Saturday, August 07, 2004

You always remember your first

The sports section of my Sunday paper had a special centerfold this week. It was a feature on baseball gloves--a time line of the evolution of the glove, some of the new technology in baseball glovery, and a few blurbs in the right margin about noteworthy gloves in baseball history (gloves in Cooperstown and noteworthy errors committed in crucial games).

This was all eye-catching enough on it's own, but what kept me reading the entirety of the page was what made up the meat of the spread: a collection of excerpts from two dozen or so major league ballplayers describing or telling the stories behind their first baseball gloves. Being a local paper, most of the players interviewed are or were Yankees and Mets, but there was enough diversification in the roll to dispel any chance of monotony.

Tony Clark said he used his first glove from second grade and through his first few years in the majors. Mariano Rivera described the piece of cardboard he rigged up while playing as a boy in the Dominican Republic. Others told their own secrets for breaking a glove in and giving it it's shape, or just reminisced about the smells and sounds of their favourite pieces of leather. I read every story from start to finish. I could have read an entire book of such nostalgia, I'm sure, and each one would have brought me farther and farther back into the baseball glory days of my youth.

This is where I will take you now. Beware ye who fare not well on the seas of others' sentiments and sap. Ye will lose your lunch, to be sure.

My first baseball glove was received as a present from a family in our church at the time, the Heaths (young Joel had a major league thing for Crystal Heath, which is how we scored the gloves). Joel and I were probably eight and six at the time and couldn't have made any use of anything but kids' peewee imitation leather gloves. This is what we received one Sunday after church. I don't remember Joel's reaction, but I was as stoked as a Woodsman man fire and wasted no time putting the glove to use.

[Note: I use the term "glove" to describe the piece of leather one uses to catch and field baseballs. Others may say "mitt" or "catcher thingy" (what else can it be called but "mitt" or "glove?"), but I have always called it a "glove." I do not look down on those who say "mitt"--in fact, I might even admit that "mitt" has a much more romantic, old-timer tone to it, but I'm gonna stick with "glove" for the rest of this memoir.]

I wish I could remember what brand gloves they were or even which player's name was "autographed" onto the palm. I do remember that the stitching started to break after not even a few summers and it wasn't soon after that when they were neglected for new, bigger, and better gloves, winding up as chew toys for the dog (accidentally, of course--I wish I still had mine). 'Twas a sad final destiny for a baseball lover's first baseball glove, but hey, I was ten.

I remember that I was ten when my old glove was used to death and laid to rest because I remember that I was ten when I bought what I consider my first "real" glove. I use "real" in quotations because it was still a fake leather kid's glove, but I consider it my first because I used it for the whole of my childhood prime and I paid for it with my own allowance money.
The glove was a Bo Jackson model, but I can't remember the brand at the moment. I'm almost sure it was Spalding (I admit that with a cringe of embarrassment...who buys Spalding baseball gloves, anyway). It was black with tan accent leather in the webbing and stitching. Bo Jackson had "signed" the glove in gold across the palm. It took me almost half an hour to sort through the whole KMart sporting goods aisle to find the perfect glove, but when I saw the Bo glove, I knew I had found it. It had a solid web, with the black and tan leather woven together in a checkerboard pattern. It was totally sweet, I can assure you. The only fault I ever found with it was that it didn't have one of those cool holes for me to stick out my index finger. Instead, there was a strip across the back which did just as well.

I never used any special oils to break that glove in. I liked my glove stiff anyway--I hated floppy gloves and still do. I tried my best to get the glove to essentially fold closed, so I asked my parents to drive over it with the car a few times. My mom, being a girl, couldn't understand why I would want to do that to something that just cost me months of lawn mowing money. I wrapped it in rubber bands and twine and put it under a stack of the heaviest books in the house. This worked just fine.

I remember there were a few loose stitching strings that were good for chewing in the field. One in particular turned almost completely to a wet noodle if I kept it in my mouth long enough. It was a good glove for "popping" (making a popping sound if I caught it in the web just right), but it was fake leather, so it was more of a snap than a pop. Ignorance is bliss, and ignorant I was.

I have since pulled out the old Bo Jackson glove a few times, just for old times sake. I gave it to my sister when I bought the glove I have now and she used it until Joel and I bought her her first real glove. You can imagine what it was like for me to try the old glove on after Amy had used it for three or four years if you've ever let someone borrow your car for a week. When you get it back all the mirrors are adjusted differently and the seat isn't in the same position and any noise it makes sounds suspicious. This is what it is like for me to use the old Bo Jackson nowadays, which is sad, but I am glad it was still being loved.

The glove that I will, Lord-willing, take with me into adulthood and especially fatherhood is the black Rawlings I bought before my freshman season of high school baseball. As dear as it was to my heart, I realized it wouldn't do for me to try to make a good impression on Coach Pianconne if I was still toting around my snapping fake leather Spalding, even if it was the Bo Jackson whose name was once scrawled across the palm. So I spent a half hour in the baseball glove aisle of Sports Authority and came away with My Glove: a 12" black Rawlings with gold lettering and the big red Rawlings R on the back of the pocket. The only way in which I have found it lacking is that it is endorsed by a relatively uncool player named Nolan Ryan. I would have much rather had Chuck Knoblauch or Ozzie Smith written across my palm than a big dumb pitcher.

Since this was a genuine cowhide, I used the oil stuff to mold it and break it in, caring for and learning to love it in the winter days of that off season. I pounded and pounded away at that web, getting it just right. I lodged a ball in the pocket, bound it with twine and slept with it under my pillow at nite. I became one with My Glove.

All my efforts were nearly in vain when it turns out I didn't secure a spot at second base like I was hoping to that freshman year. I platooned in right field with Erik Friden and learned how to keep a scorecard on the bench, mostly. My Glove and I found our glory days as the starting second baseman for the varsity team my senior year, even turning a double play in our only opportunity that season. Any ground ball fielded these days takes me back to the old infield grass of our home field, my knees shaking at the thought of a bad hop, but my hands swift and certain in their old dance of the two-handed catch-and-throw to Lindeblad at first.

My hope is that someday it will be My Glove and I teaching my sons and/or daughters that same dance. Watching me and My Glove they will learn how to stay in front of a ground ball and how to always always always use two hands to catch a pop up or fly ball. My Glove may one day be passed on as a family heirloom if I am sure someone will care for it. For now, though, My Glove is as much a part of my life and glory days as anything could be.