It's reached the point where any television close-up of a ballplayer lasting more than three seconds is sure to include at least one spit shot. I suppose viewers watching in HD on wide screens should be grateful that TV directors don't replay this action in super slo-mo.
How it began is no mystery: many ballplayers chewed tobacco, as some still do, and had little choice but to spit the stuff all over the diamond. Terry Francona, the Red Sox manager, has been a poster guy for tobacco spitting - although he insists he's tried to quit. Tobacco products have been banned in the Minor Leagues since 1993, but that hasn't reduced spitting one bit.
Funny thing, while pro football and basketball players have their share of gross habits, you rarely see them spitting. Perhaps indoor courts cause NBA players to think twice about expectorating; maybe helmets make it too difficult for NFL players to spit on the field. Pro golfers and tennis players hardly ever spit - at least not on national TV - so what's with baseball players?
Spitting is so integral to baseball that it used to be part of the skill set. The spitball was a legal pitch prior to 1920, and when it was finally banned, pitchers throwing the spitter were allowed to continue until they retired. The last legal spitballer in the Majors is believed to have been Burleigh Grimes of the Dodgers, who tossed his germ-laden pitch well into the 1930s.
In the modern era, Tim Lincecum of the Giants is one of the game's bright young stars, and also one of its most frequent spitters. It's no exaggeration to say that when TV cameras focus on Lincecum in the dugout he spits every three-to-five seconds. Considering that games take roughly three hours, and he pitches once every five games, Lincecum spits in the dugout about 315,360 times per season.
A few years ago management of the Yankees was sufficiently irked about spitting that they allowed me to do a Candid Camera gag in which I posed as an exec from the commissioner's office, informing players that spitting had gotten out of hand. Nick Johnson sheepishly explained that during games his mouth just, you know, fills up and he's got no choice but to spit. Jorge Posada seemed genuinely concerned when I told him the commissioner's office had charted the Yankee catcher spitting several thousand times the previous season.
I came away realizing that: (a) most Major Leaguers are very nice fellows, (b) they don't realize how frequently they spit during games, and (c) they'll never stop, whether management likes it or not.
Yet, when the Minnesota Twins opened their new ballpark this season, they were confronted by a petition signed by 74 fans, demanding that beautiful Target Field remain relatively spit-free. "Whereas the habit of spitting is acknowledged to be, along with careless coughing and sneezing, a hazard to good health," the petition said, "and whereas TV cameras filming Twins games picture dugouts in which spitting is regularly observed; and whereas children are known to admire and imitate managers, coaches and professional athletes such as the Minnesota Twins in their actions both in the dugout and on the playing field..." and, after several more whereases: please stop spitting.
There's no evidence that players on the Twins or any other teams are expectorating less this season.
Maybe that's just as well. If there's one good thing about the constant spitting in baseball, it's that it helps keep our minds off all the televised crotch grabbing.
© Peter Funt. This column was first distributed by Cagle Cartoon Syndicate.