The Tools of the Trade

2013: A Glove Worthy of a Third Baseman

I turned 16 a few weeks before the 2013 high school baseball season started. It was February, and in my sophomore season, I wanted to be better than the year before. My freshman year, I’d pitched one game, and given up the lead when our third baseman bobbled a ground ball. The game ended in a tie. The weekend after the game, I carried my equipment bag from the hamburger joint where I’d eaten lunch to a practice a mile away, and in doing so, screwed something up in my shoulder. I tried to pitch one more time, but my shoulder couldn’t handle it. I didn’t make another throw until the season was almost over, and it was too late to do anything.

So, my sophomore year, for one, I wanted to move off the mound. Even though I’d barely done anything but pitch the year before, I wasn’t exclusively a pitcher; the contents of my baseball bag would attest to that. I carried three gloves: fielder’s, catcher’s, and first-baseman’s. When people asked what position I played, I would reply “super utility,” and it was true: at one time or another, I’d played every position on the field. Like every fast, skinny kid who couldn’t hit home runs, I wanted to be a shortstop, but I had never been quick enough, so I usually played second or third instead. I picked up first base my freshman year, when I needed a position to play during practice that didn’t require much throwing. If we were ever short a player, my coaches would sometimes stick me in the outfield, and I’d do just fine. I’d even learned to play catcher, years before, just in case. “Learn to catch,” my dad used to tell me. “Every team needs an extra guy who can catch.”

I loved my catcher’s mitt, and was satisfied with my first baseman’s mitt, but I was an infielder at heart, and I wanted the best tools available. So for my 16th birthday, I asked for the best infield glove I could imagine. The David Wright game model.

With the departure of Jose Reyes from the Mets two years before, David Wright had already established himself as my baseball hero. But even if he hadn’t, I think I would have liked his glove. It was a stained brown, almost orange, with blue piping; I could wear my Mets fandom right on my hand. It didn’t have a classic shortstop webbing: the small, criss-crossing bands that formed the web were thicker and firmer, not quite as classically attractive but clearly more tough. It was tough and scrappy, like David Wright. This was a glove meant for playing third base two days after breaking your finger, or diving into the stands to make one of the most incredible catches anyone has ever seen. I had only seen pictures of it online, but I knew it was a glove for a player who meant business. A glove the same color as the infield, so when you dove to block a line drive, the dirt would blend right into the leather. A glove that said, unmistakably, I dare you to try and hit the ball past me.

Third base is a tough, dirty position, the blue-collar version of shortstop, and for that reason, and because David Wright was my favorite player of all time, it was one of my favorite positions to play. They don’t call it “the hot corner” for nothing: 90 feet from the batter, if the ball’s hit right at you, you’ve got less than a second, sometimes less than half a second, to react. Third baseman are the bulldogs of the team, the guys who will run through a wall if that’s what it takes. They’ve got the dirtiest uniforms, the muddiest cleats, the most calloused hands. I always played like I wanted to join them, and this glove fit right in.

The glove finally came in the mail the day before baseball season started. I was at school, but I ran home during a free period, and ripped open the box. There it was, just as I’d imagined it. Bright orange and shining blue, the fingers curving gently towards their rounded tips, the pocket sitting there clean and empty, a broad expanse of leather waiting to be shaped around a baseball. The glove barely flexed when I put it on, and I decided immediately that it wasn’t going to flex at all: I would break it in completely naturally. I grabbed a baseball from the front closet, and as I walked back to school, I smacked the ball into the glove the entire way. Throw, smack. Flip back, catch in bare hand, throw, smack, repeat. I hadn’t made any noticeable progress by the time I got back to school; the glove still wasn’t flexing enough to catch the throws I fired into it from a foot away.

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After school that day, I went out to the football field with a friend who hadn’t played baseball the year before, but was hoping to come back to it. We threw the ball around for hours, until it got too dark and cold, and then went home to get ready for tryouts starting the next day. By the time we’d finished, my glove had softened up enough to catch throws, even though it still felt like iron when I tried to close my left hand.

Tryouts came and went, and I made the JV team, the same team that I’d played for the year before. One thing became clear very quickly: I wasn’t a pitcher anymore. Maybe my arm hadn’t come all the way back, or maybe my pitching mind, always delicate, had finally broken. Either way, the only time I pitched that season, I walked nine batters. The coach didn’t put me back on the mound after that.

