Credit: Illustration by Julia Terbrock

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The sunflower seeds in Clark Klitenic’s mouth made him feel like a grown-up. It didn’t matter that he was only a fourth grader on one of Bethesda Chevy Chase Baseball’s select youth teams in Montgomery County. In his mind, Klitenic was a baseball player—a real one, like his coaches and the professionals he saw on TV.

At practices and games, Klitenic would grab a handful of sunflower seeds and pop them in his mouth, chewing the seeds and spitting out the shells one at a time. That was baseball; you learn how to swing a bat, throw a ball, and crack and chew a sunflower seed without spitting the whole thing out.

“When you’re a little kid, you see your coaches, you look up to coaches so much, and you see them chewing seeds. You want to be like that,” Klitenic explains. “It’s like an image thing.”

Klitenic, now 19, eventually realized no one cared if he chewed seeds or not. But by the time he enrolled at St. Albans School in Northwest D.C. and became one of the top pitching recruits from Maryland, the left-hander was already hooked on sunflower seeds—ranch flavored ones, in particular. He still finds himself keeping seeds in his mouth at all times on the baseball field. Klitenic recently wrapped up his freshman year competing at Duke University, but plans to transfer to Yale University in the fall.

“Culturally, that’s just part of the game,” he says. “You can’t wait to go outside and shoot some sunflower seeds. It’s definitely deeply ingrained. I would say it’s part of the game.”

The novel coronavirus pandemic may soon change that. 

Sports leagues around the world are mandating health precautions to ensure that, when games resume, they do so responsibly, like playing without fans in order to safely reintroduce competition. In the United States, where more than 100,000 people have died from COVID-19, major sports leagues have yet to return to play.

A 67-page document delivered from Major League Baseball to the Major League Baseball Players Association earlier this month detailed the proposed protocols for starting the 2020 MLB season, which include procedures for COVID-19 testing, the location of a modified “spring training,” and on-field rules. As reported by The Athletic, the return of MLB games could mean “no spitting, using smokeless tobacco, and sunflower seeds in restricted areas. Any physical interactions such as high-fives, fist bumps, and hugs must be avoided at club facilities.”

As aggressive as the measures sound, they echo best practices proposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Spitting is one of the behaviors that the CDC recommends eliminating from youth sports to reduce the spread of COVID-19, since the virus spreads mainly through respiratory droplets.

But can there be baseball with no spitting? For a sport that’s so entrenched in traditions and routines—from Little League to the MLB—that will be a hard habit to break. MLB teams typically provide sunflower seeds and chewing gum for home and away teams during games.

“Spitting is almost such a compulsive thing,” Klitenic says. “That’s really a tic. You have guys that will spit between every pitch. Spitting is a compulsive issue. I think [if MLB implements the no-spitting rule], you’ll see a lot of big leaguers in the [batter’s] box spitting, and having an ‘uh-oh moment.’ It’s not a conscious thing. It’s almost part of your routine, as disgusting as that sounds.”

Spitting in baseball dates back to the use of chewing tobacco. The sport became immensely popular in the United States in the mid-1800s, and at the time, Americans used chewing tobacco regularly. 

Decades later, around the time players started wearing fielding gloves, players used the tobacco juice to soften their gloves and pitchers applied saliva to the baseball (a “spitball”) to change the spin of the ball, says Fred Frommer, a baseball historian and author of several baseball books. MLB outlawed the spitball after the 1920 season.

Chewing tobacco and other smokeless tobacco products, with their link to an increased risk of oral cancers, have been banned in the minor leagues since 1993, and more than half of the 30 major league stadiums, including Nationals Park, are tobacco free. In 2014, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died of salivary gland cancer at age 54; he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2010 that he believed the cancer was related to his dipping habit.

Players still use chewing tobacco, but in the mid-1900s, another tradition began to spread: eating and spitting sunflower seeds.

