Love, Honour and Protect: Building the Perfect Big-League Glove
Blue Jays infielders Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney explain how they treat, protect and care for one of their prized possessions: their baseball gloves.
Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
If you played sandlot baseball as a frisky kid or an irredeemable adult, or both, you loved your ball glove—the look, the aroma and the supple sensation of soft, worn leather caressing your hand. I am long past my playing days (the yearning endures), but every now and then I furtively dig out my old catcher's mitt and put it on and pop a ball into it. It feels good. I like the sound, too. Then I quickly store it away before anyone notices my latest foray into nostalgic nonsense.
Just as I did countless times when I played recreational ball, I toss the mitt into my old equipment bag, where it nestles haphazardly into a rat's nest of sweat-stiffened batting gloves, shin guards, catcher's masks, an infielder's glove, an outfielder's glove and a first baseman's mitt. By the end, when I was in my 50s and stopped hitting line drives and could barely lift my arm, the challenge was to find a position where I could do the least damage. So to keep playing, I invested in gloves. (Shoot, I thought, how hard can it be to play first base? As Ron Washington told Scott Hatteberg in the Moneyball movie, it's hard.)
But as much as we loved our gloves, most of us treated them like a teenager treats his dirty laundry. Darwin Barney, however, treats his like a concert violinist treats his bow.
Of course, Barney is different. Baseball is his living. He is an infielder for the Toronto Blue Jays, an elegant defender who once won a Gold Glove with the Chicago Cubs, so it follows that he treats his gloves with reverence and affection.
His gloves travel in a zip-top shell, as do the gloves of many major leaguers. Before former Blue Jays catcher John Buck invented the popular glove case, Barney had to provide personal security for his gloves on road trips.
"I used to not put my gloves into my equipment bag," he told me back in spring training. "I carried them separately. It's leather, so if you fold leather and keep it there for two days, it's going to be stuck there pretty much. It's going to have a crease. It's going to form. So you don't want your glove sitting in your bag and getting turned sideways and squished and sit there for a day and then you've got to work it back."
When he reached the big leagues, he still left nothing to chance.
"In the majors, they pack your bags for you," he says. "But I would always pack my own bags so I could put my gloves in exactly where I wanted them."
Big-league players take pains to build the perfect glove. First, their glove suppliers meet their exacting specifications. Then they customize their gloves, each in his own way, breaking them in through practice, and softening them up by applying creams and lotions and conditioners and spit.
And once they do all that, they use their best glove as little as possible.
"I have one glove that will only see the game," Barney says. "I don't warm up before the game with it. I don't play catch with it. It only goes on my hand when I go out there on the field. Then I usually have one glove that I'm using to work out with. It's a newer glove, firmer. I'm working it in.
"The one that's perfect, you want to limit as many touches as you can to keep it perfect. The less you use it, the easier you keep it where you want it."
Back at the start of spring training, I took this photo of Troy Tulowitzki and suddenly my Twitter mentions began to buzz.
"Does Tulo have a new glove? Has he finally retired the old one?"
I hadn't imagined a new glove on a major leaguer's hand would raise such a fuss. Then I remembered this delightful story that Sportsnet's Kristina Rutherford did last year on Tulowitzki's game-worn relic. So I asked Tulowitzki about the allegation that he'd gone modern.
"I always use a different glove during batting practice," he said. "I'll still use my old glove in games once the season starts."
Like Barney, he wants to make it last. "And think about it—during a game, I'll probably make only four or five plays," Tulowitzki said.
Which, as it turns out, was about all his old glove had left in it. I'm told he switched to his backup glove midway through the season opener and has been using it ever since.
Back in Dunedin, Tulowitzki was not certain, but he thought he had used his old gamer for about five years. He thought it should last ten.
"I've known guys that have used the same glove their whole career," he said.
So have I. But they left theirs out in the rain and broke them in with shaving cream or by beating them with a bat, and they used them for baseball one day and softball the next. They didn't worry about creases in the wrong places. They were guys like me, who finally had to stop playing because, like our gloves, we developed creases in the wrong places.
Ryan Goins, the Blue Jays' dazzling defender of the infield, is sitting at his spring training locker with his glove on his hand as I walk by, so it seemed a good place to stop for a chat. He has been using his "gamer" for five years, the longest he's ever stuck with one glove. He has others scattered around his locker, but they don't measure up, he says.
Or they didn't until Drew Storen came along.
Goins liked the way Storen had shaped his own glove, a bright red deep-pocketed model. So Goins asked the Jays' new reliever whether he could take a new Goins glove and copy the old one. Goins was delighted with Storen's work on a couple of new gloves and spread the word.
"Storen does some kind of voodoo to it," Goins says. "I just showed him my game glove and he tried to do the same thing to these new ones.. He's like a magician with the glove. He did one of Tulo's. He did one of Kevin Pillar's."
