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Mending Mitts Has Become Booming Business

October 04, 1987|DAVE CARPENTER | Associated Press

FREMONT, Calif. — Lee Chilton can't stand America's national pastime. It's baseball's chief artifact, the glove, that he holds in awe.

"A glove is something very sacred," says the owner of "The Gloveman," a glove repair business with a growing international reputation. "It carries a lot of memories.

"A glove is like my little son -- I wouldn't trust it with you unless I knew you and had confidence in you."

Baseball-playing customers from Canada to Nigeria to Australia do entrust the 37-year-old Chilton with their treasured mitts, as evidenced by the dozens of boxes of gloves stacked in his cluttered warehouse in Fremont, 40 miles southeast of San Francisco.

Forced to quit his community relations job after suffering a mild stroke in 1981, the stocky ex-ballplayer turned to his hobby as a form of therapy, investing $2,000 and setting up shop initially in his garage.

Booming success at the little-practiced trade, particularly since "Sports Illustrated" did a story about him last spring, now often keep Chilton and five employees busy seven days a week because, he says solemnly, "I can't let the public down."

"The key to baseball glove repair is time," he explains while kneading the leather on an old catcher's mitt. "It takes time, and it takes pride."

The seeds for this glove story were sown when Chilton was in high school in Stockton. After the laces broke on a pricey mitt he had just bought with money earned mowing lawns, he had it sent back to the manufacturer and never saw it, or a refund, again.

His curiosity piqued, he bought a beat-up glove for a nickel soon afterward and ripped it apart to see how it was built. He took to buying tattered gloves, rebuilding and reselling them.

Chilton grew to love the art far more than the game itself, despite his considerable talent. An outfielder and pitcher, he said he received 16 college scholarship offers before attending the University of Santa Clara. He was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, but spurned their offer.

"Baseball was a job," shrugs Chilton, whose build today more resembles that of a plate-blocking catcher. "I didn't like it, but it was a way for me to get out of the projects. I still don't like it."

While he may not revel in a bases-clearing double or thrill to a suicide squeeze, Chilton is from the "baseball as life" school of thought. The former college instructor of sociology, psychology and community relations, who holds five graduate degrees, now teaches baseball to a team of teen-agers, and he prides himself as a stern taskmaster.

"I see baseball as a vehicle to teach a kid discipline and show him that everything is not in winning," he says. "It's how you play the game and whether you try your best."

As with coaching and education, Chilton goes all-out as "The Gloveman."

He owns five machines that patch, stitch and trim gloves and set his business apart from those that merely relace a glove rather than breaking it down and reconstructing it from scratch.

The demand shows "The Gloveman" is good at snagging customers.

More than 90 percent of all U.S. college baseball programs ship their gloves his way, he says. So do a few big-league players he declines to name for fear of jeopardizing their endorsement contracts, as well as countless sandlot stars and sentimental dads clinging to distant summertime memories.

Chilton also has a repair contract with sporting goods stores in 14 Western states. This fall, he will be introducing his own line of gloves for infielders, outfielders and catchers.

He's thinking about opening franchises of "The Gloveman" around the country but worries about watering down the quality of the business. A man who says he doesn't trust his own wife to handle the gloves is bound to have trouble designating franchisees as experts on the intricate leather objects.

"You can compare baseball gloves to cars," Chilton says. "Years ago an individual could fix his own car, but today it would take a professional that's really into computers and everything else.

"Same thing applies to baseball gloves. They're very complex."

A few tips from "The Gloveman" on buying baseball gloves:

-- Always buy a glove that's all-leather. If you scratch it and you don't see any pores opening, it's probably not all-leather.

-- Avoid styrofoam padding, because if the glove gets wet it may go to pieces after the padding cracks and breaks. (With cotton and horsehair, you can let the glove dry naturally.)

Chilton tests a glove's quality by sticking a safety pin in the pocket. If the pin comes out slowly there is some rubber or styrofoam inside. If it comes out fast, the padding is horsehair or cotton and of much better quality.

-- Don't depend on salesmen. Chilton says few are expert on the subject.

-- Get a guarantee or warranty.

-- The laces on a glove go first. Work with oils to break them in.

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