JUPITER, Fla. -- One could argue that a major league manager’s most important obligation to his players is to protect them. Typically, that means shielding them from increasingly invasive questions from reporters and increasingly critical responses from fans. Rarely does it mean stepping between them and physical danger.
St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, however, had the rare chance to do so. He intercepted one of his best young players, outfielder Stephen Piscotty, on the way to the batting cage. Piscotty had his new outfielder’s glove, straight from the manufacturer, tucked under his left armpit. Many players break in their new gloves by simply catching several dozen balls off a mechanical pitching machine. Often, Piscotty said, they crank the machine’s velocity up to about 100 mph.
“The machine can spit out some crazy balls and he didn’t want me to take one in the eye, so he was like, ‘Let me do it,’" Piscotty said. “I’m like, ‘All right.’"
In this age of specialization -- many teams have several medical trainers, as well as conditioning coordinators, masseuses, video coordinators, chefs, clubhouse attendants and pilates instructors -- the Cardinals have returned to a simpler age.
“I’m the glove breaker-inner guy,” Matheny said.
His players have been leaving their gloves outside his office all spring. Matt Adams left more than one, his main first baseman’s mitt and the backup. Piscotty and Matt Carpenter, who is now working with a first baseman’s mitt, are among the others who have stopped by for a hand.
Like any other baseball player, Matheny, a former Gold Glove catcher, has been breaking in gloves and mitts since he was a kid. In the minor leagues, he developed a reputation for being skillful at it, and soon his teammates were asking him to take care of their leather.
“It takes me back. That was my favorite deal; you get a new glove, the smell and breaking it in,” Matheny said.
He tried various methods over the years. He tried sleeping on it under his mattress, but he woke up with an achy neck and back. The microwave was out, since some gloves have metal rivets. Running it over with a car seemed excessive.
So, he has settled on a time-proven method: He takes a new catcher’s mitt, which is stiffer than other gloves, and submerges it in water for 30 seconds. He lets it air-dry under a fan, then stuffs two baseballs in it, wraps it in a sanitary sock and stashes it for a while. With other gloves, he simply catches balls -- buckets and buckets of them -- either in the batting cage or out on the field as he roams between fields and drills. He pounds the webbing with a wooden mallet with a baseball-shaped head. Matheny’s unique combination of hand-sweat, repetitive motion and pounding gets it where the player wants it, or at least close enough.
“He got it close,” Piscotty said. “I like to break it in as I play, molding it as I go.”
Carson Kelly was a third baseman until the Cardinals converted him to catcher four years ago. When he got to his first major league spring training, Matheny taught him the art of breaking in his mitt properly. Kelly follows Matheny’s formula now, stuffing a couple balls in his mitt, wrapping it with a sanitary sock and stashing it in his locker until he needs it again. Piscotty said he typically goes through two gloves a season. Kelly said he usually only needs one.
Matheny takes custom orders. He accommodates those who like a stiff thumb and those who want the outside edge flared out. Adams got his back the other day and nodded in approval.
Players typically get their shipment of gloves in spring training. Some of them are customized. They all have a relationship with the tools of their trade. Catcher Yadier Molina carefully works on his mitt before games, rubbing lotion into it with specifically designated towels. Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong, who is from Hawaii, has the word, “Aloha” stitched along a finger.
As Matheny’s craftsmanship became a topic around the clubhouse, shortstop Aledmys Diaz mentioned to him how carefully he used to protect his glove in Cuba, because his family couldn’t afford another one if it were damaged or lost. Diaz told Matheny he plans to get a new glove every season now.
“Because I can,” he said.
A cynic might point out that the Cardinals didn’t exactly use their gloves skillfully last season. They were among the worst fielding teams in the major last season by most metrics. Matheny already is braced for criticism once word of his glove-breaking abilities spreads.
“If they start kicking balls, you guys will say it’s my fault,” Matheny told reporters.
They say it’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools.