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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

My New Mitt

For the love of a glove: a baseball mitt just isn't a necessary piece of equipment, it's a part of life for many players
Larry Stone

THERE'S JUST SOMETHING ABOUT the smell of a new mitt (or even better, an old mitt)--"the smell of baseball," as former Mariners infielder Rafael Bournigal once said.

There's just something about the look of a mitt, new or old--as aesthetically pleasing, arguably, as any utilitarian device known to humankind. Noted sculptor Claes Oldenburg made a 12-foot-high, 5,800-pound first baseman's glove out of lead and wood and explained to skeptics, "Cezanne painted apples. I make mitts."

The other senses are taken care of, too, from the resounding thwack of a Randy Johnson fastball meeting the leather of his catcher's mitt, to the loving care with which Ichiro faithfully oils his glove every night during the season.

"The baseball glove is the one piece of sports equipment that molds to your body," said Noah Liberman, author of the definitive glove history, Glove Affairs: The Romance, History and Tradition of the Baseball Glove. "It fits you, and only you."

Taste is a tough one, but there must be some gustatory appeal to the leather of a baseball glove, at least to some species. Otherwise, why would a large portion of the repair work at Fran Fleet's famous shop in Cotati, California, be the result of dogs having munched the stricken gloves?

"Dogs are truly my best friend," Fleet said cheerfully. "A lot of times when I send back a glove where I've done dog work, I'll put a dog bone in it. They'll work their way around a glove, starling with the knots. And if you're still not home when they're done with the knots, then they'll get the glove. I like to think of the knots as an appetizer, the glove as a main dish."

No one has ever called Nomar Garciaparra a dog, but he can be seen between pitches ritualistically chewing on the extra-long laces of his glove as he stands at shortstop. The brother of Holden Caulfield, in J.D. Salinger's classic, The Catcher in the Rye, had a different use for his glove to pass the time between pitches:

"He had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere," Satinger wrote. "In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he'd have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up to bat."

Most major league players would agree that there's a certain poetry to their leather (although Glenallen Hill or Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart haven't weighed in on the subject).

There is, indeed, a lexicon unique to gloves, exotic terms that can be translated only by those who speak the language of Rawlings and Wilson--otherwise inscrutable phrases like "Trapeze," "Grip-Tite Pocket" and "Edge-U-Cated Heel."

"They were sort of the code words of childhood, in a way," Liberman said.

Ichiro believes his glove is animated with a spirit, an idea taught to him by his Buddhist father.

"Maybe he's got something," said teammate Rich Aurilia, who has been using the same increasingly ragged glove for going on five years. "I just throw some stuff on mine, spit on it and throw dirt on it, and usually that does the job."

Woe unto anyone who dares besmirch the lyricism of a major leaguer's leather by touching the mitt, or, even worse, trying it on. As shortstop Royce Clayton put it to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "I don't mess with your wife, so you don't touch my glove."

Mariner Dave Hansen has three different gloves on hand in the dugout because of all the positions he might play. Mariners utility man Willie Bloomquist strongly adheres to the same code.

"I don't mind so much when someone has small hands and puts them in it," he said. "But when someone's got big old meathooks and crams it in there and stretches out the finger holes, that ticks me off."

Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett used to call his collection of gloves "my babies." Many players assign their mitts a feminine pronoun, as in, "She's a good one."

Some have gone so far as to name their gloves--outfielders Mel Hall and Brett Butler each called their mitt "Lucille." Shortstop Wait Weiss' beaten-up model was "The Creature." Smooth-fielding first baseman George Scott had "Black Beauty," while third baseman Charlie Hayes dubbed his "Slump," because that's what it helped put batters into.

Ex-Mariner Dave Valle had a teammate, a pitcher, who kept his glove wrapped up for a year or longer before deeming it ready to unveil.

"When he unwrapped that baby, it was ready to go," Valle said. "It was like a bottle of wine: Let it ferment. Let it age nicely."

