Asking a ballplayer not to spit is like asking an Italian grandmother not to boast about her Sunday gravy.
Spitting is in a ballplayer’s DNA. Heck, they even named a pitch after it.
A century after the spitball was outlawed for safety reasons, Major League Baseball is trying to do the same with spitting in general. It’s one of many practices and rituals, ranging from disgusting to time-honored and cherished, that baseball wants to do away with as it prepares for a more sanitary, socially distanced return to action in the coming weeks.
Major League Baseball has proposed that players don’t throw the ball around the infield between outs, that they sanitize their hands frequently during games, sit at least six feet away from each other in the stands, not the dugout, quit high-fiving, signing autographs, kibitzing with opponents and even taking postgame showers at the ballpark.
There’s a lot more – including killing the pre-game lineup card exchange at home plate – but you get the drift. It’s all part of reducing the chance of contracting or spreading COVID-19, the virus that has changed the world for everyone.
Of all the things that MLB is asking players do – or not to do – eliminating spitting might be the most difficult.
The action is engrained deep in a player’s subconscious. Some don’t even know they’re doing it. It’s Pavlovian. Once they feel the grass and dirt under their feet, they spit.
No team embraced spitting quite like our very own 1993 Phillies. They brought it to an art form, forever captured by a Murderer’s Row of Saturday Night Live comedians that year. (Poor Anne Murray.)
Saturday Night Live
John Kruk, played more than once by Chris Farley on SNL, was an All-Star spitter on the ’93 Phillies.
Would he be able to survive under the new rules?
“Hell, no,” he said over the phone Tuesday. “I couldn’t do it.
“Spitting is part of the game. You watch (the movie) A League of Their Own. They practiced spitting. You watch Major League. They spit in unison.
“I remember Tom Selleck came to Philly and took batting practice with us when he was doing Mr. Baseball. That first thing he did when he walked on the field was spit. It was probably disgusting, but that’s what he did. It was natural.
“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.’ “
Spitting has long been associated with chewing tobacco. Even though fewer players chew these days, they still spit. Bubble gum juice. Sunflower seeds. A cup full of water. Just regular ol’ saliva.
“Yeah, it’s not like we’re digging it up from down deep,” Kruk said.
With some of the new constructions, ballparks have gotten more and more beautiful over the years. But the dugout floor is still a splashy-splashy spittoon. Way back when, the Phillies were in Cincinnati and a fight broke out in the box seats right behind the dugout. The pugilists ended up tumbling into the Phillies’ dugout. Rex Hudler ran over and grabbed one of them, not because he was trying to break up the fight, but because, as he explained after the game, “the dude was about to roll into a huge loogie!”
Kruk concurred. Dugout floors are no place to roll around on.
“There are seeds all over, tobacco spit all over, regular spit,” he said. “There are paper cups everywhere. For people who are supposed throw a ball accurately, we couldn’t hit a garbage can for our lives.”
Oh, and it’s not just baseball players. Watch a hockey player after a shift some time. Water bottle. Mouthful. Stream of spit.
“I still do it on the golf course,” Kruk said. “I get to the first tee and I spit. Even the guys I play with do it and they weren’t ballplayers.”
The “operation guidelines” that MLB has proposed are contained in a 67-page document that was forwarded to the Players Association last week. The players still must sign off on these guidelines and there are no real punishments for violating them. MLB knows that it’s tough to break habits. They are simply trying to change behaviors for now and the long run.
But what if there had been a punishment for spitting back in the 1993?
“I think Lenny (Dykstra) would just have written a check to the league before the season,” Kruk said. “He could turn center field at the Vet into a cesspool of spit.
“He would have had trouble playing. A lot of us would.”
Kruk would also have had trouble with some of the other new proposals.
He loved to chat it up with baserunners between pitches at first base.
“Especially Tony Gwynn,” Kruk said. “He’d come in from Montreal or New York and give me scouting reports on all the pitchers he just saw.”
As for sitting in the stands instead of the dugout.
“Can you imagine someone like me who is a little overweight trying to get up and down the bleachers for my next at-bat?” he said. “How do you loosen up? Do you have to bring your own bat weight and rosin bag, too?”
Well, uh, yes, in fact, you do.
And then there’s the period of time after the game. MLB wants players to shower back at their hotels.
“OK, what do you do on getaway day?” Kruk said. “It’s 100 degrees in Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon and you can’t take a shower before getting on a bus or a plane. People are going to ruin their clothes.”
Clearly, there are some things that MLB and the players must still work out to make the return plan work.
But if spitting is successfully curtailed or even outlawed …
Oh, well, at least we’ll always have that great Saturday Night Live skit to remind us of an art form that once was.
Poor Anne Murray.
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