Saturday, November 1, 2008

Expectorate the Unexpected


What’s big, hairy, scratches a lot, dribbles constantly, and is worth millions of dollars? No, it’s not a basketball player. If you said major league baseball player, you win a can of swoose.

Watching baseball on television is like taking a shower. Wherever the camera is focused, you are drenched with wet gobs of spit. The camera sees the on-deck batter and we see flying spatters of sputum. It moves to the pitcher peeking from behind his glove with white spews of spittle flying in every direction. It zooms in on the batter digging in while expelling juice on the plate, his uniform, and the catcher’s glove. Then, in rapid order just before the pitch, we see the manager hawking up a clam, an outfielder adjusting his crotch while he blows some saliva, and the catcher spattering his mask with a last minute spray just before the ball hits his mitt.

On and on the showcase of spit continues. Views of the dugout feature expectorations of tobacco juice, seed hulls, and just plain spittle flying in every direction. The dugout floor shines like a wet sidewalk after a downpour. Players hang over the dugout rail competing for the title of most number of spits, wettest clams, and longest lobs. For those with a weak stomach, watching a game while eating is unappetizing to say the least, if not impossible.

Those who dislike public displays of spitting tend to focus their attention on baseball players without saying much about football, golf, tennis, or basketball athletes. But jocks in other sports have been known to hawk a lunger in public view. As a kid in the late 1950s I witnessed the unbeatable Boston Celtics come onto the court in Los Angeles against the Lakers and nearly every player was sucking a wad of chew. Muscleman Jim Loscutoff looked like he had the mumps. I immediately thought they must be the toughest men on earth because they obviously couldn’t spit on the floor so I assumed they swallowed it. I was so impressed.

I’ve witnessed several golfers spraying pristine fairways and greens with expectorant, not the least being Tiger Woods. I’ve seen hockey players display some awesome patterns of spit, probably because of the unusual arrangement of their teeth. Women softball players have taken to spitting, as have countless little leaguers, but I doubt that chewing tobacco is to blame. I spied the tell-tale circle of a Copenhagen can in the back pocket of my son Michael’s baseball pants during a youth game. I collared him for a quick frisk and turned up a can of powdered jerky which, apparently, will also work up a good clam. If the big guys do it, obviously the kids want to follow suit.

Are there athletes who don’t spit? I’ve never seen Chris Evert or Peggy Fleming hawk one and I’ll be broken hearted if they ever do. Ice skaters seem to be able to resist the urge, although I’d bet that Tanya Harding could spray with the best of them. Miguel Cairo, the incomparable Seattle Mariner utility player, assured me during a round of golf that I’d never see him spit on television, and I never have. I’m still watching you, big guy. I’ve never really seen a jockey spit except after a race during which he ate a lot of mud. Soccer players spend too much time rolling around on the ground grabbing their legs and screaming in pain to really work up a good spew.

There are many famous spitting incidents. Remember Roberto Alomar anointing the face of umpire John Hirschbeck with a glob because he didn’t agree with the ump’s third strike call? Alomar’s action was made even more despicable when he attributed the death of Hirschbeck’s son as a possible cause for Hirschbeck’s “bitter” attitude that caused the anointment. When Alomar, playing under appeal, put the Baltimore Orioles into a post season wild-card spot with a 10th inning homer, his teammates imitated their hero’s act by spitting beer on each other during their locker room celebration. Class act.

According to The New York Times reporter Jim Yardley, China’s “national anthem” is the sound of several loud clearings of the throat, followed by a wet yodel that accompanies a juicer being worked up, and finalized with a loud “phatoot” and the splat of a wet skidder hitting the sidewalk. Spitting is considered a right in China, and there was an effort to curb the delightful pastime during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Apparently it didn’t happen and a spit shine was enjoyed by many visitors while the anthem played on.

Former Tampa Bay Rays pitcher, Al Reyes, after a barroom brawl that left him with a split lip and a mashed nose, spit blood on responding police officers. My guess is that the cops had seen enough baseball players spitting on television because they put the Taser to him and hauled him off to jail. Reyes is no longer hawking ‘em in the major leagues.

Then there’s the famous spitting incident on the Seinfeld television show where former NY Mets pretty boy Keith Hernandez allegedly spit on Kramer and Newman. But Jerry patiently demonstrated to the two doofuses how it was scientifically and physically impossible for the incident to have happened as they had so manically explained it. Seinfeld dismissed it as a “magic loogie.”

My personal opinion on ballplayers’ obsession with spitting is that chewing tobacco has little to do with it because I’ve seen too many lily white globs without the nasty brown stain of chaw. Rather, I think it has to do with an image that professional athletes like to curry ―that of being in charge, of being the guy who has no problem handling pressure, of being hard-nosed and unyielding. And it probably is a pressure relief valve. A major league baseball player must display the utmost dexterity and concentration every second he’s on the field through a season of 162 games in front of millions of critical fans. Making an error is humiliating. Failing to hit for a high average threatens stature and salary. It’s no longer a peaceful pastime for enjoyment. It is life and livelihood for the player and his family. At first, for the novice baseball player, spitting projects an image of invincibility and washes out the dryness of stress. Then it becomes a habit, an involuntary tic that erases tension, something that everyone else does. It evolved into a tradition long ago and will never go away anytime soon.

So if we get annoyed or grossed out and simply cannot watch another minute of grown men spitting away like little boys, there’s only one option. Don’t watch or attend another baseball game. But for baseball fans like me with decades of devotion it’s something we’re going to have to swallow, so to speak. Spit on.

No comments: