Luxury baseball: The $400 glove
Rawlings has introduced the world's fanciest baseball glove. But can major leaguers be persuaded to use it?
(Fortune Magazine) -- When Yogi Berra was a kid growing up in St. Louis, he asked his father for a baseball glove for Christmas. He got a pair of trousers instead.
Luckily for the game of baseball and for fans of malapropisms worldwide, Berra eventually got his own mitt, which he cherished. "There's nothing more personal than your own baseball glove," he wrote in the foreword to "Glove Affairs," a book by Noah Liberman.
St. Louis is as good a place as any to begin this glove story, as it is the home of Rawlings, currently in its 120th year as a supplier of all manner of baseball equipment. In 1920, Rawlings introduced the first glove to feature laces between the thumb and forefinger (previous mitts were no more than padded workmen's gloves).
That glove, called the Bill Doak, began an evolutionary process that today culminates in the Rawlings Primo, the most expensive baseball glove ever made. It costs $400. Yes, $400 - that's a little over a week's pay for a typical Wal-Mart employee. (At least that employee won't be tempted to blow his wages, as you'll never find the Primo on Wal-Mart's shelves.)
Two years in development, the Primo features Italian leather hand-sewn into an advanced three-layer design that, Rawlings claims, can be broken in to suit specific positions. In a season dominated by batting achievements (Barry Bonds' record*, Alex Rodriguez's 500th homer), Rawlings hopes the Primo will reestablish its status as the preeminent glove-design house, a position that is under threat from rivals like Wilson, Mizuno, Easton and Nike (Charts, Fortune 500).
The battle for bragging rights has gotten fierce. Japanese rival Mizuno claims that its $300 Mizuno Pro with so-called 4D Technology, designed using pressure sensors attached to players' hands, is actually the "world's best ball glove."
Rawlings says that 38 percent of all Major League Baseball players are wearing its gloves this season, making them the pros' most popular. That percentage has declined in recent years, though, as competitors dangle big money in front of star players to get them to wear their gloves and to endorse kids' models. The Pittsburgh Pirates' All-Star outfielder Jason Bay, for one, defected to Easton this year.
But this is not the usual tale of celebrity endorsement. Rawlings, unlike the makers of, say, trendy cell phones, faces a unique business challenge as it attempts to get the Primo into the hands of MLB stars - and consequently on the little fingers of young players who idolize them.
The issue is not sticker shock. Parents these days think hardly anything of buying their 11-year-old Little Leaguer a glove with a three-digit pricetag, especially if he's playing more than 100 games a year across the country, as some elite traveling squads do. No, the problem is persuading big-league baseball players to part with their well-worn, perfectly broken-in gloves.
High-wattage Rawlings clients - among them Derek Jeter and A-Rod of the New York Yankees, Jose Reyes of the crosstown Mets and Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals - all have so far declined to use the Primo in games, despite its apparently superior design. San Diego Padres shortstop Khalil Greene has one in his locker but to date has not switched.
The Primo so far has found love only from the Padres' Jake Peavy, the San Francisco Giants' Barry Zito, and the Seattle Mariners' Horacio Ramirez. All of them are pitchers, who are traditionally the least attached to their gloves.
But even the fickle hurlers are not totally sold on the Primo. Peavy - whose stellar year on the mound has put him on the cusp of superstardom - asked Rawlings to apply the Primo's Italian leather to his old glove's design.
Rawlings, in other words, has come up with the most lavish glove ever but has yet to persuade any everyday players to use it. Some have grumbled that it is too heavy; others just think it's bad karma to switch.
Ted Sizemore, a former Dodger who is now Rawlings's chief liaison with MLB players, is doing his best to address this. One of his tactics is to persuade minor-league prospects, not yet set in their ways, to wear the Primo during spring training. "You get them to like the color and the feel and the weight of the glove," he says. "A few start using it, and word of mouth spreads."
But as a former player, Sizemore understands the Sisyphean nature of his task. "It's very hard to get a player to change from something he really loves," he says.
While bats break all the time and balls are a dime a dozen, the bond between a player and his mitt is akin to a marriage. Former Oakland A's and Atlanta Braves shortstop Walt Weiss's glove, aptly dubbed "the Creature" for both its look and its smell, stayed with him for more than a decade. Indeed, the attention and devotion a player showers on his glove can outweigh that shown to his spouse.
The methods and materials for breaking in a glove vary widely and over the years have included hot water, cold water, hot air, tobacco, shaving cream, spit, scissors, bats, knives and mallets, according to Liberman's book. Berra wrapped balls in the pocket of his Rawlings catcher's mitt with rubber bands, put it in a sauna, then stuck it in a clothes dryer for two days.
Some players don't care so much - Rickey Henderson once had a Rawlings salesman break in his glove for him. But as a rule, a major leaguer will keep close watch over his game glove (dubbed a "gamer," it is never used for practice). Some players hide them in secret compartments in their lockers.
Oriole Hall of Famer Cal Ripken is just one of many players who would not let anyone touch his gamer, under any circumstances. Such an intense relationship can end badly, of course. Former St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Kenny Reitz, nicknamed "the Zamboni Machine" for his defensive prowess, once set his glove on fire in the clubhouse after making a couple of errors in a game, shouting, "You're no good anymore!"
Given such attachment between a man and his leather, the folks at Rawlings have their work cut out for them. "Innovating is cool as long as you keep in mind that current gloves are not broken," says Matt Arndt, a senior VP at Easton. "They are there for a reason."
The inspiration for the most expensive glove ever made came from a bat. So-called double-walled bats have a barrel made of two layers (think of a tube within a tube), which can flex more than a single layer and create a sort of trampoline effect.
A few years ago two Rawlings product managers were talking shop when one said, "Hey, why not multiple walls for a glove?" The idea soon became Rawlings's top development project, under the direction of R&D chief Art Chou and Denny Whiteside, the company's head designer.
The best baseball gloves come from the heart of a cow's hide - that is, along the backbone. There's less stretching there, as a cow grows mainly in its belly region. (Not coincidentally, one of Rawlings's most popular gloves is called Heart of the Hide.) About four gloves can be made from each half of a hide.
Traditional gloves consist of two main layers - the palm (outside) and the lining (inside). The Primo includes a third layer in the middle called the inner palm, which has shapes and channels cut into the material, allowing a pocket to be formed in the area that best suits each position.
As with other gloves, the Primo comes in two varieties - one for infielders and a longer, wider and deeper one for outfielders. The inner palm of an infielder's Primo is designed to enhance the scooping action used to field ground balls. The outfielder's inner palm is designed to enhance the closing action preferred for fly balls.
Each Primo takes two days to make, and Rawlings made only 3,000 this year. They are available through specialty-equipment retailers like Baseball Express in San Antonio.
But as good as the Primo claims to be, the challenge to make it a gamer persists. And the frantic pace of innovation in today's glove world could soon make the Primo a relic, like the 1920 Doak model. "To stay on top, we continually have to come up with better gloves," says Sizemore. Rawlings is looking at $200-plus weather-resistant gloves made from polymers and is working on machines that will break in gloves before they're sold.
There's little doubt that high-tech gloves will succeed - kids will love them as fiercely as their fathers loved the old Heart of the Hides. No matter how fancy they get, gloves will remain personal.
Longtime baseball executive Peter Bavasi, whose father, Buzzie, ran the Dodgers in the 1950s, says that he was once asked which Dodger great was his favorite player. Was it Duke Snider? Jackie Robinson? Nope, he said - it was Bill Antonello, an outfielder who played one season for the Dodgers in 1953, batted .163, and never made it back to the bigs.