But I was still the leadoff hitter, and now I moved around the field on defense. I was the starting first baseman for a while; I kept us in one close game when I scooped a throw from the third baseman out of the dirt, even though I also ended that game stranded on third base as the tying run. For a few games, I played left field: I alternated between a friend’s outfield glove and the David Wright glove, which was big enough to wear in the outfield, and I once made one my best throws ever, throwing a runner out at the plate after he’d stolen third and the throw had gone into the outfield. That was the kind of play you made, I figured, when you wore a glove like mine. You couldn’t just make the sexy diving stops; you also had to get the fundamentals right. Back up plays that usually didn’t need your help, and every once in a while, you’d have your moment to shine.

I never really became a pure infielder the way I’d hoped. True to form that year, between my two teams, I played all nine positions on the field. But it was a rare game that I didn’t pull on my new favorite glove and play the field with it, at least for a few innings. By the end of the season, that glove was still too stiff. But it was well on the way to being broken in perfectly, closing like a mousetrap on any ball that came near me with the satisfying snap of a baseball colliding with unyielding leather.

 

2014: A Feather Pillow for a Violent Position

One year later, the situation was very different. As we gathered outside the coach’s office for final cuts on the last day of tryouts junior year, what I’d already suspected slowly became obvious. I wasn’t going to make varsity.

You were supposed to make varsity junior year, if you were like me. The great players made varsity freshman year; they were the ones you already knew were going to play college ball. If you were pretty good, but needed an extra year to get ready before the big time, you made varsity sophomore year. And if you were average but worked hard, you played two years on JV, then made varsity junior year. At least, that was how it was supposed to happen.

But that year, we had a good freshman class, and enough players entrenched on varsity that I knew pretty quickly that I wasn’t making it. There was one player, I figured, that I was contending with for the final spot on varsity. He was a friend of mine, a Mets fan just like me. He was a better hitter than I was, but had no throwing arm. But he could hit a curveball, and I couldn’t. When he came out of the office and announced that he’d made varsity, I knew my chances were shot.

The news was a formality when I went into the office. The coaches gave it to me straight: you’re not ready yet. I agreed, but I wished it was different. The JV coach was there too, and after they told me that I wasn’t making varsity, he pitched me on staying on JV. You’re valuable, he said; you can play everywhere. You’ll be the most useful guy on the roster, and with an extra year you’ve got a spot on varsity next season.

He’d convinced me — but it hadn’t really been a question. Of course I was going to play. How could I not? I was a baseball player. I like to think I still am. Even when you don’t have a team to play for, the ballplayer spirit doesn’t leave. I still get the urge, every time the weather gets warm, to go out to a field somewhere and take ground balls. Every once in a while, I’ll be sitting around doing nothing, and out of the blue I’ll remember a play I made, or didn’t make. I’ll flick my left hand up and away from me and see in my mind’s eye the perfect motion behind a backhand scoop at first base, or just throw my hands out as if I’m explaining something, and remember fielding an easy grounder. As long as I had the chance, I wasn’t going to pass up another season of baseball.

But there was something else to consider: the coach, as I sat there, had effectively offered me any position I wanted, besides a spot in the pitching rotation. I certainly didn’t want that, but I thought I knew where I wanted to play. So I asked him: “Who do you have catching for JV?”

“No one,” he said. “Probably you.” And without much of a fuss, I secured my full-season spot as starting catcher.

I’ve never been a primary catcher, but I’ve always enjoyed playing the position, if only to show that I can. All teams have an emergency catcher, guys you’ve never heard of like Eric Campbell or Chris Woodward or Don Kelly. That was me, except now, I was asking to play catcher without an emergency. It made sense: even though I’d never been a pure catcher, I was the best catcher the team had.

Shortstop and third base were the positions I always wanted to play, but catching had its own allure. Especially when you’ve got a pitcher who can hit his spots, the catcher is the unseen hero, the player who pulls the strings behind the game, and hopefully, pulls out a win. Catchers don’t just catch — they also call the pitches, set the targets, and frame bad pitches into good ones. And they’re rewarded for it: the catcher is the first player to celebrate, the first to tackle the pitcher in jubilation, and often, the first to be commended for their behind-the-scenes role in a win. And that’s not even mentioning the real reward — the position itself. Forget about the danger, the nervousness, the potential on every pitch for something to go wrong. Each time the pitcher winds up, the catcher has a chance to catch a pitch that brushes a corner, or sweeps past the batter at the knees for a strike. And there are few more beautiful sounds in baseball than a perfect strike exploding into the catcher’s glove, the quick pop and the momentary stillness before time unfreezes and the game resumes its normal speed.

My catcher’s mitt was a big, bulky thing, like most catchers’ mitts are, dark brown and menacing. But beneath the outer layer of toughness was an internal tenderness. Literally: the glove had a soft fur lining that made it a joy to wear, and a leather guard that held the index finger perfectly in place. It wasn’t as menacing as it looked: it was thick and firm, with leather straps hanging off in all directions, but once I caught a few pitches with it, the leather softened up. It was a gentle giant, a big, menacing fellow who was soft on the inside and would never hurt a fly. Fastballs exploded into that mitt like gunshots, but when they hit the pocket in just the right spot, it felt like squeezing a fluffed pillow.

I only played catcher that season, and played almost every game, besides the times the coach wanted to give someone else a shot. Those games, I sat on the bench and and talked baseball with the coach while I spit sunflower seeds, looking like the careless, grizzled veteran that I was quickly becoming. But I still wore my catcher’s mitt on the bench, slamming my fist into the leather or squeezing a ball in the pocket, never stopping until the glove closed around baseballs like a book slamming shut and made every pitch I caught a pleasure to remember.

 

2015: A Small Glove That’s Boston Tough and a Floppy Piece of Leather

Junior year ended, and to begin my senior season, I bought myself a present. At Paragon Sports, off Union Square in downtown Manhattan, I was in the baseball section when I saw Wilson’s new line of gloves, the all-black A1K. My David Wright game model was an A2K, the highest grade Wilson sold; these weren’t top-line leather like that one, but they were almost as nice, and a real treat to look at.

I bought the Dustin Pedroia model, a small, minimally-padded infielder’s glove with a classic webbing. I’ve always admired Dustin Pedroia: he’s as close as the Red Sox have to their own version of David Wright. He’s not a shortstop, doing backflips and soaring elegantly through the air, defying physics to make a play while somehow looking like a ballet dancer. Rather, he’s a hardworking, hard-playing second baseman, who dives to stop the ball and isn’t afraid to slap a single the other way. His glove mirrors his style of play. When a ball hits the palm of that glove, where most gloves are padded, you feel it. Your hand stings and you pull off the glove and shake your arm out, and it’s as if Dustin Pedroia is saying to you, well, glad you made the play, but catch the ball in the pocket next time.

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Quickly, I worked that glove into my rotation. But it didn’t get much time at the start of the season, for a few reasons. I had finally made varsity, and I was working out at catcher. I spent practices catching bullpen sessions, or making throws down to second; sometimes, I worked on blocking balls in the dirt for hours at a time.

But I also wasn’t playing much. I had made varsity, but I was still the same hardworking, marginally talented player who hadn’t made it the year before. When we worked on our defense, I spent most of our practices catching throws in to the plate and tossing them back to the coach while we yammered on about baseball. Often, I was chewing sunflower seeds.

When we went to Florida for our Spring Training trip, I brought all four gloves with me: catcher, first base, Pedroia, Wright. I got to use all four gloves on that trip —  when I was catching for the coach during drills, it didn’t matter which glove I wore, so I chose whichever one I felt like. We played several games on that trip, against other school teams at the same training complex, and I didn’t make an appearance. I sat on the bench watching baseball and conducting the kind of egg-headed analysis that’s always been a big part of my appreciation for the sport. Our coach, who sensed that I was suited for this kind of thing, had given me a job: I timed the opposing catchers. Then I compared their times, combined with their pitchers’ times to the plate, to the speeds of our baserunners. Early in the season, we’d timed everyone on the roster running from first to second. If the pitcher’s time to the plate combined with the catcher’s time to second base was greater than our runners’ times from first to second, we could steal bases with impunity.

