Spitting is to baseball what punctuation is to the English language.
"It's necessary," Tug McGraw said. "If you're gonna chew, ya better spit."
His logic was not hard to swallow.
Baseball players are creatures of habit. There are chewers and dippers and lollipop suckers. There are guys who can spit a sunflower seed so high you could call the infield fly rule.
They don't put idiosyncracies in the box scores, but they are as much a part of baseball as 6-4-3 double plays. They are the game's second, if not better, nature.
George Brett sat in the visitor's dugout in Philadelphia chewing tobacco and chewing the fat. A Gucci loafer, soft, beige and expensive, planted itself in George's spitton, the dugout floor. George went to his left. George went to his right. Then George went right up the middle.
Exit one slightly moist, slightly brown, slightly depreciated Gucci.
Brett is an accomplished spitter: he sprays tobacco juice almost as well as line drives. No doubt about it -- he leads the Royals in most offensive categories.
But who is the best spitter on the Phillies?
"Don't look at me," McGraw said, a hint of Red Man in one corner of his mouth, a hint of a smile in the other. "I'm no good." And he meant it.
Ring-around the collar is child's play compared to uniform 45. There was Red Man wherever the white was supposed to be. The uniform was a walking SOS for industrial strength cleaner.
"Pretty disgusting," he said, "Huh?"
Which is not say that all baseball players are slobs. Some are quite gentlemanly with a chaw and have learned not to spit on the carpet. But not all.
Joe Meccariello, the head groundskeeper at Veterans Stadium, said, "When they spit on the rug, and the sun comes out and dries it, it's really hard to get the stains out." The Phillies dry clean the field twice a day, but they have to use a high-pressure water machine and, sometimes, ammonia to get rid of the tobacco stains, especially those around the batting cage.
Phillie catcher Bob Boone, a Stanford man with an educated palate, prefers to leave his mark on the rug, rather than on his person. "I hang my head a lot," he said.
Meccariello says Boone may just be the best spitter on the clud. "Well, I used to be," he said, "I used to have a gap between my front teeth. "Then my parents made me get a retainer. Now, I'm a slobber.
"I started about three years ago in spring training. It's so boring. Chewing really does pass the time. It's gotten me through a lot of serious injuries."
Catching can put a man in a vulnerable position, especially if he's got a chaw in his mouth. "I was catching once and got in a collision when the guy decided not to slide," said Tug McGraw's brother, Hank, a former professional who now plays for the Panama Red Sox slow pitch softball team. "I swallowed a whole mouthful of juice. I guess I threw up. But I once saw Ed Hermann of the White Sox swallow a whole chaw. I don't know what happened to him."
Boone says he's never gotten sick from chewing. "But it took me four months before I'd try it in a game," he said. "I'd get all dizzy and high from it. Then one day, I got mad about a play and just fired it in."
Greg Gross chews but never out in the field.
Some guys just can't chew and play at the same time.
The Surgeon General of the United States has already established the risks associated with tobacco. And now because of Royal shortstop U.L. Washington, he may have to issue a new warning. Something about toothpicks being hazardous to your health.
Even Joe Garagiola is concerned. "I don't like to see this," Garagiola said as U.L. marched to the plate, a well rounded toothpick protruding from the right hand corner of his mouth. "It's downright dangerous."
Dr. John Drumm, a Washington dentist, said, "It probably can't hurt his teeth. Toothpicks get kind of mushy. But he could have serious problems if he inhaled it."
"I've got a lot of people scared for me, so there's no need for me to be scared, too," said U.L. "I get a lot of mail saying it's a bad influence on kids. But it's okay, if they're coached right."
What nonchalance. What elan. U.L. is a man with no first name, just initials. Maybe someday he'll get his toothpicks monogrammed.He and his pick approach the plate as if to say to the guy on the mound, "You're no better than dental floss. Just try and knock it out of here."
"I'm glad they don't take it that way," he said. "It's just to relax me, like a chew or a dip. It's got nothing to do with intimidation."
U.L. and his toothpick have been inseparable since 1973, his first year in professional baseball. He bats with it, talks with it, and, you should forgive the expression, he "picks it" with it. And in the field between batters, he fiddles with it. From a distance, it looks like he is sucking his thumb.
According to reliable sources, he once swallowed half a toothpick, when a pitcher came a little too much inside on him. Hank McGraw swears that when U.L. watched Tug's called strike three during the first game of the series, "his body quivered, and that toothpick hit the ground."
U.L. uses one toothpick a game. "Both ends," he said. "And when I get back to the hotel at night, if I need a toothpick for what it's supposed to be used for, getting meat out or something, I'll use it again."
Sometimes he keeps them. "Once I had one and I hit two home runs with it against Oakland," he said."I used it again the next day. But all the magic had gone out of it. I threw it away."
If he ever finds one that can hit four home runs, he'll probably have it bronzed.
McGraw may have more trouble bronzing his right thigh, although if anyone can do it, Tug can. Those unfamiliar with the irrepressible McGraw might conclude that his inning-ending, thigh-slapping routine is just another example of Tug getting his exuberant Irish up. They're wrong.
"I've been doing it since the day I got married in 1968," said Tug. "My wife didn't know anything about baseball. It was a signal for her to start watching. I didn't want to tip my hat, that's for everyone. I wanted to do something to signify I was thinking of her."
It's hard to upstage McGraw. But Pete Rose may have found the answer. The inning hasn't ended until Pete has spiked the ball at first base. Pete's moves are a cross between a slam dunk and a Billy (White Shoes) Johnson war dance in the end zone. No doubt about it, Pete can "put it down."
"I think it's an intimidation thing," said Hank McGraw. "A 'take that' kind of thing."
There's the forward, running, one-hand slam for away games, where he bounces the ball on the mound as he heads across the third-base line.There's the less emphatic behind-the-back move he uses at home, as he turns and heads for the Phillie dugout. But both moves require a clean transfer from glove to throwing hand, a less than efficient use of energy for a 39-year-old man.
Tuesday night Pete unveiled his new streamlined approach, a one-handed, 180-degree, behind-the-back World Series special that could make Dr. J envious. Rose took the ball at first, on an assist from Manny Trillo, spun toward the dugout and slammed it down without ever removing it from his glove.
"I used to do it at third base," Rose said, "but I didn't get so many chances there. I've got it down now, so I can usually make the ball go right to the mound. I'm probably going to hit myself in the head with it one of these days."
A Rose is a Rose is a Rose.