Though major leaguers typically are entitled two free gloves a year from the company with which they sign an endorsement deal, many find one they like and stick with it. Among the players who used the same piece of leather for most or all their careers were third basemen Aurelio Rodriguez (who painted his black and dubbed it "The Black Hand") and Tim Wallach, shortstop Shawon Dunston, outfielders Amos Otis and Brady Anderson, and catcher Mike Scioscia.

Pitcher Jim Kant, who won a record 16 Gold Gloves for fielding excellence, used the same glove for 15 years.

"I still have it," said Kaat, now a Yankees broadcaster. "If you threw it on the floor, no one would even pick it up. It's got friction tape on the back. The trainer used to sew it up. But you get comfortable with it, like an old pair of jeans."

In a 1990 Sports Illustrated article on mitts rifled (as many in the genre are) "Glove Story," former player and manager Phil Garner went so far as to say, "Players become sexually attached to their glove," an assertion for which we offer no proof, or even comment.

But we have heard of players who put their gloves under their mattress, or even under their pillows, at night.

Larry Duncan, proprietor of Duncan and Sons, a leather shop that has been called upon for many an emergency repair job on Mariners gloves over the years, can attest to the ardent affection major leaguers have for their gloves.

"Put it under the heading of superstitious extensions of the hand," he said.

On the Mariners, both Scott Spiezio and Aurilia have used their gloves for years, and it shows in the cracks and fraying on the pocket. Early this season, Duncan had to make a quick patch job on Spiezio's mitt to have it ready for a road trip.

Mind you, they're not nearly as bad off as the glove of Robby Thompson, former Gold Glove second baseman, who was mortally offended in 1990 when a San Francisco Chronicle story on his glove (with the headline, "Thompson's Ugly, Pathetic Glove Is a Gem"), claimed that "to someone other than Thompson, who cherishes it, the glove would qualify as a piece of junk."

Aurilia, who played next to Thompson when he came up with the Giants, has the same aesthetic when it comes to glove retention.

"I think by the time Robby was done, the glove mainly consisted of pine tar and chew spit," Aurilia said. "I don't even know how much leather was left in it. I know for a fact Robby still has that glove. It's a bond between a player and his glove, I guess."

Added Spiezio of his old glove, "Unless it disintegrates, it's going as long as I go."

Kenny Jenkins, a noted glove repairman who was formerly employed by Rawlings, finally had to tell some of his major league clients who wanted to retain their doddering old gloves, "I'll do what I can with the glove, but if you get your teeth knocked out, it's your fault, because it's shot."

Now, mind you, not all players are so fanatical about their gloves. The old Twins shortstop, Zoilo Versalles, used to throw his away after each error (eventually alienating his glove company so much he had to go to sporting-goods stores to replenish his supply).

Last year, Yankees pitcher David Wells used a new glove for each of his starts, putting the discarded one for sale on his Web site to raise money for charity. Ozzie Smith, considered by many to be the greatest fielding shortstop of all time, changed his mitt every six months. And while many players are incredibly finicky and precise about how they break in their glove, Barry Bonds takes his out of the box, puts it on his hand and is ready to play.

"I haven't broken in a glove for years," Bonds told the Orlando Sentinel in the mid-1990s.

Another superb defender, Omar Vizquel, had such uncharacteristic fielding problems early this season that his teammates took it upon themselves to "sacrifice" the offending glove, which Omar had borrowed from teammate Zach Sorensen. In a scene inspired by the movie "Major League," they constructed an altar containing the glove, a bottle of wine, a hanging roast chicken, a Buddha-like figure, 14 candles, incense, two rosaries and a baseball with "the curse is killed" written on it.

However, Rawlings representative Jim Hughes, who has spent 22 years as the liaison between the company and its major league clients, believes that today's players are not as fanatical about their equipment "young kids get so much free stuff, it doesn't mean as much," he said. "It's almost a throwaway society."

It's not just major leaguers who have a reverential attachment to their glove, a fact verifiable by anyone who has ever owned a glove--a demographic that includes almost all males of any age, and an increasing number of women.

