Sunflower Seeds & Baseball Players
By Anika Kleingartner
In 2005, National Sunflower Association Executive Director Larry Kleingartner, wearing a NSA logo shirt, was getting on an airplane at Miami International Airport when a pilot excitedly approached him and asked, “Are there going to be enough seeds for my son’s Little League team this year?”
The 2004 production season had been a difficult one, and supplies of confection sunflower were short. “I was amazed that so many people were plugged into the seed shortage and the dependence of baseball on sunflower,” says Kleingartner.
Robert Schuler of Giants™ Sunflower Seeds, Wahpeton, N.D., is also very aware of the importance of baseball in the sales and consumption of sunflower seeds. Giant Seeds has exclusive contracts with the Minnesota Twins and the Colorado Rockies, whose players are set up with all of their seed supplies — from dill pickle to BBQ-flavored seeds, right down to a Giant Seeds seed bucket for the dugout. “It’s become a snack item that baseball players prefer, [and] it also sends a positive message to kids,” Schuler remarks.
In 1998, Brett Butler of the Cleveland Indians developed throat cancer from using smokeless tobacco. Major League Baseball has not provided players with chewing tobacco since then, and the product has been officially banned in the minor leagues. Instead, teams have provided players with sunflower seeds and bubble gum. (As to which one of the two is more preferred, we’re betting on the seeds.) When asked if that development has impacted Little Leaguers, Schuler replies, “Yes, quite a bit. Kids are still going to baseball games to see the players and to act how they act and do what they do.”
Why do baseball players always seem to be spitting? Good question. It’s obvious the players have a lot of unspent nervous energy and/or over-active salivary glands. Then there is the issue of time. Baseball players have lots of downtime, waiting around for the next pitch, the next at bat or a chance to get into the game. It’s akin to the old army adage of “Hurry up and wait.”
“Baseball players have always been spitting and scratching, and it passes down through the generations, including down to little leaguers. It’s just part of the game,” according to one source.
Anyone watching baseball on TV can easily identify those on the teams enjoying sunflower seeds — in one of two different ways. Most players seem to consume them by putting a handful in their mouth. But the more-sedentary managers and coaches often eat seeds one at a time.
A source close to one of the professional teams (who asked not to be identified for this article) says relief pitchers are a special case. First, they spend much of their time in the “bullpen” — and anyone can picture a bunch of bulls penned up in the spring. These guys are ready to throw the ball, but they need the wave of the manager to get called in to pitch. Relief pitchers have plenty of unspent energy waiting for that call. So they do a lot of chewing and spitting or blowing bubbles.
Not only do baseball players chew the seeds; it’s also common for them to initiate competitive games —like flicking a seed with their finger through a temporary upright, mimicking a field goal. There also are contests as to who can spit a shell the longest distance.
While the Giant Seeds brand has proven a popular snack in the dugouts of the Rockies and the Twins, David® brand sunflower seeds are common in other Major League baseball teams’ dugouts. The David brand has made a special effort to tie baseball and sunflower seeds together. In 2009, for example, David Seeds became the official seed of Little League Baseball and Softball. According to the company’s website, they also have been sponsors since 1991 of the Babe Ruth League, a youth baseball league that claims more than 900,000 players on 45,000-plus teams. The David slogan goes, “Eat. Spit. Be Happy.”TM
David Seeds also partners with Minor League baseball through their anti-tobacco initiative by providing three cases (432 packages) of sunflower seeds to each Minor League team, from AAA down to the rookie leagues. David has done this every season since 1993.
Todd Govern is a confection sunflower farmer in the Rugby, N.D., area. He is proud to know his product is helping baseball players stay off chewing tobacco — and, in doing so, setting good examples for Little Leaguers. Thanks to farmers like him, Little Leaguers need not worry where their seeds will come from next.
“We raise a fair amount of product — a million pounds. That’s a lot of chewin’ and spittin,’ ” Groven affirms. “After a harvest, I’ll open up the doors and look at the crop and say, ‘Can you imagine people are gonna eat all of these?’ ”
That’s one messy bullpen.
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