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Baseball bling: gloves get a big hand for high fashion

Brett Lawrie's old-school glove is seen in Toronto. (Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail)

In the early days, they were simple leather work gloves with the fingers sliced off, offering little protection against the impact of a rock-hard, speeding ball.

Today, baseball gloves are not only large, luxurious and deep-pocketed, but they have evolved into a multimillion-dollar business, carefully crafted by sporting-goods companies with a multitude of features and in a rainbow of colours. They are prized by Major League Baseball players for utilitarian purposes – catching the ball – but they are also increasingly fashion statements in an image-conscious game.

"Starting with the pros, the glove is just looked at differently [than it used to be]," said Howard Smith, MLB's senior vice-president of licensing. "The gloves used to be a tool of the trade. To me, it's another thing that defines who they are. It's like a piece of jewellery."

All sports, of course, have seen dramatic changes in equipment: in hockey, for instance, wood sticks giving way to composites. But in baseball, with its working-class roots and adherence to tradition, the most striking recent change in gloves is mostly cosmetic. Where once mitts were almost uniformly brown, they now come in shades of black, blue, red and orange. "Players are a lot more color-co-ordinated," said Michael Markovich, the global business director for Chicago-based Wilson baseball and softball.

High-end fashion outfitter Hermès of Paris has even manufactured a baseball glove in "gold swift calfskin" that requires 25 hours to make by hand and carries a price tag of $14,100. So far, the Hermès glove has yet to make its big-league debut.

Top image: Jays infielder Brett Lawrie, right, talks with relief pitcher Aaron Loup Sunday, April 20, 2014, in Cleveland. (Tony Dejak/AP)
Bottom left image: Jose Bautista in Toronto, Thursday April 10, 2014 (Mark Blinch for the Globe and Mail)
Bottom right: Jays players' gloves in Toronto, Thursday April 10, 2014 (Mark Blinch for the Globe and Mail)

That's not the case with David Wright's orange number: The all-star third baseman for the New York Mets uses his eye-catching glove during games to match the color scheme of the team's jerseys.

"He happens to love the colour orange, it's his favorite colour," Mr. Smith said. "And everything that he wears matches, everything ties in. When he looks in the mirror he feels like a big-league ballplayer and he feels really good about how he looks. And I think that's just basic sports psychology – you feel better, you're going to play better."

Such considerations are a long way from the origin of baseball gloves, which date back to the 1860s. At first players were reluctant to embrace the new equipment – it wasn't regarded as manly, in much the way the goalie mask was once mocked in hockey. Some baseball players wore flesh-colored gloves in an attempt to hide them.

The glove came out of the closet years ago, of course, becoming a staple of North American childhood – lovingly broken in with conditioning oil, a ball in the pocket and a wrap of twine. And sales have been consistently strong. In the United States in 2012, according to data provided by the U.S.-based National Sporting Goods Association, 5.6-million baseball/softball gloves were sold, representing revenues of about $235.3-million to the likes of Rawlings and Wilson, the two top baseball-glove manufacturers.

The key for glove-makers is getting the endorsements of Major League players. The outfitting begins each spring when sales representatives show up at training camps in Florida and Arizona to distribute their new wares to the players, most of whom have contracts to wear a specific brand.

Jose Bautista leaps for a ball against the wall on a double hit by Houston Astros Matt Dominguez in Toronto, Thursday April 10, 2014 (Mark Blinch for the Globe and Mail)

"Mizuno, for example, they will come around and they actually have a guy they refer to as the glove master," said Kevin Malloy, the Toronto Blue Jays long-serving clubhouse manager. "They have a Mizuno truck, like a motor home, and the glove master comes over from Japan and he will actually make [a player's] glove for him in the truck while the practice is on. All these guys get custom-made gloves."

Most players begin the year with at least two gloves, with many stockpiling as many four or five. One glove, known as the "gamer," is used for nothing else but games. The second glove, or backup, is broken in during practice and ready to be pressed into game service when the No. 1 breaks down. The design differs by position, from the smaller, shallower-pocketed infielder's glove to the circular, well-padded catcher's mitt.

For Blue Jays all-star rightfielder Jose Bautista, gloves come in blue, gray and black. They are made by Marucci, a Baton Rouge, La.-based company that he has invested in since 2010; he's now on the board of directors. He keeps his gloves in a dedicated case so they won't get bent out of shape during travel.

"We searched around for a good master glove maker and then the right facility to make them," Mr. Bautista said. "We tried Taipei, Pakistan and Japan before settling in Taiwan. I like the glove I use because of the shape – a little longer with a wide pocket and I have lots of real estate for the ball to go into. And I have good control over it."

Brett Lawrie's glove is seen in Toronto, Thursday April 10, 2014 (Mark Blinch for the Globe and Mail)

At the other end of the spectrum is Jays third-baseman Brett Lawrie, the energetic Canadian known as a "dirt bag" – a player who will not hesitate to get his uniform dirty. Nor his glove, it turns out – his Mizuno-made gamer is entering its third season and looks it. The once-tan leather has become cracked and faded, and the mitt has been discolored by sticky resin and the batting glove he also wears on his hand for added stability.

"Would you use this, Jose?" Lawrie said, waving the glove in the face of shortstop Jose Reyes.

"No chance," Mr. Reyes said.

Jose Reyes picks up gloves before the game in Toronto, Thursday April 10, 2014. (Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail)

The manufacturer is puzzled too. "He has a bunch of Mizuno gloves, but he continues to go back to that one," said Dave Bartlett, the director of sales and marketing for Mizuno in Canada.

Mr. Lawrie, considered one of the game's bright, young defensive stars, remains stubbornly true to his grubby gamer. "The other players all tell me that I can get a new one any time," the 24-year-old said. "But for me, it's not about how I look, it's about how I feel. And I like the way it kind of molds to my hand. That's the glove I'm going to use until it falls off."

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