A 1980 Sports Illustrated article by Roy Blount Jr., “The Seeds of Content,” detailed the spraying of the “little flecks” on the baseball field and dugout. “I guess it’s the modern-day chewing tobacco,” Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan was quoted as saying. The team’s clubhouse attendant Jim Tyler told Blount that the team went through about 200 cases of sunflower seeds that season.

Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson started chewing seeds in 1968, his first full MLB season, and is credited with popularizing the now-ubiquitous habit. Jackson considered himself an expert in the art of chewing sunflower seeds, and kept handfuls in his pockets. In front of Blount and other reporters, Jackson demonstrated the skill. He popped 20 seeds in his right cheek, selected one with his tongue, carefully cracked it open, held the seed between his incisors, and closed his mouth. Once he opened it again, the shell was halved, with the seed in the middle of his tongue. Jackson then spit out the shell.

Decades later, baseball players of all levels do the same.

When Caden Cary was 7 or 8, he saw MLB players on TV spitting out sunflower seeds. He asked his dad to explain it to him, and soon tried it out for himself. He started off by eating one seed at a time, then two. 

“Now it’s like 20,” Cary says. “I just put them in my mouth. I don’t really count.”

Cary, who lives in Northeast Washington, recently turned 11. He played for Mamie Johnson Little League’s 10 and under all-star team and is on the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy’s Hustle 12 and under travel team that practices in Ward 7.

He says he goes through about half a bag per game. And in the absence of competition and practices due to the pandemic, Cary did the next closest thing to playing baseball last week: He bought a bag of sunflower seeds.

“My favorite flavor is sweet and spicy,” he says. “I ate that … because I needed the taste again.”

Like Cary, Adam Kolarek, a relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who grew up in Catonsville, Maryland, and currently lives in Anne Arundel County, remembers being inspired by the major leaguers on TV and trying to emulate everything they did. He bought the same kind of gloves they wore and tried different batting stances in his backyard, just like Cal Ripken Jr. did.

And when the TV cameras panned over to the dugout, Kolarek saw players with their cheeks puffed out, spitting out mouthfuls of seeds.

“It’s just one of those kind of pastimes with baseball. You see it in movies, you see it all the time,” the 31-year-old says. “I remember, as a kid, you always swing by 7-Eleven on the way to the ball field, grab a bag of seeds, and everybody can relate to that.” 

Kolarek, who played at the University of Maryland, doesn’t have to buy his own sunflower seeds anymore. Each step up the competitive baseball ladder opened him up to a bigger and better selection. 

“In a dugout, at one time, I would say [there are] probably 30 to 40 bags, and then probably another 10 to 20 in the bullpen,” Kolarek says. “So each person can have multiple bags at a time.”

Of the total bags, Kolarek estimates that at least 15 to 20 get eaten in the dugout during the game, and that there are at a minimum five flavors provided: “You got regular, BBQ, ranch, the occasional dill pickle I guess, black pepper, and definitely hotter ones, too.”

He doesn’t have a certain quota he eats. One night he might just eat a handful, and other nights he might down half a bag. He’ll definitely have a piece of gum or two. During batting practice or warmups, he sees plenty of teammates who have seeds in their back pockets.

Kolarek compares the routine to eating popcorn at the movies. It’s part of the experience of playing baseball.

“You smell it, and you’re like, I’m at the theater, I’m gonna buy some popcorn,” he says. “So when you’re a baseball player, I mean, I have buddies who, when they go to games as fans, will sit in the stands, but just because of their memories, being a kid playing, my buddy will bring a bag of sunflower seeds and then spit them into a bottle … It’s just how you can associate a little snack while you’re watching the game.”

Kolarek believes that MLB players will understand the rationale behind a temporary spitting ban and be able to put things in perspective: “I realize nobody likes being told what to do … but the sacrifices that people are making right now in going to work as a nurse or a doctor or working in a grocery store, I mean, those are true sacrifices.”

But baseball without sunflower seeds—even at the highest level—will require adjustment. 

“It’s just kind of like part of your equipment, almost,” Kolarek says. “You got your glove, and you got your bag of seeds, and you’re ready for the game.”