SAN FRANCISCO — They met during spring training 2004, inside a quiet clubhouse in Vero Beach, Fla. He was a 24-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder. She was a black Rawlings outfielder’s glove.
Jayson Werth pulled the mitt from a box and slipped it on his left hand. He had only played outfield for two years, and never had a glove that fit so well and felt so right. The pocket, labeled “Trap-Eze” on the outside, was deep, just how he liked it. He peeked at the gold inscription inside on the thumb. It was a model 601JBSO.
The last two letters stood for special order. Quickly, Werth grew to love the glove. Most players use a mitt for one season and move on to a fresh one. After the 2004 season, Werth held on to the glove. He played with it again in 2005, and again he could not find another glove that suited him. He named her Betsy. After three years, he decided he needed to look only for backup mitts.
“I wouldn’t go on the field with any other glove,” Werth said. “It was like my baby. I wouldn’t consider going on the field without it. It was like, ‘I need my sword.’ I guess it would be more like a shield.”
Every spring training, Rawlings sent Werth new gloves to try. None of them ever felt like Betsy, and all those gloves now fill a closet at his house. Werth on occasion would ask Rawlings to make him an identical model. It was so old Rawlings had lost the records, and no one knew what made the “special order” so special.
Betsy never needed much care. Most fielders treat their gloves weekly, if not more often. Werth rubbed a leather conditioner on Betsy once a year, before he put her away for the winter. He restrung the glove once. Laces stretch, and sometimes he forgot to cut them. In one game, he pulled the ball from his mitt, and with it he grabbed a lace protruding from the thumb. He went into the clubhouse and snipped it off.
No matter what, Betsy treated Werth well. She stayed by his side as he rehabbed from wrist surgery that threatened his career. He won a World Series with her in Philadelphia. After the Washington Nationals signed him to a seven-year, $126-million contract, they cited his defense as one reason why. In October 2012, Werth saved a playoff game when Betsy stole a home run from Daniel Descalso in St. Louis.
“Just the feel, the way it fit my hand,” Werth said. “The pocket was good. All the other gloves, I have a closet full of outfielder’s mitts, and all of them are the same model. None of them feel the same.”
After Betsy’s ninth season, the first trouble surfaced. The leather on the back receded, and before spring training 2013, it had to be replaced. She still felt the same to Werth, but late in the 2013 season, the leather inside the glove ripped, leaving a huge tear.
Werth sent Betsy back to Rawlings to replace the leather inside the mitt. The year before, the operation had saved Betsy. This one didn’t go so well.
“It was like botched plastic surgery,” Werth said.
When he arrived at spring training this February, Werth tried on a new 601JB. It didn’t go into the closet. It had a perfect pocket and, if he was being honest, it felt a little like Betsy. “This one might work,” he thought.
He used it in batting practice to break it in. He had carried the same backup glove for five or six seasons, but this new glove seemed like a candidate.
Werth had used Betsy for 10 years, though, and he could not say goodbye before an 11th. Even in her diminished state, Betsy still had something left. In the ninth inning of a game against the New York Mets mid-May, Werth leaped at the fence, and Betsy snared a would-be homer to end the game.
But the tear inside the glove affected the pocket. Werth dropped a couple flyballs he never would have before.
“It was like, I’m going out there with Old Trusty,” Werth said. “But I lost trust.”
During the Nationals’ last homestand, Ian Desmond called the glove “Bessie.” Something about that irked Werth.
“I don’t know if that was the deciding moment, or a couple days after,” Werth said. “I think it’s time. I went ahead and I retired her last homestand.”
The backup Werth had used for the past five seasons had been spoken for. When Ryan Zimmerman switched to left field, he simply fished through Werth’s locker, the one next to his at Nationals Park, and grabbed Werth’s secondary glove. It’s still what Zimmerman uses in games, even though Werth’s signature is embossed on the pinkie.
And so last week, Werth slipped on that 601JB from spring, the one with the perfect pocket, and jogged to right field. For the first time in 10 years, after more than 1,110 games and 2,220 catches, Werth took the field without Betsy.
“Finally, it just miraculously happens . . . that the only year in my whole career they sent me a glove other than Betsy that works was this spring,” Werth said. “It was meant to be almost.”
So Werth has another Rawlings 601JB. He knows he’ll never have another Betsy. She stayed true through the prime of his career. He does not have another 10 years left to play and to spend with his new mitt. It does not have a name.
Betsy will spend her retirement on Werth’s mantle, and not without proper tribute. Last week, 11 years after he met her, Werth sent Betsy to be bronzed.
“She never won me a Gold Glove,” Werth said. “I’m going to make my own.”