Last December, Bobby Wilson married a woman he met in 2004 while playing minor league baseball in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But the Angels’ reserve catcher readily admits she was not his first love.
Wilson wistfully recalled that his first soul mate had a nice tan, leathery skin and a musky scent he found intoxicating. The two were inseparable for five years.
And his wife isn’t even jealous. That’s because the object of Wilson’s affection was a Rawlings infielder’s mitt he got when he was 5 years old.
“I don’t think that glove left my side for five years,” says Wilson, 28. “I carried it to school with me. As soon as we got home, we played baseball until dinner. It was with me when I went to bed.
“To be honest, I think I slept with my first glove every single night the first year I had it. Most kids that age have a teddy bear. I had my baseball glove to cuddle with.”
Few connections are deeper and more intimate than the bond between ballplayers and their gloves. It’s not merely a tool of the trade, it’s an extension of the hand — a crafted piece of leather players rely on to scoop up grounders, haul in fly balls, catch 95-mph fastballs and, in the case of pitchers, prevent line drives from shattering their cheekbones.
Baseball players are unique in this regard. Hockey players are fussy about their sticks, preferring certain curvatures of blade and degrees of flexibility and personalizing them with gobs of tape. But like baseball bats, hockey sticks break and often last only a few games.
A good glove, one that fits just right, can span a career.
“If you’re a samurai, it’s your sword,” Wilson says.
Some players name their gloves, treating them as if they had personalities and feelings.
Angels outfielder Torii Hunter’s current glove is called “Coco.” Before Coco, there were Sheila, Vanity, Susan and Delicious, a glove he used in the minor leagues.
“I switch up,” Hunter says. “When she’s being disrespectful and doing what she’s not supposed to do, like missing balls, I get rid of her and pick up another one.”
How does he name the gloves?
“I might see a beautiful woman on TV or in a magazine,” says Hunter, 35, “and that’s the name of the glove.”
Hunter has used the same Rawlings “Trapeze” model his whole career, replacing it every two or three years. He wore four mitts winning his nine Gold Glove awards. He switched to Coco last August, when he moved from center field to right field.
Mizuno, Rawlings and Wilson are the largest glove manufacturers, each offering a variety of models ranging in price from $75 to about $400. Most major leaguers get at least two new gloves each spring — for free.
Players use spring-training games to determine which glove they will use in the regular season and which will be their backup if their “gamer” breaks. Gloves that don’t make the cut are usually given away or signed and donated to charity auctions.
“It’s like a relationship, you just know,” Hunter says. “You start dating a girl, you hang out with her a couple times, you know this is the one for you. After a year, you get comfortable and you figure out whether she’s the real deal. So after this year, I’ll know if Coco is a keeper or not.”
If you think that’s a bit wacky, consider the odd methods players use to “break in” a new glove just the way they like it. That can include: stuffing it under a mattress, dipping it in water and tossing it in a clothes dryer, popping it in a microwave oven, lathering it with shaving cream, driving over it in a car, and beating it against a wall with a baseball bat.
When they find one they’re comfortable with, one they trust, they don’t like to part with it.
Former Oakland Athletics utility infielder Mike Gallego was so attached to his glove of eight years that he risked his life to rescue it as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake rocked San Francisco’s Candlestick Park before a World Series game.
“The power went out, there’s complete havoc, and people are yelling, ‘Get out! Get out!’ ” recalls Gallego, now the A’s third base coach. “We’re bumping into things, tripping over chairs and trying to get out of the stadium.
“I get halfway out there — I could actually see the parking lot by the door — and I realized, ‘Oh, my God, my glove!’ So I turn around and go against traffic back to the clubhouse, to the other side of the room.
“It’s pitch black. At that moment, I didn’t even think; instincts just took over. I grabbed the glove and made my way back outside.”
Gallego loved his Rawlings RYX-Robin Yount model glove, named after the former Milwaukee Brewers star, because it was the perfect size — 11 inches from the palm to the tip of the index finger — to use for all three infield positions he played, shortstop, second and third. And it truly was one of a kind.
Eight years before the earthquake, Rawlings told Gallego that the company had stopped making that model because Yount wasn’t playing the infield anymore.
“I told them, ‘I’m still using it,’ ” says Gallego, 50. “And they said, ‘You better take good care of it, because that’s the last one.’ ”
Gallego had the glove restrung and patched a few times. He dabbed leather conditioner on it when needed. When he traveled, he put a little plastic shell inside so it wouldn’t get flattened in his equipment bag.
Gallego’s bat didn’t pack much punch; he hit .239 with 42 home runs in 13 big league seasons. But his glove, he says, “got me to the big leagues. And that’s what kept me there.”
Former Angels shortstop Gary DiSarcina used the same Mizuno glove for 11 seasons. He says he liked it because it was a little heavier than his previous glove, prompting him to hold his fingertips to the ground in better fielding position.
“It was a good, quality glove, the tool of my trade,” says DiSarcina, 43, a special assistant to Angels General Manager Tony Reagins. “If I was a carpenter, it would be my hammer. If I was a doctor, it would be my scalpel.”
The glove, now retired, sits atop DiSarcina’s desk in his home office in Massachusetts.
“It’s beat up, ratty, filled with dirt and pine tar, smelly, stinky, crusty . . . when I look at it, I can’t believe I used it for that long,” he says. “It needed two or three surgeries over the years. But it just . . . fit like a glove. That’s the best way to describe it. It was more of a security blanket. It was my little binky.”
Cubs first base coach Bob Dernier’s glove could win an award for continuous service. A minor league teammate gave it to him in 1979. He played with it throughout his 10-year major league career (1980-89) and has used it ever since in his coaching career.
The glove, a Mizuno outfielder’s mitt, is flat as a skillet, faded to a light tan in some spots and discolored in others, cracked, torn and dried out.
“Look at me. I’m giving it a big hug as we talk. That’s how I feel about this glove. It’s sort of like me,” Dernier, 54, says before a recent game at Dodger Stadium. “It needs a makeover, but it feels good inside.”
The Angels’ Hunter, known for his acrobatic catches, never puts his glove on the dirt and rarely lets it out of his sight.
“Every once in a while during batting practice, while I’m hitting, I’ll turn around and look at my glove and say, ‘Are you OK?’ ” Hunter says. “It’s very personal. That glove was something that got me to the big leagues. I make a living with it.”
Players who can’t part with a favorite glove extend its life by having it reconditioned.
Nori Itoh, a Mizuno employee, comes to the U.S. from Japan each spring to work on mitts. Among the gloves Itoh has salvaged is one worn by Chicago White Sox outfielder Juan Pierre.
Its nickname: Old Faithful.
“You know in the movies when you blow on the mummy and it goes to dust? That’s how Juan’s glove was when Nori got it last winter,” says Jim Guadagno, Mizuno’s director of promotions.
“What he did was like a surgical procedure. He laced pieces together that had no business being laced together. He sewed patches into the glove. He mended where he could, used some glue in areas. It was like putting somebody back together.”
In 2001, Pierre got “Old Faithful” — the first glove he’d ever had with his name stitched into the thumb — and has used it ever since.
“Every year it will be like, ‘Oh, this is the last year,’ but it’s still holding on,” Pierre says.
Wilson, the Angels catcher, has used Mizuno gloves as a professional, but he still has that first Rawlings mitt, which he keeps in a trunk at his parents’ home in Seminole, Fla.
Every spring, he opens a box containing a new catcher’s mitt, takes a long whiff of it, and thinks back to his first glove affair.
Times staff writer Kevin Baxter contributed to this report.