Breaking in a catcher's mitt usually takes plenty of time -- unless… (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles…)
Welcome to this rite and ritual of an American spring, breaking in a new glove. As with anything in baseball, there are 100 views on the proper way to do this, all argued passionately.
Glove gurus, some more guru than others, recommend treating a stiff new glove as either your best friend or roadkill. You can drown a glove, you can bake it, you can run it over with the car.
Breaking in a baseball glove isn't science so much as a form of testosterone-fueled witchcraft.
Tony Pena, former major league backstop and current New York Yankees bench coach, reportedly goes ape on a new catcher's glove, turning it inside out, outside in, punching, prodding, mugging it into submission — it's almost hard to watch.
What Pena is doing is accelerating the wear and tear a glove would normally get, which is what all of the sometimes-sensible, often-bizarre tactics are attempting to do.
Among the most surreal approaches is cooking your new $300 glove like a piece of veal. Nuking a glove in the microwave, a commonplace tactic for rec league players, immediately softens it. But if you have metal grommets — sorry, Mom — it immediately ruins your microwave.
Others will warm a conventional oven to 350 degrees, then turn it off and insert the glove on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes — "when it smells like steak, it is done," goes the notion.
Chef beware: It also hastens the deterioration of the glove.
"When you put these things under extreme heat conditions, what happens is the leather fibers break down ... and once that's happened, it's ruined," says Michael Markovich of Wilson. "It will soften too much and the ball will pop right out."
It also, as Markovich points out, voids the warranty.
The pros take the opposite tactic. Angels equipment manager Keith Tarter says most players will dunk a glove in warm water for several minutes, place a ball or two in the pocket, then wrap an old athletic sock tight around it and let it hang for a couple of days to dry.
After that, they may oil it, or smear it with shaving cream (lanolin is the magic ingredient), then start shagging baseballs.
"Other guys will put the new glove on a carpeted surface so it doesn't scratch the back, take a bat and pound it like crazy," says Mariners assistant athletic trainer Rob Nodine. "They'll usually have two gloves, one they're using in games and one they're breaking in for the future."
"I've been doing this for over 40 years, and I know all about the dunking. The [inside] doesn't dry out right," says Paul Roberts of Landry's sporting goods in Montrose.
Roberts says that dunking may work well for pros, who get free gloves. But for rec league players who want to hang on to a glove for many seasons, dunking compromises the lacing and speeds up the deterioration.
Roberts' shop now recommends an increasingly popular tactic: steaming. This involves pounding out the glove with a mallet, applying conditioning oil, steaming the glove, then sealing it with Neet's Foot or another light oil.
"It shortens the break-in time by about 70%," he says of the process, which he dismissed initially but now swears by.
The steamers are a new rage in a business that doesn't change much. Only a generation or two ago, gloves didn't have deep pockets. The late 1950s was the first time that glove makers were able to build pockets that allowed players to make one-handed snags.
Since then there have also been advances in webbing and materials — composite backs, nylon stitching, plastic and Styrofoam fillers, none of it particularly beneficial to consumers.
"They don't make cows like they used to either," says Lee "The Gloveman" Chilton, who started rebuilding gloves in his Fremont, Calif., shop in the mid-1960s.
The legendary Chilton, sort of the Wolfman Jack of glove repair, says he could see a drop in leather quality in the late '60s, when he says cattlemen started moving from ranges to feedlots. He also saw glove makers insert plastic finger protection, which makes breaking in a glove more difficult (and heating it unwise).
"They don't use a quarter of the leather they used to," says Chilton, who also recommends against dunking because it causes mildew and dry rot.
To break in today's gloves, he suggests wetting a towel, then wringing it out and warming it in the microwave. Wrap the glove in the warm towel, creating an effect similar to the steaming.
"The rule of thumb is don't do anything to your glove that you wouldn't do to your best friend," advises Markovich of Wilson.
What Wilson recommends, and an approach similar to Chilton's, is this:
•Soak a cloth in the hottest tap water and thoroughly wipe down the glove.
•While still damp, form the pocket by playing catch with a friend — the more zing in his or her throw the better.
•Repeat this wet-and-catch process for five straight days.
•After it's dry on the fifth day, oil the glove completely.