“I wrote about my brother Allie’s baseball mitt. It was a very descriptive subject. It really was. My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder’s mitt. He was left-handed. The thing that was descriptive about it, though, was that he had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere. 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 at bat.”
— from Chapter 5 of “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Sallinger.
By CHRIS REWERS
The older I get, the more I enjoy watching my children open their Christmas presents. Their joy, as they tear through the wrapping, is genuine.
It’s possible my 9-year-old son Will gained greater thrills from some of his other presents, but my favorite moment was when on Christmas Eve he opened a box to discover the new Rawlings first baseman’s glove that was given to him by his grandfather.
While most sports equipment is interchangeable – my Little Leaguers often will change bats on a whim – the glove is often viewed as much more than merely a piece of leather.
A player develops a sentimental attachment with a mitt and if it’s properly cared for, it can last a lifetime.
My glove endures as perhaps the most prominent symbol of my childhood.
When I was introduced to baseball, I can vaguely remember using a cheap-looking, ill-fitting, and uncomfortable blue glove. But a few days before my first T-ball practice, in the spring of 1977, I was presented with a Wilson Chris Speier model mitt. That glove was with me for a substantial portion of my youth – two years with the T-ball Sluggers, two years with the Pee Wee Centurions, two years with the Little League Giants, a year with the Senior League Cardinals, and two more with the Senior Astros. It was with me during countless pickup games at Hayes Park and Rosenwald. I used it when I played catch with my dad. And it was my companion on many a summer evening as I played “running bases” with my brother and my friends on our front sidewalk. I sometimes slept with it.
Sadly, my glove did not join me in adulthood. The webbing, worn down by a decade of heavy use, snapped during a game, late in the 1985 season. I resorted to borrowing my brother’s glove – a Dale Murphy model – to finish out the campaign. The mitt was no longer suitable for use in games or practices but I still used it while playing catch in the front yard, making do by catching the ball with my palm. Sometime after I quit playing baseball in 1985, the old Speier model vanished.
I searched high and low for it when I joined a 12-inch softball team during my time in Ste. Genevieve , Mo. in 1995, but it was nowhere to be found.
At the time the National League began play in 1876, most players fielded with their bare hands. Primitive gloves began appearing on baseball fields in 1875 and were not in use universally until the mid-1880s. Those primitive gloves had little to no padding.
“A fielder’s hands would swell up something fierce,” Bill James wrote in his “Historical Baseball Abstract.” “It wasn’t at all unusual for a team to make three, four, maybe more errors in an inning.”
It wasn’t until the first decade of the 20th century that gloves began to reflect the modern appearance. But those early 20th century gloves were still diminutive by today’s standards with players sometimes stuffing them in their back pockets while their side was at bat. As gloves evolved they grew in size and gained more padding. As gloves improved so did fielding percentages.
My dad speaks fondly of his childhood glove – a Rawlings Mickey Mantle model. It journeyed with him through his days of playing on the sandlots of Bridgeport, his time as a third baseman on the De La Salle baseball team, and one summer of Instructional League ball. His glove joined him in the Marine Corps, surviving two tours of duty in the Phillipines and a tour in Vietnam.
“It was a good glove,” Dad said. “It always did the job for me.”
As a third baseman, Dad explained, his job was to react and simply catch the ball. His trusted glove always made him feel comfortable and confident.
Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has used the same Rawlings glove for much of the past nine seasons – and it looks something like relics that sit within glass cases in Cooperstown and the Smithsonian.
“It’s the worst glove I’ve ever seen,” Blue Jays clubhouse manager, Kevin Malloy, who has worked for the team for 34 years, said. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s stunning that he would use this. Look at those laces! It looks like something from Christopher Columbus’ shoe or something, right?”
During the season, Malloy thoroughly monitors Tulowitzki’s glove on a daily basis. His most pressing concern is to ensure that the webbing is sufficiently tight.
Some of the leather is so worn that it rips as easily as a sheet of paper. Its brown color has faded to a dull gray-green hue and it features to gaping holes, two to three inches long, in its center.
“That’s kind of the way baseball is – guys fall in love with a certain glove and they play very well with it,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said. “It’s tough to let it go, you know?”
Tulowitzki only uses his favorite glove in games. A newer model, one that he refers to as his “backup,” he employs during practice in order to break it in.
Since he joined the Jays late in the 2015 season, a constant refrain of Malloy is that the glove’s time is up – but Tulowitzki is reluctant to part with a mitt that helped him win back-to-back Gold Glove Awards in 2010 and 2011.
“I’ve been using it for a long time. But I feel comfortable with it,” Tulowitzki said. “I’m not sure (when I’ll retire it). We’ll see. It gets the job done.”
