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Mitt Repair Is His Game and He Attracts Plenty of Fans


SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — In spring, glove restringer Mark Cole is busier than a baserunner caught in a pickle.

To his right, spread over the floor of his Claremont living room, are busted gloves bearing the signatures of Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle. To his left are dismantled mitts, minus web and finger strings, signed by former big-leaguers Wes Parker and Fred Lynn. In his lap, he's relacing an aging Rawlings glove autographed by ex-Cardinal catcher Ted Simmons.

"It's crazy right now," said Cole, surrounded by mounds of leather and lacing from throughout the San Gabriel Valley. "Everybody wants their gloves done now, before the start of the season."

Cole, 30, has been restringing, restitching and resewing baseball gloves since he was 15. He rejuvenates top-of-the-line leather gloves that cost $150 and plastic ones that go for about $5. When it comes to the latter, he questions the common sense of the owners.

"Why put a Corvette engine under the hood of a Ford Escort?" asked Cole, who often speaks in automobile metaphors.

Still, Cole has never turned away a glove, no matter how old, shabby, or cheap. He knows that when it comes to America's pastime, he's often dealing in sentiment, not sanity. Fathers are passing down their gloves to sons and daughters. Often, dads themselves are dusting off their mended mitts for a weekend baseball or softball game.

"If you're 40 and you slip on your glove that's been in the attic for 20 years, you feel 20 again," Cole said, talking over the radio banter of a meaningless exhibition game between the California Angels and Seattle Mariners.

Little League equipment managers routinely drop failing gloves on his doorstep. Local umpires familiar with his work refer customers to him. Sporting goods stores and leather shops are also clients.

"He handles everything we give him," said Ray Silva, manager of Play It Again Sports in Glendora, which sells used gloves repaired by Cole at a slight mark-up.

Cut from his Pomona School baseball team ("I just wasn't good enough," he ruefully admits), Cole has always managed to keep a glove in the game. At one time, he played on nine different softball teams a week. The trouble was that before the games would start, teammates and even opposing players would ask him to fix their gloves.

At one tournament, Cole never did get to play, because he spent the whole day repairing 15 gloves.

"It's just a natural reaction," Cole said. "I'm like a mechanic who hears a car going down the road with a bad valve. You can hear it missing, and you want to fix it."

Despite working on hundreds of gloves (strings on catcher's gloves usually last only a season, while those on fielders' gloves typically hold up for about three years), Cole said he's still learning. "Some I get are a complete mystery," he said.

Gloves jury-rigged with wires, strings and tape can momentarily throw him off the trail of the lacework's original design. Worse, he added, tampering mindlessly with the strings can stress and tear the leather.

"I usually have to undo all the work, because it's almost always useless," Cole complained. "I'd rather you just give me the glove with the broken strings."

An international mishmash of new glove and string designs on the market further complicates his work.

"So many gloves try to be unique that they end up making it harder for somebody like me to fix," Cole said.

Cole resorts to a few tricks of the trade to outsmart the most puzzling and perplexing gloves. For instance, he will experiment first with simple sewing thread to solve a stringing riddle.

"I strung a Mizuno first baseman's glove four times with simple thread before I got it right," Cole said. "It's a lot easier to push and pull nylon through the holes than it is leather."

Cole's tools include clamps, needle-nose pliers, wire-cutters and a special sewing needle into which a leather string is screwed. He buys leather in sheets, punches a hole in the center, and then strips away the cowhide in 54-inch lengths, much the way you would peel an orange.

While many sporting goods stores, shoe repair shops and batting cage businesses also restring gloves, few offer Cole's full-time personal service and insider's love of the game. If your red Darryl Strawberry glove pops a lace, he'll replace it with strawberry-colored string.

"I want to make a glove look the way it did when it came off the line," said Cole, adding that he has never charged more than $25 to restring or patch a glove.

Cole's handiwork has also revived the tight budgets of youth leagues across the San Gabriel Valley. Cole charges leagues between $5 and $8 to restring catcher's gloves, saving them from buying new gloves for about $50 each.

When Cole found out that the La Verne Little League was purchasing used gloves at thrift stores to supply ball players who couldn't afford mitts, he restrung them for free.

"That's the kind of person he is," said Ron Hunt, La Verne Little League equipment manager.

Cole, who still works nights at a Monrovia manufacturing plant printing T-shirt labels, hopes that he'll soon be able to string together a full-time living restoring gloves. But he's not quite ready to give up his evening job.

"Right now, I'm like a tax accountant who doesn't sleep until April 15," Cole said. "But after the crunch, things cool off big time."

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