The first week of the baseball season is a special time for players and their gloves. The night before Opening Day, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips explained the five gloves he had carefully placed in his locker. He has three practice gloves, all significantly smaller than his game glove; a smaller glove helps him look the ball into his glove a little better and a little longer. He has a backup game glove and his game glove, which was placed, pocket side down, with a batting glove strategically placed where his hand enters the glove.
"You can touch my practice gloves, but no one touches my game glove, no one," Phillips said with a smile, though he wasn't kidding. "I put the batting glove on top of my glove so I'll know if someone has touched my glove. If the batting glove has moved, someone touched my glove. [Reds pitcher Mat Latos] held my glove this spring, but he didn't put it on. Hey, defense is important to me. If he'd put his hand in my glove, we'd have fought."
A player's glove, especially for a good defensive player, is his most personal piece of equipment, and it is treated with great respect and care. Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney takes five gloves -- all the exact same model and size -- with him on all road trips.
"I am very particular about my glove," Barney said. "I never use my game glove except to play in the game. I don't use it during BP. I don't play catch with it before a game. The first time I touch it on the day of game is when I'm running out to my position to start the game. If I play catch with it too often, it can make the pocket too deep. The other four gloves, I rank them. My No. 2 glove is next in line. Last year in Washington, I went to my backhand and the ball popped out of my glove. That was it for that glove. I put it away and never used it again. It lasted a year and a half, but that was it. I couldn't use it anymore."
His No. 2 glove became his game glove that day. "Each glove I have is at a different level of being broken in," he said. "My No. 5 glove isn't ready to be a gamer, but it will be."
Cubs utility man Jeff Baker is nearly as particular about his many gloves. He has a glove to play second base, another to play third base, one for the outfield and a mitt for first base.
"No one touches my glove for second base or my glove for third," he said. "They are different. My glove for second base is 11½ inches, my glove for third is 12 inches. At second, I need a smaller glove because I have to know when I reach into my glove to grip the ball, it has to be in the same place every time, it can't get lost in my glove. If someone puts my glove on his hand, and stretches out my glove, and now it's a quarter of an inch off, then we have problems. That may be the difference between making the double play or not. At third base, I need the extra half inch in the glove. The ball hit down the line, that half inch might be the difference between getting an out, or the ball going for a double. The ball hit to my left, that half inch might be the difference between a hit and a double play. Even on the ball hit right at me at third, mentally I feel better with that extra half inch."
Baker said he isn't as particular about his outfield glove or his first baseman's mitt.
"I have [Cubs pitcher] Kerry Wood break in my first baseman's mitt because he loves to take throws at first base during BP, and he has really big hands, and I also don't have time to break in four different gloves during spring training," he said. "I have our video guy [Naoto Masamoto] break in my outfield glove because he loves to shag during BP. But I would never let either guy touch my other gloves. Kerry's big hands would ruin those gloves. But all my gloves, I'm working about a year behind on each. The four I will use this year, I had broken in last year. The gloves I'm breaking in this year, I'll use next year."
These are stories from three players, but there are similar stories from almost any current player. It wasn't always this way. Maybe 70-100 years ago, players would, on occasion, leave their glove on the field after an inning, and sometimes the shortstops from each team would use the same glove in a game. In one game in the 1990s, the Giants' Willie McGee and the Cardinals' Vince Coleman shared a glove, leaving it on the field between innings.
"And it was a blue glove!" said then-Giants catcher Terry Kennedy.
Now the technology of the gloves is so advanced, as is the emphasis on defense, a player won't go on the field wearing something foreign on his hand. That love for the glove has been going on for several decades. In 1980, a young writer made the mistake of asking Mark Belanger, the Orioles' brilliant defensive shortstop, if he could try on his glove, just to see how it felt. Belanger said, "I would kill you before I'd let you put my glove on your hand."