I’m hopeful that Will’s new glove will live as long a fruitful life as the ones owned by dad and Tulowitzki. The first step toward achieving that goal?
“Dad, will you help me break it in?” Will asked me while surrounded by the ruins of opened presents in the living room on Christmas Eve.
I have recollections of my dad helping me break in my Chris Speier model one fall. We conditioned the leather with oil, placed a ball in its center, wrapped it with rubber bands, and placed in my closet for the winter.
“When I was a kid, I would rub Saddle Soap into my glove,” Dad remembered. “Then I would place a ball inside, wrap it with rubber bands and leave it sit for the winter. That Saddle Soap would make the leather feel so soft.”
But I wondered what the ballplayers of today do. A Google search of the subject sure was confusing. Some players use glove oil, others olive oil, and some shaving cream as conditioners. Some soak their gloves in kitchen sinks or buckets. There are players that pop their gloves in microwaves and stoves. And some who give them a spin in the clothes dryer.
I decided to give the final word to the “Glove Doctor.” Bill Neubauer has been repairing, restroring, conditioning, and customizing gloves from his home in Worth, Ill., for the last 12 years. It started as a hobby and most jobs took him at least an hour. Today, Neubauer’s business, thanks mostly to word of mouth, is booming and, through lots of practice and trial and error, he can complete many jobs in about 15 minutes.
A few years ago, my dad found my old Mizuno catcher’s glove. I recall using with the Centurions in 1980. It was worn and had a significant tear in the webbing. I dropped off the old glove at Neubauer’s house prior to the 2015 season. For a modest fee, he completely re-laced it and had it ready the next day.
That old catcher’s mitt is as good as new. It has served Will well and has been the glove of choice for the catchers on all of the youth teams I have managed the last two years.
Who better, I thought, then to consult the Glove Doctor about breaking in a new glove?
“After all of my years of breaking in gloves, and talking to people at Rawlings and Wilson, I’ve learned that the keys to breaking in a glove are some Rawlings Glove Butter and a little bit of heat,” Neubauer said. “Don’t put it into the microwave. Don’t put it in the oven.
“I love the Glove Butter. It softens the glove and protects the leather from water, dirt, sweat. And it doesn’t take away any of the color or add weight.”
Neubauer begins his process by filling a bowl with water and placing a hand towel in it. He then microwaves the bowl for 7 minutes, 25 seconds. He places the bowl of hot water in the kitchen sink. He picks up the soaked towel with one hand and the glove with the other and wraps the towel around the mitt. He massages the glove, unwraps it, and repeats the process.
Neubauer inserts a ball in the wet glove, wraps it with rubber bands, and hangs it above an electric heater in his garage. Neubauer says that do-it-yourselfers can simply place the wet glove near a home heat vent.
After the glove dries, Neubauer mixes a bit of water into some Glove Butter and makes a paste. He then rubs the Glove Butter mixture into the leather.
The final step of the process requires a trip to a batting cage.
“Have your kid put the glove on, place a bucket on home plate, and have him sit on the bucket,” Neubauer said. “Have him keep the glove still and catch some balls from a pitching machine. Catch the ball, place it on the ground, catch the next one, and so on.”
Neubauer said that using a pitching machine is preferable to playing catch.
“If a person is throwing the ball, some throws will be high and some will be low,” Neubauer said. “He’ll catch balls from a machine in exactly the same spot.”
Neubauer says that just about anyone is capable of breaking in a glove using his process, but he’ll do it for the modest fee of $10 and have the glove ready four days after he receives it.
As is the case with many endeavors, I am sorely lacking in confidence. My wife, Denise, wears the tool belt in the family. I’ll leave the breaking in process to the Glove Doctor.
It’s always good to have a guy.
Bill Neubauer can be found on the Web at http://www.billglovedoc.net/
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (708) 278-4632.
“The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Sallinger, Little Brown, 1951
“The New Historical Baseball Abstract,” by Bill James, The Free Press, 2001
“Meet the War-Torn Glove Troy Tulowitzki Just Can’t Let Go Of,” by Kristina Rutherford, SportsNet Canada, Oct. 20, 2015
http://deadspin.com/troy-tulowitzki-is-going-to-ridiculous-lengths-to-keep-1769274423 “Troy Tulowitzki is Going to Ridiculous Lengths to Keep Using His Ancient Glove,” by Patrick Redford, Deadspin, April 5, 2016
“Troy Tulowitzki had to get some emergency, mid-game surgery to repair his 8-year-old glove,” by Matt Monagan, MLB.com, April 6, 2016
“At Mitt’s End,” by Bob Rakow, Elite magazine, July 2010
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Troy Tulowitzki’s glove (courtesy of Blue Jays clubhouse manager Kevin Malloy)
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