I did most of my work from the bench, besides sometimes warming up an outfielder, or catching a pitcher’s warm-ups until the catcher got his gear on. But still, I loved what I was doing. I stood up against the dugout fence most games, shouting baseball lingo and talking analytics with our coach. I even sounded like a ballplayer. “Ayuh, skip, ah, left fielda’s too deep, this guy du’n ha’ any powuh tha’ way.” I watched from the dugout, and one pitch after another, appreciated the last chance I had to spend time on a baseball field.

Twice, I got into games. The first time, I pinch-hit in the bottom of the last inning of a blowout loss. I wasn’t wearing cleats, because the tournament we were at didn’t allow them: when I swung, I almost spun myself into the ground, and I hit a weak grounder back to the pitcher for an out. The second time, we had a safe lead, and in the middle of the game, around the fourth inning, the coach called out to me.

“Schapiro,” he said. “First base.” I pulled on my first baseman’s mitt, jogged out to my position, and started throwing grounders to the infield.

Of all my gloves, my first baseman’s mitt is probably the one I’m least attached to, which is ironic, because I bought it convinced that first baseman’s mitts were the greatest thing ever. I tried one out at camp when I was 10 or 11, and was amazed. It wasn’t firm like the Wright, or bulky like my catcher’t mitt: it closed around throws like a briefcase or a laptop snapping shut, with the ball was nestled in the pocket. In a first baseman’s mitt, it was impossible to drop a ball. Any time a throw came near me, the glove would flash out, and the ball would lodge itself inside, just above my thumb and forefinger, crushed between two parallel leather sides with no chance of escape.

So after I got home that summer, I bought my own. It was a cheap one, which explains why I’m not so attached today: the leather has gotten soft to the point of floppiness, and sometimes, there’s just too much of it. You can’t put a finger out, because there’s nowhere comfortable for it to go, and the webbing is loose enough that occasionally, a perfectly placed throw will come screaming into the pocket and lodge itself between two leather bands, and I’ll be lucky if it’s not completely stuck.

But still, I liked that first-base mitt. There’s nothing like sweeping the dirt to scoop a low-bouncing throw to first: it’s a gesture that’s simultaneously blue-collar and opulent, almost royal. You’re digging in the dirt with a loose piece of leather, trying to scoop up a furiously spinning projectile…but at the same time, it almost feels extravagant. The gesture is a mere flick of the hand, almost the same motion you’d use to casually order an underling to move out of your way. It’s attention-grabbing too: often, first basemen, after they’ve made a particularly tough scoop, can’t resist striking a pose for half a second afterwards, holding the ball triumphantly in their glove and knowing that they’re the center of attention on the field.

But at the same time, it’s an undeniably dirty, everyman motion. Making a scoop at first almost perfectly sums up baseball. Dirt flies everywhere; your pants, your jersey, your face. If the ball is far out, your knee too. You bend to make the play, and the ball smacks into a mitt caked with light brown infield dirt, and throws up a cloud of dust that you’ll find traces of later, inside your shirt or in your hair. And then, after your second of glory, you act like nothing has happened, toss the ball back to the pitcher, and go on with the game.

Not much happened when I came in to play first. We had a lead we weren’t going to give up, and the other team wasn’t hitting the ball. I had one at-bat; I gave the ball a solid ride to the outfield, but a perfectly positioned outfielder caught it. In my last inning in the field, our opponents had men on first and second, nobody out. The batter sent a line drive toward shortstop; out shortstop picked it off near the ground and flipped to second for one out. On it came to me, and I caught it for the double play.

Or so I thought. I wasn’t sure. Because the umpire at second base had signaled “out” as soon as our shortstop had fielded the ball, which could have meant that he’d caught it on the fly, in which case we’d just doubled off two runners and turned a triple play. Even my honed baseball mind slowed down as I mulled it over. Was the batter out because his line drive had been caught, or because he hadn’t reached first base? Were the runners out because they’d failed to get back to their previous bases, or because they’d failed to advance to the next ones? It turned out that it was just a conventional 6-4-3 double play, even though the umpire had signaled otherwise, but we got the last out of the inning, and ran in to the dugout, where our coach was waiting for an explanation.