Glove repairmen, invariably called glove "doctors," can tell a zillion stories of customers bringing in their old childhood mitt in hopes of restoring it, often to pass on to their child.

"It's hard to figure how it becomes something magical, but it does," said Bronx-based John Golomb, aka "The Sports Doctor," who produces custom-made gloves. "The transformation is remarkable. Your dad gave you a glove, or you got it as a Christmas gift, and it becomes the glove of your life."

Kevin Johnson of Sports Artifacts, a major dealer of vintage gloves, still gets a boyish excitement when he runs across an especially evocative model at a garage sale or flea market.

"It's like finding gold," he said. "You see that beautiful leather, and it's like gold shining in the sun."

Collector Joe Phillips of Dallas, who publishes the influential "Glove Collector" newsletter, knew a fellow collector who tried on a glove he had purchased at a flea market, and thought in dismay that one of the finger holes was plugged by a dead insect or rat. He shook it out, and to and behold, bills start pouring out--$3,000, all in wadded up hundreds.

"Probably some guy put his stash in there," Phillips said.

The first President Bush, a former Yale first baseman, kept his old Rawlings "Trapper Claw" glove in the desk drawer of the Oval Office, often putting it on to pound on the pocket while listening to an advisor.

"A glove evokes a nostalgic memory," said Liberman. "You associate it with the freedom of youth, the warmth of summer and everything else."

Like John Fogerty's mythical center fielder, all you need is a "beat-up glove, a homemade bat and a brand-new pair of shoes" to give the game a ride. In the 19th century, however, the use of a glove was considered the province of weaklings.

"Padding hands like that to prevent injuries or not feel pain was an unmanly act," said Erik Strohl, the assistant curator of history and research at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "The first experiences were made fun of and derided."

Inevitably, however, glove use eventually caught on, their acceptance hastened by the advent of overhand pitching in the latter 1800s.

"Like all things American, the urge to win eventually overran personal pride," Strohl said. "Players said, 'It's OK if people make fun of us as long as we win."

Strohl said that Hall of Fame inductees who tour the museum are invariably most fascinated by the display of old gloves, with one universal reaction: "How in God's name did they play ball with those things?"

Early gloves, in fact, were little more than glorified work gloves. Casey Stengel claims to have worn his in his wedding.

"Didn't have any dress gloves," he said once, "so I put my baseball glove on. That took care of my right hand, and I kept my left hand in my pocket."

Glove historians point to two epochal moments in glove advancement--the Bill Doak model by Rawlings in 1920, the first with a rudimentary pocket, and the Wilson A-2000 model in 1957, considered the prototype of the modern glove. Of the latter, Fleet said, "Are you facing East? As far as I'm concerned, it's the creme de la creme."

Edo Vanni, the legendary former Seattle Rainiers player, now 85, marvels at the size of the modern glove.

"Today, you could put three suits and a sports coat in the glove," he said. "Back in the old days, you'd think we were a brakeman on the Great Northern."

But one thing hasn't changed over the years, even as the leather and design itself has evolved--the bond between a player and his glove. Retired pitcher Rick Wise called the mitt "a part of your soul."

And it smells good, too.

Breaking in A Glove--From GLOVE AFFAIRS by Noah Liebermann

"The softest part had to be the pocket, because that was where all the fee was, I'd take shaving cream with lanolin and rub it in the pocket-that's the part I tried to form the quickest. Shaving cream or baby oil--I never took and used a lot of water. That to me only makes the glove heavy, like sweat. The morn you use the glove the more sweat-logged it is and it dries out the leather. When I got done with my glove after a game, I would stick a ball in help pocket to keep the shape.

--Ozzi Smith, 13-time Gold Glove winning Hall of Fame shortstop

"I just catch a lot of Found balls, I don't like to put oils or shaving cream on it. Some guys tie it up with balls or put it in a microwave, but I don't like any of that. I let it take its regular shape:

--Omar Vizque/nine-time Gold Glove winning shortstop

COPYRIGHT 2004 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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