PHOENIX – The audible pop of cowhide striking leather, the careful stitching of the webbing, the organic smell of a new Wilson, the comfort of sliding a hand into a newly broken-in Rawlings. It all makes for what is often called an extension of a baseball player’s hand: the glove.
Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell recently described his glove from his playing days as a pot of gold – so valuable that he was willing to spend $1,000 to refurbish it in the city’s Fifth Ward.
In the spirit of a local small business, Counsell was charged only $30 for the repair, and he was able to use his glove for three more years.
"To make a great glove and something that was a great piece of equipment, I think that is the number one thing (players) should focus on," Counsell said. "I’ve always wondered why guys focus more on shoes than gloves because your glove is the most important thing to you, as a position player, in my opinion."
Counsell said glove modification is a relatively new trend in Major League Baseball, with players taking advantage of more innovative technology in a highly customizable world.
According to Brewers players, sizing and comfort are the two most important qualities when choosing the best-fitting baseball glove.
"Since I play the outfield, it’s got to be bigger," said outfielder Brett Phillips. "Catching fly balls, comfort, how it feels in my hand and if it breaks in quickly, which Wilson tends to do ... those are my three main things when I picked a glove."
Minor-league infielder Nate Orf, who was offered a non-roster invitee spot for spring training, has always used the same customized glove – an 11.5-inch Wilson 1786 with SuperSkin (a stretchy synthetic leather) on the back.
"It just makes the glove a little more light, especially playing in humid areas where the leather will get more heavy," Orf said of his adaptations.
Relief pitcher Jacob Barnes looks to a larger 12-inch mitt to best fit his hand. He also likes the webbing closed to avoid hitters seeing the ball.
Counsell said gloves tailored to specific players may provide a psychological benefit and to them.
"In the customized world, you created it," he said. "It’s hard to say it’s the glove’s fault. You made the glove exactly to your customizations."
Along with technical alterations, players are adding meaningful inscriptions to their gloves for further personalization.
In Counsell’s 16 professional seasons, many of his teammates added their names to their gloves. The two-time World Series champion, however, did not believe in putting his own name on his glove.
"I didn’t like having my name on my glove because I always thought it reminded me I wasn’t very good," Counsell joked. "I always thought it was a good ‘bring you back down to earth’ kind of thing."
Other players look to their inscriptions as a sign of their progress and success in professional baseball.
"I was an undrafted free agent," Orf said. "So, for me to finally get to a point where I get my name on my glove was kind of a milestone. It’s got a piece of me at all times on it."
Phillips and Barnes each have a mitt with Brewers colors. Phillips, who is in his second season with the team, added Milwaukee’s logo to one of his two customized gloves.
"With gloves you can go every different route, say whatever you want, whatever color," Phillips said. "It’s really cool how the glove companies have allowed you to do that."
This season, Phillips added his favorite Bible verse, Isaiah 41:10, to his glove as a form of inspiration and a sign of his Christian upbringing.
"It’s just something I’ve always lived by, whether things are going not so good or just I’m in a dark place," he said. "It’s something that’s always helped me."
Barnes inscribed family members’ names on his glove to signify significant moments in his life – from happy ones like the birth of his nephew and daughter, to sad ones such as the death of his father in 2016.
Shortstop Orlando Arcia, one of the best defensive players in the league, changed up his inscriptions during his two seasons in Milwaukee. He inscribed his mother’s name, Lilibeth, to symbolize his close relationship with her.
"She means a lot to me," Arcia said. "When I have her name on the glove, it feels like she’s with me on the field."
Whether it’s the comfort of a name or the comfort of the perfect fit, the right glove can make all the difference when the Brewers step onto the field.