And though this is a safety precaution, a way to limit transmission of the novel coronavirus in a workplace, players and coaches have seen another use. Masks have already helped them adjust to some wacky rules for 2020, including bans on spitting, finger licking, face touching and sunflower seeds. All four habits are part of the sport, the same as throwing or catching a ball. Players and coaches, many of whom were once players themselves, have spent decades spitting out spit, spitting out seeds or using spit to slick their fingers before pitching.
But now, all of a sudden, they can’t. Their second nature has to change.
“Wearing a mask, they’ve debated whether it’s good or not, whatever it may be, but for me it just makes me not want to touch my face, which I think is a huge thing,” said Nationals shortstop Trea Turner, who covered his face for an entire workout Tuesday. “It keeps you from spitting. I’ve caught myself a couple times where I’ve wanted to spit.”
Turner laughed a bit before he continued. But if he smiled, it was impossible to tell through a Zoom call. He did the entire interview through a light pink mask.
“I’m definitely going to miss the seeds this year.”
Outside baseball, a national debate on masks rages on. Viral videos have shown people refusing to wear them in public spaces. Supermarkets and department stores have become regular battlegrounds. The arguments are politicized, like so many arguments in 2020, with some feeling that requirements about facial coverings are a violation of civil liberties. Conversely, scientific opinions, including guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, favor wearing a mask to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
But inside baseball, a typically apolitical sport, masks are part of a larger statement. Some players have suggested that if they can run, hit and work out in masks, then people should have no problem wearing them in their everyday lives. Mike Trout, the sport’s best player, was photographed wearing a mask while he trained with the Los Angeles Angels. His mother, Debbie, soon tweeted: “If Mike Trout can wear a mask while running the bases, you can wear a mask going out in public.”
Cincinnati Reds reliever Amir Garrett chimed in Tuesday, tweeting that he was wearing a mask for himself and the safety of others. Buster Posey, a veteran catcher for the San Francisco Giants, drew attention for wearing a protective mask with his catcher’s gear during a recent workout. After Nationals closer Sean Doolittle finished a long interview Sunday, a team public relations staffer tweeted, “If Sean Doolittle can wear a mask during a 27:00 minute press conference after working out, you can wear a mask in public.” The post was widely shared.
“We need help from the general public,” Doolittle said. “If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask. Social distance. Keep washing your hands.”
Mask requirements vary based on personnel. Everyone has to wear them while inside team facilities. Coaches and staff have to at all times, even when on or around the field. Players have an option when in the dugout, bullpen or on the field, and few wore them while playing in Wednesday’s simulated game.
But having masks on in training — and around the dugout and clubhouse — could help curb old habits. Under Major League Baseball’s health and safety guidelines, spitting, sunflower seeds and chewing tobacco are all off limits, though gum is still permitted. The most detailed rule is for face touching, with the operations manual stating, “Players and all other on-field personnel must make every effort to avoid touching their face with their hand.”
That includes no wiping sweat with hands, licking fingers or whistling with fingers. Coaches are not allowed to give signs by touching their faces, which is the most common way to do so. On Wednesday, Nationals third base coach Chip Hale wore batting gloves and a mask that stretched well above his nose. With a helmet on, only his eyes were visible. When he put his hands against his cheeks and yelled toward a batter, catcher Tres Barrera, no skin was touching.
“It will definitely help. You got a lot of guys who have had these habits for a lot of years,” Martinez said of whether wearing a mask could police and shift behavior. “The chewing of seeds. A lot of guys put seeds in their mouth to calm their nerves. Now you can’t have seeds in your mouth.
“That’s going to be tough for some guys when they are so used to it or … not being able to just, as we all know, spit.”
At the start of summer training, Martinez took a few sips of water, went to spit it out, then realized he had a mask on. Scherzer, the Nationals’ 35-year-old ace, had started to lick his fingers more in the past few seasons. He liked to rub spit into the bottom of his right palm. He used the bit of moisture to improve his grip on pitches.
Now, though, Scherzer has to replace spit with sweat from the back of his hair. Turner is learning not to spit or crave seeds. Octavio Martinez, one of the Nationals’ bullpen catchers, is considered non-playing personnel and will have to wear a mask while working with pitchers. After Wednesday’s workout, he ran stadium steps and stretched with a mask on, getting used to his new normal.
Carter Kieboom, the club’s rookie third baseman, wore a mask during Tuesday’s workout. His immediate takeaway was how hot it made his face in the July heat. He figures that moving forward he will need a few masks to cycle through given how much he sweats. And as for his personal quirks, he is not much of a seeds guy. He should be able to avoid touching his face.
Spitting is what he has to kick. He feels his mask will help.
“I’ve had to catch myself a couple times trying not to spit out there,” Kieboom said Wednesday while answering questions through a black mask. “It’s just a habit. It’s something baseball players have done their entire lives.”
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