WEST PALM BEACH, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- A baseball mitt is a personal thing. It wraps around a player’s hand, encasing their skin for two-thirds of a year. It molds to their fingers, morphing to fit their hands until the leather becomes an extension of their body. It’s an intimacy shaped over thousands of impacts with a baseball and finished by the heat of a hundred midday suns.
In the early stages of its life, a mitt is little more than a standard hunk of reshaped cowhide. It’s stiff; so resistant to motion or dexterity it seems indifferent toward its wearer.
A mitt at this point cannot love.
So baseball players go about the process of “breaking in” their mitt. Some have elaborate rituals. Some use oil. Others, a rubber band and a pillow. Over the years mitts have been dunked, baked, microwaved, stepped on and run over with cars.
The Cardinal mitts getting broken in this spring haven’t endured anything quite that elaborate, but a group of them all have one thing in common. They go through Mike Matheny first.
Friday morning he delivered his most recent project, a first baseman’s mitt for Matt Adams.
“That’s about my third one this spring. So I’m the glove breaker-inner guy,” Matheny said before the team’s game in West Palm Beach. “I ask them how they want it. I used to always break in other people’s catcher’s mitts too. I had a little process where I could get them done pretty fast.”
Part of the reason the manager has taken up the task is for safety. Players often use a shortcut for the process of replicating the impact of a baseball, firing up a pitching machine and and catching a couple buckets of balls with their new glove. Rather than risk a player getting hit by a misfire from the machine, Matheny stands in for them. He spends the hours before and after the team’s work in the batting cage, quietly catching ball after ball, using the time to reflect.
He also does it for the enjoyment. The joy of a new glove never dims, even for players who have seen the life cycles of a hundred mitts. Fresh leather brings memories.
“I don’t know, it takes me back. That was my favorite deal. You get a new glove, the smell and breaking it in,” Matheny said.
So far, he’s worked on mitts for first basemen Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams and outfielder Stephen Piscotty. He’s hoping to put the final tweaks on Carpenter’s glove before finishing the backup mitt for Adams.
Each of the orders are a little different. Some like a stiff thumb, others want the outside edge flared out a little. Matheny uses the cage and a mallet with a baseball-shaped head as his primary tools. He has clearance from the players to do anything he wants, but is holding some of the more elaborate techniques in reserve.
“I always put mine under water. I haven’t put these guys’ under water. They told me to do whatever. Most the catcher’s gloves I break in I put under water, just to remold the leather,” he said. “I haven’t been sleeping on it, but I used to do that. I used to hear ‘put it under your mattress’ and I don’t do that now. I would have some serious neck and back aches.”
Whatever his process, it seems to work. Adams put his mitt on in the clubhouse Friday and immediately gave it a couple test flaps, flexing his hands inside the glove to open and close it rapidly. He nodded in approval. The mitt was ready for a relationship.