport’s relationship with tobacco was the strongest from the 1920s to 1940s, when each team had a tobacco sponsor and stars featured in cigarette announcements.
Growing awareness about the health risks reduced tobacco’s presence in baseball, and in 2011 MLB and the players’ union signed a deal as professionals agreed not to use chewing tobacco where fans can see them. Chewing alternatives have become popular and nearly every player carries a pack of sunflower seeds in the back pocket, but the long history meant plain spitting remains rampant in the sport.
Scholars have tried to rationalise chronic-spitting as a macho thing meant to show contempt and flip off opponents.
In her 2010 article titled ‘Making Emotional Sense of Why Baseball Players Spit’, psychologist Mary C. Lamia hypothesised: “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.”
Spitting, though, has simply become so ingrained in baseball that players do it conspicuously and subconsciously. Then there are those who do it to improve their game.
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And how is saliva used in baseball?
Like weightlifters and gymnasts, pitchers use saliva to improve grip.
They lick their fingers and hands to moisturise the skin and increase friction to get a better grip on the ball. Pitchers often throw the ball at 150+ kmph, and fatigue and conditions can give way to costly errors. MLB rules thus allow a pitcher to “bring his hand to his mouth while on the pitcher’s mound as long as he wipes his hand off afterwards”.
Spit though, was historically used in baseball much like it is in cricket. Applying saliva to the ball alters the wind resistance and weight on one side, causing atypical movement. The ‘spitball’ would slip out of the pitcher’s fingers without the usual spin. Though outlawed a century ago in 1920, spitballs were regularly used by pitchers such as Preacher Roe, who broke down his technique in a 1955 Sports Illustrated article titled ‘The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch’. Gaylord Perry was even more audacious in his autobiography ‘Me and the Spitter’.
In the video below, Perry showcases his sneaky ways.
The ‘spitball’ still turns up once in a while, as players use saliva, pine tar and vaseline and cover the ball in a brownish hue of dirt or tobacco spit to escape sanctions.
Saliva is also used as a lubricant to break in a stiff new baseball glove. Though studies prove that the practice is bad for the glove, both pros and amateurs continue to spit into their glove to soften the leather.
So how do the players feel about the saliva ban?
It depends on what positions they play.
Catchers get the worst of both worlds. They are crouched behind batters who often spit on the plate. They also deal with a ball which essentially has been licked by the pitcher.
In a conversation with The San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki said, “People spit at home plate when I’m squatting and it blows in my face; that stuff happens all the time, it’s nuts. Guys lick their fingers all the time; I don’t know how you’d even take precautions to stop that. If you’re thinking about not licking your fingers or not spitting, you’re not focused on the task at hand.”
In the same report, Oakland Athletics outfielder Mark Canha said, “If I was a pitcher, right now I wouldn’t be going to my mouth. I could see that being a rule. Are there things we can do to help? Certainly. I mean, we all pass around the same bag of seeds in regular circumstances. There are all sorts of unhygienic things we do without thinking about it. I’ve caught myself touching the ground in the outfield and then licking my hand and I’m like, ‘Ugh, why did you do that?’”
Pitchers, of course, disagree with the ban.
“Wait, what?” Colorado Rockies said to Sports Illustrated when informed about the ban. “I’m 100 per cent gonna spit. That’s ingrained in my playing the game. Whether or not I’m dipping or chewing gum, I’m still gonna spit. I have to occupy my mind. It’s like putting things on autopilot.”
Philadelphia Phillies first baseman John Kruk told NBC Sports: “Hell, no. I couldn’t do it. Spitting is part of the game. You watch A League of Their Own. They practised spitting. You watch Major League. They spit in unison. It’s natural to all of us. Take a pitch, spit. Rub up a ball with spit. Spit in your glove. It’s what ballplayers do. I don’t know how you can concentrate totally on the game if in the back of your mind you’re thinking, ‘Don’t spit. Don’t spit.’“
What’s about to happen in this situation, then?
Ironically, MLB is betting big on saliva for testing purposes.
Instead of the more common nasal swab test, MLB has spent putting together a testing protocol based on saliva samples. A lab in Utah that runs the organisation’s performance-enhancing drug program is tasked with conducting more than 14,000 tests per week, as players and staff members submit samples every other day.
This is our covid test. Spitting into a vial like 15 times. No eating/drinking 30 min beforehand. Tested every other day. pic.twitter.com/qPnuwVarwI
— Collin McHugh (@Collin_McHugh) July 4, 2020
MLB opted for saliva tests as the nasal swabs wouldn’t be feasible for the sheer number of samples baseball is sending the lab’s way. The process also helps in batch testing, declaring a group of samples corona-free in one go.
Players and staff have returned to stadiums for the extended spring training. And on July 3, the league announced 38 Covid-19 positive tests — 31 players and seven club staffers — out of 3,185 samples: a positive rate of little more than 1 per cent that is raising the league’s hopes.
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