Glove love in the majors
Tampa, Fla. — New York Yankees first base coach Mick Kelleher has long kept a favorite Rawlings baseball glove in his Southern California home. On occasion, Kelleher will take it off a shelf and slip it on his left hand — still a perfect fit 30 years after his final game.
A major league infielder for 11 seasons, Kelleher used that same glove for 10 of them.
Ichiro Suzuki cycled through 10 outfielder’s gloves during the 2012 season alone.
“You could say you’re married to your bats,” Suzuki said through an interpreter. “But a glove, maybe it’s like changing girlfriends over the years.”
Due to improvements in design and feel, “A glove is not like a bat, where I’ve had the same model for 21 years,” said Suzuki, who has used his current Mizuno model glove for the past three seasons.
But anything handmade has its subtle variations and Suzuki will try out seven of those gloves this camp, weeding down to two game-ready gloves to start the season.
Gold Glove winners Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano have commonly used two gloves in a season, but they won’t take last year’s glove into the new season.
Suzuki and Kelleher — who also serves as the Yankees infield instructor — might be at shelf-life extremes, but there’s one familiar glove story each spring training; someone’s either breaking one in or trying out a new model.
And the methods for making a glove game ready are as wide as the assortment of brands on players’ hands.
For instance, Chris Stewart shuns the oils or creams fellow catchers might apply to a new glove.
“I just play catch with it and throw it in my bag,” said Stewart, who might take up to a full season of catching bullpens to break in a new gamer. “I like my glove really broken in. A good soft glove that most guys would maybe throw away, that’s game ready for me.”
Suzuki’s gloves arrive from the manufacturer already soft and pliable.
“He could use it in a game that night right out of the box,” Brett Gardner said of the 10-time Gold Glove winning Suzuki, who normally goes through one glove per month in-season.
“I usually break in two,” Gardner said of his spring training glove ritual. “But if my backup from last year is worthy of being a gamer, I’ll use that and break in one.”
Gloves of a generation or so ago had to be prepped during the winter.
Kelleher’s method was a dab of Vaseline diluted with water rubbed into the pocket. He’d pound the pocket with a bat, put two baseballs inside and keep the glove tied until it was time to play catch — repeating the process over and over.
Some players use shaving cream to soften the leather instead of Vaseline. Others have put gloves in the clothes dryer to tumble around and soften up.
As pros, Gardner (who uses Mizuno) and Stewart (who uses All Star) have never kept one glove for more than two seasons.
“But when you find a good one, it’s tough to get rid of,” Stewart said. “One time, I had a hole in my glove but I kept using it.”
For part of one season, Stewart caught with a glove that had torn at the heel — wide enough that its stuffing was exposed. It was cosmetically comical, though it didn’t impact its performance.
Kelleher would routinely go to a shoemaker to have his glove strung with new leather or to patch the pocket.
But as deep as the glove/player relationship can get, Kelleher saw it dissolve in a flash one day in the 1970’s after Cardinals third baseman Ken Reitz — who led the NL five times in fielding percentage at his position — made two errors in one game.
“He went into the trainer’s room, got some rubbing alcohol, squirted it on his glove and lit on fire on the dugout steps,” Kelleher said. “He goes out there with another glove, it’s brand new, and the first guy up hits him a groundball.
“Bam! It pops out of his glove. Three errors in one game.”
There are cracks and scars and a pocket full of memories in Kelleher’s old Rawlings glove, circa 1971. He might mount it or bronze it one day, but there’s something about putting it on again.
“It still fits,” Kelleher said. “Like a glove.”