He might not have been kidding. Years later, Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar walked through the clubhouse yelling angrily, "Who touched my glove! Someone put his hand in my glove! Who was it?" A strange hand in a player's glove can ruin the perfect form of that glove. The game glove of former Orioles second baseman Billy Ripken, a great defensive player, was once used by teammate Bob Milacki, a pitcher, during batting practice. "Big Bird's [Milacki] hands stretched out my glove," Ripken said. For the rest of that season, Ripken had to wear a batting glove under his glove in order to get the right feel.
One of Ripken's former teammates, Rene Gonzales, another excellent defensive player, would carry his glove on road trips in a Wonder Bread bag. "Their slogan," he said, "is no holes."
Almost every player has a different philosophy about the use of a glove. Former A's/Braves shortstop Walt Weiss used the same glove for most of his career, including college; he called it The Creature. Omar Vizquel, certainly one of the two greatest defensive shortstops of all time, breaks in a new glove every spring training, uses it for a season, then breaks one in the next spring. Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan used a glove that was as small as Brandon Phillips' practice glove because Morgan not only had great hands, but didn't ever want the ball to get lost in a bigger glove when he reached in it to make the transfer on the double play. And former White Sox second baseman Ray Durham's hands weren't as good as Morgan's, so he used a much bigger glove.
"I wanted all the help I can get," Durham said.
Diamondbacks outfielder Gerardo Parra, a Gold Glover, wears a little red glove, which he had specially made in Mexico, to help improve his hand-eye coordination. The glove is so small, it barely fits on his hand. "It has made my hand stronger, and it helps me focus on the ball a lot better," Parra told the Arizona Republic. "It has made me know that if I can just get my hands on the ball, I'm going to catch it."
Utility men carry all sorts of sizes and shapes of glove. Jeff Manto, now the hitting coach for the White Sox, was a utility guy for years as a player. He carried 13 gloves on road trips, including two catcher's mitts and two first baseman's mitts (a catcher and a first baseman use a mitt, because it has no fingers; all other players use a glove, because it has fingers). "The guys call me, 'The Store,'" Manto said. "The equipment man hates me."
The four [gloves] I will use this year, I had broken in last year. The gloves I'm breaking in this year, I'll use next year.
”-- Cubs utility man Jeff Baker
Even pitchers are finicky about the glove they use. Greg Maddux used a really big glove in hopes that a bigger glove would help him catch that ground ball up the middle that another pitcher might miss; Maddux won 17 Gold Gloves, the most of any player at any position. Former Indians pitcher Brian Anderson once forgot his glove on a spring training bus trip to Winter Haven, Fla., so, in full uniform, he borrowed a car to go buy a glove, he saw a Walmart and said, 'Hey, Walmart has everything tires produce it must have a baseball glove.' I found one: $29.95, already broken in. It was a softball glove. A Wilson. It was awful. Of course, I got three comebackers to the mound, and I caught them all because my new glove was as big as a butterfly net. It made Maddux's glove look small."
Roger Clemens, at least in his Yankee years, always liked to wear a new glove, one that didn't have any give to it because with an old, flimsy glove, the hitter might be able to detect what pitch Clemens might be throwing by the way the glove bent when he set his grip.
"Do you see that little flap on the outside of the pitcher's glove? I invented that," Orel Hershiser told a writer as the two watched a game on TV. "Sometimes, when I would throw a breaking ball, my [left] index finger [the one that he kept on the outside of his glove] would wiggle. And the hitter could see it, and would know a curveball was coming. So I had the glove company build a little flap on the outside of the glove so I could keep my finger outside my glove, but the hitter couldn't see my finger."
A's coach Mike Gallego was a terrific defensive player for 13 years in the big leagues -- his glove kept him there, not his .239 lifetime average. Here's how much he valued his glove.
"Earthquake Series," Gallego said of the A's-Giants World Series in 1989. "We [the A's] are in the clubhouse at 5 p.m. The earthquake hits, the lights go out, everything is dark. The place is shaking. Guys are running all over the clubhouse, trying to get out of there. I was halfway out when I realized that I had forgotten my glove. I ran back into the clubhouse -- we didn't know if the place was going to collapse -- and found my locker in the dark. I got my glove. I couldn't leave my glove behind. That's my livelihood, my glove."