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Throwing the Spitter
By George Felton

I hope baseball never loses the tradition of spitting. While it looks like an unnecessary vulgarism, spitting, to me, lies at the heart of the matter—the way sliding hard into second or riding a fastball up and in on a hitter do. It's part of the grit of a game that could use more.

Spitting is a vulgarism, of course, and that's what I like about it. Atavistic and crude, it takes us back to earlier, less well-mannered times when baseball was played outside under a steaming sun without commercials, cameras, or big contracts, and the guys just never stopped. They played, they sweat, they spit. And they didn't much like the other team either.

What upsets us about spitting is its violation of the social order. Most of us will spit into a tissue or perhaps out-of-doors, especially away from others. But indoors? With others? It takes a special brand of effrontery to do that, which is why the Astros, formerly an indoor-dwelling team, earned our awe. Spit is a kind of dirt and disorder, a violation of the system, of well-behavedness, of good manners and respect for others. Spitting clearly announces to anyone in its general direction: you are nothing; this place is nowhere.

Since it's a given that if you chew, you must spit and if you watch other people spitting, you will be driven to spit yourself, we come, inevitably, to stylistics. I think Gary Sheffield of the Dodgers is in a league of one. His chewing is a kind of lip nibbling gone baroque. He moves that load in there around like a churning reaper, a soft machine, rolling and roiling lips and tongue until he seems to be speaking a silent, lip-heavy language. I don't know how he has time to catch and throw and hit while chewing, but he does. Watching Sheffield's face, one sees nervous energy raised to visible art.

One of the things I like best about the World Series is watching prime time, big league spitting, and you'd think we'd be seeing the best in the postseason. Unfortunately, we have not had any great spitters in the Series for several years. Back in 1997, the Cleveland Indians were, almost to a man, possessed by the idea of spitting, perhaps because some key players chewed tobacco and the desire to spit had spread. But they've not been back since then. And the Yankees are so virtuous that few of them even chew tobacco. Avoiding tobacco, however, leads to chewing gum, and unless you're assiduous about making a statement with your gum, you're just not going to be spitting all that much. Besides, imperturbables like Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius, and Bernie Williams are all capable of batting without moving their mouths, except perhaps to inquire if a pitch was low.

In the 1998 Series, Greg Vaughn and a few other Padres were willing to uphold the tradition, spitting down near their feet between swings or stepping out of the batter's box to launch one into space. But there was probably a lot more spitting going on in the stands than down on the field where it belongs, which to me has it exactly backwards and is itself a violation of the social order. Spitting needs to be done out where we can get a good look at it.

Managers, who used to spit when they played in earnest, have now graduated to executive spitting. Mike Hargrove, the Orioles manager, bonds with the boys by spitting, but his stuff is thin and wispy, the gesture without the full load. He may, in fact, not be chewing anything at all, so when he gathers up some spittle to send out, it's a small affair. Nonetheless, during the 1998 playoffs (when he was still managing the Indians) the camera couldn't go to him, even for a few moments, without some fine, tight package shooting out through pursed lips. He manages; therefore he spits.

Now we study Yankee manager Joe Torre, deep in heavy browed solitude, eyes so sunken and dark they seem to contain all sorrow. It's as though his eyes are watching this game with the light from games played decades ago. They burn toward us like stars in deep space. As befits a man with meditative instincts, his chewing and his spitting are almost imperceptible, but the next time the camera lingers on that mug of his, that study in contemplation, watch closely: a slow chew is going on. Something's in there and he's working on it the way he's working on the game itself—very carefully. He's thinking but he's not telling us what about. And he's chewing, all right, but he's won't say what on.

By contrast, Bobby Valentine, manager of the New York Mets, chews gum and blows bubbles. Pink ones. Perhaps I've said enough already. His chewing is vigorous but lightweight, not as sonorous, as ruminative, as profound, as Torre's.

One pleasure of chewing and spitting, then, is that it helps us see who's who and what's what. And that's something baseball players do for us. We can't spit as much as we want and need to. We have to behave ourselves, speak well of our enemies, bring up nothing unpleasant.

And this, in so many ways, is what's best about a pitcher like David Wells. He's not chewing tobacco; he's chewing gum, God bless him. But he's out there in that uniform baggy enough to double as pajamas, stretching and sweating and shrugging and crotch adjusting and trying to get comfortable doing what he has to do, part of which is to spit. After he's set the other side down and is shambling off the mound toward the dugout, watch. As often as not, he'll hurl a couple of quick white ones at the air. He's firing them not at the other team, but at the idea of impediments themselves, at the bad taste they leave in your mouth. He spits at their smallishness. He shows us how we clear our throats and move on.



GEORGE FELTON is a professor of English at the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio, where he teaches writing and copywriting. Felton's essays on the media, pop culture, and his own perplexities have appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

© 2001 George Felton


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