Brett Butler and Old Lucille: A Glove Story

MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE

By most measures, Brett Butler is enjoying a whale of a spring. He's among the National League leaders in seven offensive categories, including batting average, hits and runs scored. He's reawakening the bunt as a weapon of attack. And he has a contract that runs through 1992.

So why, an hour before Tuesday night's game between the Giants and Chicago Cubs, is this man frowning, threatening a civil protest and vowing to beat down the N.L. president's door?

Just this: It's the night he and Old Lucille may have to break up.

To understand why this troubles Butler so, you should know that theirs is a relationship of long standing, going back to the middle of the '80s. Butler and Lucille have spent many a cold night and countless blazing afternoons together, as inseparable as Christmas and carols. It was hard to determine where one ended and the other began.

Butler and Old Lucille were more than a couple. They were a team. Like George and Gracie. Or Fred and Ginger.

Alas, an ancient rule that was recently rediscovered, like some long-lost Dead Sea Scroll printed on horsehide, has caused Butler to consider a trial separation. As of Tuesday, umpires may at any time lay a tape measure on any player's glove. If, when laid along the contour of the pocket, the length exceeds 12 inches from heel to the tip of the middle finger, the glove is banned, sentenced to the leather slammer, the mitt hoosegow.

Now, Butler hadn't taken any of this too seriously until he arrived at the Giants' clubhouse Tuesday afternoon and discovered a memo from the league office explaining the new enforcement policy. No other Giant had received the same notice.

Clearly, Old Lucille was already branded, probably by a remark by A's center fielder Dave Henderson that made its way into Sports Illustrated. If you want to get rid of oversized gloves, he said, start with Butler.

"I'm not trying to cheat," Butler says. "I'm the littlest guy in baseball, so I'm just trying to even things out."

Butler's romance with this current hunk of leaguer began five winters ago, after he notified his supplier -- Mizuno, a Japanese sporting goods manufacturer -- that he needed a new mitt. Take it to the limits of the official rules of baseball, Butler said. Mizuno complied, and Old Lucille was born.

When she came off the tanner's table, Lucy complied with the rules. Just like each Corvette as it rolls off the assembly line, Butler's new love was racy, sexy, daring -- and completely street legal.

However, five years of playing catch, snaring line drives and squeezing routine pop-ups have taken their toll. Old Lucille's figure isn't as firm or as shapely as it used to be. Just as McDonald's notes its quarter-pounder is its pre-cooked weight, Mizuno could make no guarantees about what would happen over a span of seasons.

For most of the pivotal afternoon, Butler spoke boldly about tempting fate and Harry Wendelstedt. However, rather than risk a shotgun divorce, Butler chose to leave Old Lucille in the clubhouse Tuesday night. He would be taking a stiff new stranger into center field.

And when the Giants arrived in New York next week, he'd be taking Old Lucille to meet N.L. president Bill White. "Length, depth, it's apples and oranges," Butler contends.

Indeed, the rule was written before modern gloves with their cavernous pockets became prevalent. The difference is like measuring the distance across the Grand Canyon. Straight across is one distance. Following the contour of the land is quite another. White must decide whether he wants to enforce the letter, or the spirit, of the rule.

Rather than stage a series of witch hunts, such as those witnessed in the silly bat-seizure season of 1987, White should simply grandfather certain gloves into legality.

Baseball has accommodated anomalies before. For instance, a dozen or so older players are not required to wear batting helmets with ear flaps. Arguably, their larger field of vision allows them an advantage. Similarly, while larger gloves may allow their owners slight competitive leverage, it seems awfully late in the game -- not to mention petty and counterproductive -- to break up partnerships like Butler and Old Lucille.

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