So I walked around the corner and spoke to Storen about his magic.
"Yeah, apparently I've got a side gig now," he said with a smile.
Storen starts by steaming.
"We have a little heat-pack thing in there in the trainer's room," he says. "You put towels on the glove and kind of steam it. And then I've got this little hammer thing."
Storen's hammer thing is a mallet with a baseball taped to its face. Until this spring, he used a commercial mallet designed for breaking in gloves, but he found it too light and he didn't like the shape. When his teammates started lining up, the magician figured he needed a proper tool. So he invented one.
The baseball helps him shape the pocket to the player's specification. "So you can get the deep pocket if you want it, and then kind of beat down the hinges there at the bottom to loosen them up," he says.
Storen does custom work. Besides a deep pocket, his own glove has curved fingers to hide the ball from a baserunner's prying eyes, and flared thumb and little finger. Tulowitzki likes a flatter glove—Storen likened it to a paddle—and Storen delivered on that order, too.
During his six seasons in Washington, Storen's glove-shaping talents stayed hidden. Suddenly, using steam and a makeshift hammer, he's gaining renown as an artist.
"I've picked up some pretty good business," he says.
During our egregiously humble careers, we weekend warriors thought nothing of lending out our gloves. I was a catcher for a long time, but if someone wanted to borrow my mitt, I said sure, no problem.
Barney would say over my dead body. OK, maybe he wouldn't go that far because he's a personable, obliging sort. But here's what he would say.
"If I let someone put their hand in my game glove, I check their hand size first," he says. "If it's smaller than mine, I'll let them try it out. If it's the same size, maybe. If it's bigger, I'll tell them, 'Fingertips only.' I think everyone's that way. None of us in the clubhouse are going to someone's locker and throwing their glove on. We all respect what we're doing and how important defence is, especially in this era."
And Barney is in the big leagues because of his defence. (Blue Jays fans, think of John McDonald and you'll get the idea.) Mainly a second baseman throughout his career, Barney can also play shortstop and third base. The Jays signed him as a backup when Tulowitzki got hurt last fall and they liked what they saw.
So his gloves help keep him employed. When they're not in use, he keeps them in a glove case but with an important modification. He has removed the vertical knob typically used to fill the glove pocket during storage. Instead, he lays in two gloves, folded flat, and tucks a baseball in each pocket. Then he adds a homespun final touch.
"I fold a pair of sweatpants over them to hold them in place," he says.
Sweatpants to protect a ball glove? Now that sounds like something a weekend warrior might come up with. That is, if we ever showed our gloves some respect.
Jeff Ross has worked for the Blue Jays since their inception in 1977 and has served as equipment manager since 1981. I ask him which Blue Jay used the same glove for the longest time. He didn't even have to think about the answer.
"Alfredo Griffin," he said, citing the shortstop who played for the Jays in their early years and again in 1992 and 1993. "We used to have to shellac the back of his glove to keep it firm. He probably used that glove for 10 or 12 years."
Pat Borders, the 1992 World Series MVP, was notorious for using a floppy catcher's glove until it practically disintegrated. Grime, spit and tobacco juice wore holes in the pocket. Ross would dutifully sew them up, until he couldn't.
Ross said Borders would resist breaking in a new mitt because he was so reluctant to let the old one go. And during an interview last summer, Borders—now a minor-league manager—told me he still has brand new catchers' mitts at home that his glove company supplied two decades ago.
Barney used to go through one glove a year, but he's gone as long as three and is starting his second year with his current gamer.
"I've gotten better at maintaining them, knowing how to firm them up, using stuff to firm them up," he says.
He is reluctant to elaborate. I sense secrets. What stuff? He relents, just a bit.
"There's a spray you can use to firm up certain parts of the glove," he says. "I also use a conditioner on certain parts that I want to keep softer. It's almost like a net. You want the edge of the net to be firm and the inside to be softer."
The glove, Barney says, becomes part of a player's anatomy, especially for an elite defender. Once your glove is perfect, no other will do. So you coddle it.
"It's a part of your livelihood in this game," he says. "If I forgot my glove and I have to use someone else's glove, I'm nervous. I'm uncomfortable. I left my gloves on the bus in the minor leagues one time, and had to borrow one. I went to turn a double play and my (throwing) hand got caught on the edge of the glove. As I was coming to transfer the ball quickly, the glove thumb was a little different shape so my hand got caught.
"You're so used to your own glove. When I'm playing, it's almost as if I don't have a glove on."
Our interview finished, Barney lays the folded sweatpants over his gloves just so, closes the case and begins to dress for morning drills. As I walk away, I make a resolution: If I am reincarnated as a ball player (how I wish), I will show my glove a lot more love.
All photos by John Lott