Kevin Gorman: For Pirates' Sean Rodriguez, glove story becomes love story
BRADENTON, Fla. — Behind every great catch is a good glove, and Sean Rodriguez has a great story about a good glove that made a great catch.
Let's call it a love story.
In the old days, baseball players had an intimate relationship with their mitt because of how hard it was to break in the leather.
It was a rite of passage to sleep with it tucked between the mattress and box springs, to massage the leather with an ointment like oil or, as Pirates manager Clint Hurdle preferred, shaving cream.
Nowadays, major leaguers have the luxury of getting new gloves every year and getting them broken in by the manufacturers.
They can customize their gloves, choosing the cowhide, picking the pocket and selecting the stitching of their embroidered signature.
Yet some players prefer their old, broken-in mitts that look like something out of "The Sandlot."
Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer has a 9-year-old model he wears, one so worn that line drives can hurt his hand and so broken-in that it broke open last year during the home opener. No wonder Mercer refuses to talk about his glove.
"For me, there definitely is a level of appreciation for that," Rodriguez said. "I don't think it's so much superstition. I just think that he trusts the way that glove is shaped and the softness and looseness of it.
"There's still some firmness in all the right areas. He's put so much time into it that he wants to keep getting it back out."
Hurdle has owned only two gloves over the past 20 years, and he lights up when reminiscing about his first mitt being a Mel Stottlemyre signature Spalding and his second a Willie Mays model with black leather and orange laces.
Hurdle laughs about watching the attachment his shortstops have had with their gloves, one passed down from Walt Weiss to Clint Barmes to Mercer.
"I don't make a lot of it," Hurdle said, "but I love to see it."
Pirates pitcher Bo Schultz was a teammate of Troy Tulowitzki in Toronto when the shortstop's glove broke in the opener at Tampa Bay, so he understands the affection but doesn't buy the premise that the glove makes the plays.
"I don't know if it's a superstition or just the way it happens to feel," Schultz said, "but these guys are the best in the world with whatever they've got, whether it's brand-new, best leather or a plastic one you get from Walmart.
"There's no reason not to trust them to be the best all the time, but I guess that 1 percent of them being extra comfortable with that perfect glove that's broken in just right, maybe it makes a difference."
That brings us back to Rodriguez, who has two gloves for each position he plays: first base, third base, middle infield and outfield.
Of the eight, he has a special affinity for an 8-year-old Rawlings outfielder's mitt that is 12¾ inches long and, he says, "so dependable, so reliable."
Rodriguez got the glove in his first season with Tampa Bay. He has had it reconditioned and restitched and uses resin and pine tar to keep it one with his hand.
"When I use it, I completely trust the glove," Rodriguez said before Thursday's game against the Detroit Tigers. "If I'm diving or hit a wall or something like that, I feel like it's reliable in the sense that I feel like it's broken in so perfect."
So was the spectacular diving catch Rodriguez made in right field to rob leadoff batter Leonys Martin of a hit in the first inning of the Pirates' 8-3 victory over the Tigers on Thursday at LECOM Park.
"That pumped me up," Pirates pitcher Nick Kingham said. "It's cool. I was watching it and was like, he's got a shot to get there. I didn't think he was going to have to dive. It was awesome."
And that's what makes the glove story so special, that the comfort it provides Rodriguez also is provided to the Pirates pitchers.
"That's the biggest thing for me," Rodriguez said. "If I can help make my pitcher feel more comfortable or make him feel like I'm going to give him what I got when I'm out there behind him, that's the goal.
"You talk about comfort with the glove on my hand, well, me doing that should help a pitcher feel more comfortable on the mound knowing that not only is he going to get to these balls, but he's going to sell out for them."
As with every love story, this one has heartbreak.
Rodriguez signed an endorsement deal with Mizuno while playing for the Atlanta Braves. Mizuno gave him gloves with blue leather and red stitching, so he was permitted to use his old Rawlings model after being traded to the Pirates last August.
But he's refuses to retire his old reliable glove, especially after that catch.
"I'm not getting rid of it," Rodriguez said. "This is where it's at, right here. ... There's no messing around with this thing. It's perfect."
It's how a glove story turned into a love story.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.