BY JEFF FALK
They have become as much a part of the game as uniforms, bats and gloves. They’re also an oral fixation, a pastime within America’s Pastime and a healthy alternative.
And they’re delicious.
They’re sunflower seeds. Or more succinctly ‘seeds’.
Stick your head in just about any dugout in the Lebanon County American Legion baseball league and what you’ll find is participants – players and coaches alike – sucking on seeds, chewing seeds and spitting seeds. It’s a sunflower seed revolution – a makeover and a takeover.
“It’s something for players to occupy time,” said Annville head coach Steve Hostetter. “Baseball’s not boring to me, but there is a lot of down time. I think they’re (the players) definitely influenced by the major leaguers. It’s kind of a filler. I like it because it’s something to do. I’m sort of a busy body. I have a hard time staying still. And I wouldn’t say it’s a nervous type of reaction or anything like that.”
“I had a kid leave a game one time so he could tell his parents to get him more seeds,” said Fifth Ward head coach Tony McDonnell. “Now they sell them at concession stands. It’s just something to do. You want to be like people you watch play. I’m just glad they got away from tobacco. If you think about it: What’s the purpose? You’re eating it. But it’s not going to fill you up.”
“I have no idea why people do it,” said Myerstown head coach Johnny Mentzer. “When I’m at the field, it’s just something I do. If we have a couple of bad innings or haven’t scored a run in a while, I’m like ‘Give me some seeds. Maybe it will change our luck.’ I’m superstitious. It’s part of the American Pastime.”
It certainly seems to have come to that. But it wasn’t always that way. The proliferation of chewing seeds is a relatively recent occurrence in a game whose history spans almost a century and a half. But sunflower seeds are more popular now than they’ve ever been.
“They’ve been around ever since I was a little kid,” said Mentzer. “I can remember them when my dad was playing fast-pitch softball. Nope, I never chew them when I’m away from baseball. It’s only at baseball. Everybody on our team chews seeds, I would say pretty much all the time, including the coaches. Derek (Assistant Coach Fulk) goes to Smith’s Candies and buys the big box and we split them. I would say everybody in the league does it, except at Fredericksburg. And probably the Fredericksburg players do it when they’re not at home.”
“I don’t know exactly when it started,” said Hostetter. “It was in when I started coaching ten years ago. I don’t think it originated a whole lot before then. I’d guess maybe 12-15 years ago. I would say maybe about a third or a half of our players chew them. Mabye it’s more than that. And I chew them every game.”
“I used to chew them years ago,” said McDonnell. “I stopped because when I was coaching third base and I had my mouth full of seeds my players couldn’t understand what I was saying. I’ve been around for eight years, and they’ve been doing it for a while. It’s gotten to the point where they’re (players) more concerned about them (seeds) than what’s going on on the field. Some of it is: ‘What flavor do you have?’ I never knew there were so many flavors”
So exactly how many flavors of sunflower seeds are there? Ten by one count. Original, BBQ, Ranch, Jalapeno Hot Salsa, Reduced Sodium, Dill Pickle, Buffalo-Style Ranch, Chili Lime, Sweet and Salty, Sweet and Spicy and Cracked Pepper.
“Oh my gosh, two years ago, I was seeing at least six flavors,” said McDonnell. “Every time I turned around, there was a new flavor. I’m old-school. I just like to chew the originals. And it’s all sunflower seeds. I’ve never seen anything but sunflower seeds. I don’t see any gum any more.”
“I can’t tell you how many flavors there are,” said Mentzer. “They’ve come out with so many new ones. It’s got to be close to 20. My favorites are ranch and original. If you went through my coaching bag right now, you’d find a bunch of ranch. I’ve seen kids chew pumpkin seeds. There’s always an oddball in the group. But it’s mostly sunflower seeds.”
“I like BBQ or Jalapeno,” said Hostetter. “I don’t think there’s anything else. I don’t see a whole lot of gum around. I would guess it’s mostly just sunflower seeds.”
There is a certain level of learned expertise to chewing sunflower seeds. It’s a science or art that, if not mastered, could lead to choking, shells on the lips, or worse.
“I put them in my mouth on one side, almost like a chew,” said Hostetter. “I work on one, individually. I pop it with my front teeth. And then spit the shell out.”
“I put as many in mouth as I can,” said Mentzer. “I always put them on my right side. And I take one to the left side. I take out the seed and spit out the shell. I know some people eat the whole seed. I’ve done it forever. It’s routine. ”
“You put a handful in your mouth and bite the shells off,” said McDonnell. “You eat the seeds and spit the shells out. And you keep doing that until you’re done. It’s an art. Trust me. I used to tear the seeds apart first, put the seed in my mouth and throw the shell away.”
At one time in baseball, the chewing of leaf tobacco, snuff and later bubble gum were acceptable practices. It would seem that seeds are a more desirable, healthier evolution to those.
“I think it’s from the Majors,” said McDonnell. “They made the Majors tobacco-free. So I think that’s where it came from. Players got to do something. It just popped up all over the place.”
“It’s definitely a healthier choice than tobacco,” said Hostetter. “I think it has replaced tobacco. I have a couple of kids who chew tobacco, but they are not allowed to do it during games or at practice. I don’t feel it’s right. And when they’re under my supervision, I won’t allow them to do it.”
“For me, more kids chew than ever before,” said Mentzer. “I know when kids leave the field, they put chews in. With some kids, you have to remind them to take it out. Some take it out and the minute they leave the field, they put it in again. But when they’re at the field, they chew seeds.”
The chewing of seeds is permitted at every field in the Lebanon County American Legion baseball league, save for one – Earl Wenger Memorial Field in Fredericksburg.
“We have stones in our dugouts, so you really don’t notice them,” said Mentzer. “It’s part of the game. It’s just part of it. But seeds can be very messy.”
“I don’t think they’re messy,” said Hostetter. “But if you ask Elvin Felty, yeah seeds are a nuisance to clean up. I don’t like litter. I don’t like garbage. If I didn’t think seeds would deteriorate, I wouldn’t chew them. But they come from the ground and they go back into the ground. It’s part of nature.”
“They’re a bugger to clean up,” said McDonnell. “But they’re biodegradable. At our field, you can have them. We sweep them up, and if you miss them, they’re gone in two days. The birds get them.”
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