IHAVE HAD three baseball gloves in my lifetime.
My grandmother bought the first one when I was 11. It was technically a fielder's glove, but I always called it a mitt after the custom in my neighborhood. Gloves were for boxing and snowball fights.
That first mitt was a Spalding bought on a train trip to New York City. I still have it, a #197 Young Star. It's a mess: a laceless, lifeless stubby-fingered pancake with padding long ago pounded into so much dust. I hang onto it because it is a source of wonder to me. It has outlasted a dozen bats, a few bikes, several family sedans and seven presidents.
It was deployed for hardball, softball and countless games of "catch." It baked in the sun and rotted in the rain. It was oiled and tortured into various shapes depending on the needs of the moment and had a pocket so deep it could devour a regulation hardball.
I outgrew that mitt and didn't feel the need for another until my two sons came along. I found one at a flea market -- a decent enough piece of leather that carried the autograph of Wayne Causey, a journeyman infielder. It had a marvelous snap when a ball hit the pocket, but the pleasure diminished considerably when the padding began migrating to the outer edge of the glove. The snap became so directly corrolated with pain that I found I couldn't watch anybody field a hot one without contorting in a small Pavlovian wince.
I started making plaintive noises about needing a new mitt about the time my 47th birthday hove into view. I could have bought one myself, but it didn't seem quite right for a man who is 20 months and two weeks older than Pete Rose to walk into a store alone and buy a mitt for himself. Then my wife announced that she was buying me one for my birthday. We'd go together and pick one out.
Historically, there is some question as to which player was the first to wear a protective glove. It is clear, though, that it was not until the season of 1877 that they become commonplace. It was then that a respected player named Albert Goodwill Spalding donned a black kid-leather glove and de-sissified the notion once and for all. This was the very same A. G. Spalding who had just started a sporting goods business with his brother.
Not until the season of 1920 could a player buy a glove with a laced webbing and the natural deep pocket that such a design allows. Since then, evolution has been rapid. Rawlings designer Rollie Latina, who came up with enough new ideas to land, by his count, 11 or 12 patents during a 40-year career, says, "Today's ballplayer has a lot more control because he catches with the glove itself rather than his hand."
When my wife and I went to pick out my new mitt, the choices were overwhelming and a far cry from the homely work gloves of my childhood. There were Spaldings, Wilsons, Mizunos, Rawlings and Louisville Sluggers at prices ranging from $35 to over $100. Most were signed by stars -- though I have since learned that the autographed and authorized glove is not the model the player uses. Gloves priced at $100 and up are not autographed. They are termed "pro" models, so I suspect it is "bush" for a pro to have somebody else's moniker on his mitt.
There was much trying on, fist-pummeling and posing. The reflected image is important, and I'm sure that's one reason why sporting-goods stores, like bridal shops, always have mirrors. I wound up with a tan Rawlings 1445 Darryl Strawberry "Fastback." A number of magic words are stamped into its surface, including the "deep well" pocket, "edge-U-cated heel" and "holDster" fastening band. The webbing is an immense, supple leather network capable of trapping and comforting small furry animals.
The glory of a brand new mitt is the glory of leather without a memory. My Darryl Strawberry "Fastback" had never committed an error or a flub of any sort. It offered the new start that middle age needs -- all but begging to be shaped to my hand. And for pure consumer pleasure, the sweet aroma of a new baseball glove ranks with the smell of a new car. I couldn't put my mitt down the day it came home.
On its first outing it proved to be a magnet. Not once did I have to apologize for its newness or my oldness. On its next outing, I booted a couple. The first time, I used its newness as an excuse -- "Still breaking it in;" the next time, I just muttered, "The old back . . . ." But despite a few gaffs here and there, the magic of the new glove was clear. Soon it was eliciting comments and compliments in words and phrases I had not heard since I was in high school. I jumped up and pulled down a high one that just barely stuck in the top of the webbing. "Nice snowcone," said my companion.
All this glory did not come without a pricetag. What I found I had to admit openly and often was the fact that the glove, not I, was making the difference. My abilities in the field had not improved over time. I also began to understand one of the reasons why there might not be another big-league .400 hitter during my lifetime.
Larry McClain, vice president for baseball at Rawlings in St. Louis, puts it perspective: "Today's gloves are not only superior to those of the 1920s but also the 1950s." He believes that men like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle might have fared even better in the field with some of today's models.
The marvelous present I got at age 47 not only has put me back in touch with the feel of baseball. It is making me look forward to my next birthday. I've already dropped hints about a bag of marbles.
Paul Dickson, a Washington area writer, is working on a dictionary of baseball terms.