I have been watching a lot of baseball on television lately, and I've noticed there is still an awful lot of spitting going on.
How much? Well, during just one inning in a game between the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves, I counted 28 acts of people expelling various substances saliva, tobacco juice, sunflower seed shells, the occasional fingernail from their mouths.
At one point, while the Giants' Buster Posey was batting, all three people on the screen Posey, the Braves catcher and the home plate umpire spat simultaneously. Fortunately they all aimed in the same general direction, so no one was injured.
I thought there might be less spitting this season, since the players union agreed late last year to a ban on tobacco packages or tins in their pockets while fans are in the ballparks, and not to chew or dip during pregame or postgame interviews, or at team functions such as autograph signings, banquets and funerals.
But despite intense pressure from Congress, the American Cancer Society and their moms, the players refused to agree to a complete ban on chewing tobacco during games. As a player named Jack Cust pointed out last season, "We're all grown adults, so I don't see why we can't do what other grown adults do."
Following that logic, it should be noted that Cust is currently being treated like a child, since this season he is playing in the minor leagues, where players are banned from using tobacco during games.
It's pretty clear that despite the inconvenience of having to run back to the clubhouse during a game to grab a chaw or dip a cheekful, a lot of players some estimates run as high as 33 percent are still using tobacco. This naturally leads to a sizable amount of spitting.
Of course players chew things other than tobacco. At the end of one recent game, I watched one of the bat boys carry the remnants of three 100-piece tubs of bubble gum out of the dugout. Moreover, it's rumored that if you had a dollar for every sunflower seed chewed during a single season by any one of the 30 major league teams, you would have enough to pay the salary of a mediocre backup infielder.
And it may be that I am overly sensitive to the spitting-chewing tobacco-baseball situation, due to an unfortunate personal experience. When I was 12 years old and a star Little League pitcher, two of my teammates and I went to a game at Westgate Park in San Diego, back when the Padres were officially a minor league team and didn't just play like one.
We were chatting over the bullpen fence with a young Padres pitcher with the improbably apt name of Billy McCool. He raffishly offered us a chaw from his Red Man pouch. All three of us tried it. After about 10 minutes, all three of us engaged in oral activities a good deal more violent than spitting. I never chewed again. I also never made it to the major leagues.
Spitting has always been an integral part of baseball. Up until 1920, in fact, it was perfectly acceptable for pitchers to orally apply tobacco-stained spittle to the ball in order to make it dip and swerve, and also to make it harder for the batter to see.
After a player was hit in the head and killed by a spitball, however, spitting on or otherwise doctoring the ball was outlawed. Some pitchers who relied on the spitball as their best pitch were allowed to continue throwing it for the rest of their careers. Three of them are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame, which shows you how effective spitting on something can be for some people. In 1996, a player named Roberto Alomar spat in the face of an umpire. Alomar is also in the Hall of Fame, although presumably not for his prowess as a spitter.
So maybe a little expectoration isn't that big a deal, especially when compared with the number of times during a game that players adjust their crotches, pat each other on the butt or pick their nose and then examine the results.
The French-born historian Jacques Barzun once suggested that "whoever wants to learn the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."
Just watch where you spit.