Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Glove story

As most of you know I'm an avid baseball fan, not the I play everyday or wish I was sort of fan, playing isn't a common desire of mine because I'm not very good although that might partially be because I haven't done much of it, but the kind of fan who lives for the Majors.  I love the business of professional baseball.  I love the skill required to play and the memories I have of going to games with friends and family and in particular my great grandpa James.  The love of this silly game is partially what lead McCayla to think of me for the DR trip.  Take my (previously unrealized) passion for ministry through sports and add in the sport that gives me the most joy and you've got a winning combination for me.  It was with great joy that I pulled my mitt off the shelf and put it into my suitcase, figuring I wouldn't really use it but that it was on the list of things to bring and since I had one I might as well take it.

Now let me tell you about this mitt.  It has never been used.  I know, it's a shame.  What else is a mitt for except to be used?  Ten years ago my parents gave it to me as a graduation from law school gift.  That mitt, along with a wonderful letter written by my dad was a very moving and important gift to me.  The mitt isn't one of those inexpensive ones either.  I was asked about it by one of the guys while I was in the DR and I realized it probably cost more than three months wages in a Barahona sugarcane field. 

I've always been aware of the monetary value of the mitt and the sentimentality behind it and I've treated it as the treasure it is based on that.

But in the Barahona sugarcane field, turned baseball field, my idea of what treating it as a treasure meant, changed completely.

When I first started playing with it it was so stiff it was difficult to use.  Joel teased me about it and kept taking it from me and putting his hand in it which was appalling to me.  I was shocked that he didn't realize I wanted it to fit MY hand.  It reminded me of the story my parents tucked into the album they gave me with the mitt at graduation. 
Glove Story

It's a relationship that can last a lifetime and if you handle it right, sometimes longer.

It happens every year.  In the first day of spring, when baseball's stallions gather in Florida and Arizona to shake off their winter slumber, a sweet ritual takes place.  The young millionaires will be relaxing in the clubhouse before practice one morning, when a fellow from an overnight delivery service appears at the door bearing a pile of boxes.  Suddenly the room's aloof bravado evaporates and the heroes become nine-year-olds at Christmas.  Boxes burst open. Plastic bags litter the floor and soon all you hear are the sounds of big fists pounding leather.

The new gloves have arrived!

Aroma experts and saddle-sniffing cowboys would agree - something about the smell of new leather beckons.  Like Little-League dads at a sporting-goods store, big leaguers will plunge their fingers into the new mitts, tug on the stiff lacing a bit and then, helpless before eons of instinct, bury their noses deep in the pockets and inhale, eyes closed.  New cowhide brings back memories of unspoiled things, patient dads and boundless potential.

Deep in the Missouri Ozarks near the Arkansas border, is a busy blue-collar village called Ava.  Here in a one-story red-brick factory, the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company makes gloves for the best players on the planet.

Rawlings has been manufacturing gloves since 1888.  At Ava, Rawlings makes gloves that come from what it calls Heart of the Hide leather, a fine grade usually from Black Angus steers.  These animals have no brands or barbed-wire scratches.  One mitt needs six square feet of leather.  For Rawlings best gloves, only Black Angus steers, not cows, will do.  When cows carry calves, their hides usually become too thin or wrinkled, making their leather more suitable for cheaper gloves.

The 35-step process is labor-intensive.  First the hides are graded for thickness - the thickest ones go to catchers' and first baseman's mitts, which take the most pounding.  Using hydraulic presses, the workers punch out the leather outlines of the palm, back, fingers and linings, plus a dozen smaller pieces, and then emboss all the parts with numbers and names, and sew everything together wrong-side-out to hide the stitching.  About a third of the way through, the unwieldy five-fingered monster must be turned right side out, akin to putting a queen sheet on a king-size mattress.  You can't even fit your fingers into a newly sewn glove because the inner leather linings are bunched so tightly.  Workers then heat up over sized aluminum "hands" to 250 degrees and slide each finger of the glove over the hot metal prongs.  They sew in dense gray-felt padding, lace in the all-important webbing and fingers, give it a final inspection, and it's ready for the big time.

If you ever go to spring training camp in Scottsdale, AZ, to interview players this is one question I'd avoid: May I try on your glove? "My fingers better be the only ones that go into this," says Barry Bonds a ball-crushing left fielder.  There is no deeper relationship between athletes and inanimate object than there is between a major leaguer and his glove.  "It's like the girl you marry," says Giants second baseman Jeff Kent.  "I could be blindfolded and have a hundred gloves in front of me and I would know mine."  Major leaguers play lots of practical jokes on each other, but it's just understood that you never mess around with a guy's glove.

Unlike a bat or ball, a leather glove actually retains the shape of the athlete's body - in this case the most important tools in baseball, the hands - so it's perfectly reasonable that actor Billy Crystal paid $239,000 at Sotheby's auction for a Rawlings glove worn by his childhood hero, Mickey Mantle.  After being pounded by hundreds of thousands of balls, the Mick's, near petrified glove, is now perfectly frozen in time, molded to the calluses and bent knuckles of one man.

No doubt my 11-year-old son will one day feel similarly moved to preserve one of my own error-prone mitts.  But for now I'll settle for the occasional moment when he enters my office to search for my Rawlings.  Thick and smooth like a saddle, the black-and-brown glove consumes his left hand as he slided his short fingers into the long, cool tunnels of supple leather.  Invariably, he summons all the humbleness he can muster and asks, "Dad, can I have this someday?"  Then, in a sweet little ritual between aging father and Little-League son, I repeat the pledge I've made to him many times before: "Over my cold lifeless body."
Hey, we're talking about my glove here.
My mom added some words of wisdom at the end of the story that I think are appropriate to share here:
Dear Kristin - We know how much you love baseball.  We thought you would enjoy this quality Rawlings mitt - made from the finest Black Angus steer leather.