So we told him. We thought he had the catch at short, we said, and thought we’d just made the third out of the inning at first base. Our coach nodded in understanding, and we went on with the game. That inning on offense, we took a ten run lead, which meant the mercy rule was invoked and the game ended. It also meant that I’d seen the last action of my high school baseball career. But I thought it was fitting. To end my time as a baseball player, I’d made a catch at first base, and then given our coach a complex analysis of the play.

 

2018: Finally, a Glove for a Defensive Wizard

I still have all four gloves that I used in high school. I don’t play much baseball anymore, so they don’t see much action, but every summer, when I go back to work as a camp counselor, they come out of the bag once again.

My first baseman’s mitt continued its descent into floppiness. I still use it, but I wouldn’t if I was a competitive first baseman. The floppiness allows theatrical plays that would be impossible with other gloves, but it also makes routine plays much harder than they should be. I don’t see myself buying a new first baseman’s mitt any time soon though: a cheap piece of leather will do just fine.

I still bring out my catcher’s mitt from time to time, when I’ve got to warm up a hard-throwing pitcher or I just want to play catcher for a change. That mitt hasn’t changed much at all. I don’t catch many pitchers who throw like the ones I caught in high school, but when I do, it’s the same feeling. The ball explodes into the mitt with that satisfying pop, and yet, behind the plate, all I feel is soft leather, as if I’m squeezing a baseball inside a cloud. Every so often, thanks to that glove, I’ll remember why I loved playing catcher.

The Pedroia and the Wright get more use than the others. Coaching one of my brother’s baseball practices, tossing with a friend, playing our annual summer softball game against counselors from another camp — usually, I’ll use the Wright and give the Pedroia to whoever needs an extra glove, or vice versa, if I feel like giving the Pedroia a shot. The Pedroia is still in perfect condition, the leather still a dark, shiny black with grey accents, the pocket still nicely formed. I get the sense that I’ll have that glove for a while, maybe never as a primary, but always as a dependable option — it really lives up to the Red Sox second baseman who wears it.

The Wright, through high school and long into college, was still my number one. Even as the leather started to crust over and crack; as the dark spot where my index finger rested became uncomfortable and sharp, and then started to sink; the webbing, ever so slowly, got looser, until the fingers started to move when a ball hit them; that glove was still perfect. I could still see the perfectly baseball-sized space in the pocket, and I felt it every time I caught a throw.

But one day at camp last summer, in the midst of some rushed, stressful activity or another, I left the Wright on the baseball field bleachers. I didn’t find out until later, when it had started to rain and we were camped out in the gym until the storm passed. A camper mentioned to me that he’d seen my glove out on the field, and I sprinted out, saw that he’d been right, and ran my glove back to the gym, shielding it under my jacket as I went.

It dried out after a few days, but the soaking seemed to accelerate its decline. I still used it, but I used the Pedroia more. And the uncertainty continued until late into the fall, when I decided: I’m going to buy a new glove.

The Wright has served me well. It gave me six years of perfection, and now, I’ll phase it into a backup slot. Its pocket, after all, is still perfect, and there’s no reason not to bring it out every once in a while.

But while I’m using the Wright, I’ll start phasing in the new one. It’s a real beauty, tan and brown leather with a classic web; I bought it at Paragon last week, and when I got home, I sat around for a while whacking my glove with a mallet, enjoying the feeling of leather ready for shaping. Somehow the leather already looks worn, like a glove out of the 1940s. It’s smaller than the Wright, just by half an inch or so, but even that tiny difference has a feel to it. This one finally feels like a true shortstop’s glove, the kind of glove you’d see on a fielder with the grace of a gazelle and the strength of a mountain lion, who can throw while sliding or jumping or on his knees. It feels like the kind of glove you’d do quick-hands drills with, the kind where by the time you’ve caught the ball it’s already in your bare hand ready to throw, as if the film has skipped a frame. My hands already feel quicker; I feel like Ozzie Smith or Omar Vizquel or any of those guys who you figure have some kind of superhuman abilities, because how else could their hands work together that quickly? And now I’m just itching to get back on a baseball field.

I’ve thrown with the new guy a few times, and mashed a baseball into the pocket more times than I can remember, and still it’s sitting there obstinate, reluctant to take shape. But it’ll come around and form a pocket, and soon it’ll stop being the new one, and I’ll give it a name of its own.

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