Like this mitt - you are one-of a kind - a quality person - made of the right stuff.  Similar to a baseball player forming his glove to fit his own hand, you have worked hard to form your life to date with Christian principles, sound ethics, loyalty, hard work, healthy fun, quality friendships, integrity and self respect - never settling for less or taking the easy way.

We know that you will not compromise your quality of life.  Because, like this glove, "once a Rawlings - always a Rawlings".

As you form your career - shaping it with your own hand, it will be a life that no other can emulate.  It will be distinctly yours.  You have begun your career with a quality product - "YOU".  Continue on this same path and your life will fit God's purpose.
A perfect fit.

We love you, Mom and Dad
It was with this story in my head that I chastised Joel when he wanted to use my glove to help me break it in.  I was happy to do the breaking in thank you very much.  On our third day in Los Robles though all things changed.  The young man who was playing catcher walked over to me very shyly and motioned to my mitt.  I handed it to him and his face lit up in a way I hadn't seen - even with all of the spilling over joy moments I had seen throughout the week.  He was probably a 15 year old boy, tall and skinny and covered in dust and dirt.  He was incredibly quiet and shy.  I really wish I had a picture of him and maybe one will surface as pictures are continued to be passed around from the team but for now, picture a very dark skinned boy, probably of Haitian descent, with knobby knees holding something I could tell he recognized as the treasure it has always been to me.  He put the mitt on his hand and squeezed it together and then looked at me and rolled his eyes.  "I know," I told him, "it isn't broken in."  I showed him the blister I had developed on my left thumb as I had worked with it throughout the week and he grinned again and gestured to his position as catcher to ask if he could use it.  "Go ahead," I told him with no hesitation.  It was the first time in the week I had so willingly given it up and it pained me that I had held it so close throughout the time there up until then.

He took the mitt and began pantomiming catching balls from the ground behind the plate, pounding his fist into the palm of the mitt and pantomiming a throw to first.  Then he began to work the glove.  First it was the thumb.  He bent the thumb of the mitt open and closed about 50 times, between each pitch, after each throw.  Then he expertly moved on to the fingers on the mitt.  Where I, in my inexperience would have worked the fingers inwardly, he began to work them backward and downward.  After working a section of the mitt he would again pantomime catching and throwing and gripping the ball, pounding his fist in a well rehearsed way into the pocket.  After the first inning he handed it back to me so I could play right field and he could bat.  It already felt better.  It was covered in dirt from his hands but the glove had a different life to it and when a pop fly came my way it was far easier to catch the ball and keep it in the pocket.

When I trotted back in from right field my new friend was there waiting for me.  He grinned and took the mitt and the process began again.  Soon, the other boys noticed the mitt and wanted me to pass it around.  He allowed me to do so but as soon as I placed it back into his hands he protected it like it was the treasure I had always seen it as.  The other boys were rough with the mitt.  Dragging it in the dirt and hitting one another with it.  My catcher friend treated the mitt with gentle hands.  He protected it from the other boys when they wanted to abuse it.

I split the right field duties with Joanna that game so every other inning I hung out with my girl from Los Robles.  I am now on her sponsorship team and I'm so excited to get to stay in touch with her and spend more time with her as she grows up.  I taught her the "running man" (haha) as well as how to chant at the boys - here batta batta! Swing batta.  She and I had a blast.  She took her time using my mitt as well.

At the end of the game we gave the boys who played in Los Robles a bag of old used mitts.  The older boys who had enjoyed my mitt came up to me and took my mitt and assumed it was going to be one we donated to them.  My friend, the catcher, immediately stepped in and in the most authoritative way I'd seen him for three days demanded the mitt back.  The other boys became sheepish under his authority and returned it to him immediately.  He then walked over to me and gently placed it in my hands with his big smile and walked away.  I was incredibly thankful he walked away when he did because as I looked at the mitt, all dusty and now much more broken in and loved, I started to cry.  They weren't the quiet I can hold these in tears either.  They were the type that left long trails of mud down my face from my time in the blowing dust and hot sun.  He treated me with quiet respect and love and I can only assume from his actions that he knew how much that mitt meant to me and that he was being given a temporary gift that we will now forever share.

Since being home I've thought often about my Los Robles Catcher.  I wish I had his name but maybe in a way it's better that what I know about him is his big grin and protection of me and my gift to him that afternoon.  I know it's only a "thing" but the intimate act of placing our hands into a shared, enclosed space brought me closer to him.  The joy and love he showed directly to me, in the midst of a baseball field littered with glass and animal droppings, exemplifies why I love the people in the Dominican Republic and why I can't wait to go back there.

Every time I look at and put on my mitt now I see his smile and feel the love that was shown to me that day.  I pray that he feels my prayers for him from half a world away.


Puravidagringa said...

I love this story, Kristen. Thank you for sharing it. I think you should send it to a magazine so many more people could enjoy it.
Susan(fellow DR lover)

Hester Christensen said...


Thank you for sharing your story with me. It's great! I love baseball -- it's one of my favorites. Your trip will stay imprinted on your heart for years to come. ;) God bless you dear, Hester )