Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Fits Like a Glove

Most childhood treasures fall by the wayside in life. Not my mitt, which is tucked next to my bed, still clutching a baseball.

My parents bought my Spalding in the late 1950s when I was in junior high school and  starting to play ball seriously. I still remember the intensive search for this glove, which was influenced by the flat pancake used skillfully by Pittsburgh Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski and my need for  cushion to catch the hard throws of my cousin who played a little pro balll.

Vintage Spalding Glove

According to the prevailing opinion of the time, I slept with my new glove under my pillow – to perfect the curves of its pocket caressing a baseball. I often woke up with a headache from sleeping on a hard ball, but the pain and pocket were worth it.

I applied lots of mink oil to condition the glove and make its leather supple. Afterward, my hands beaded water like a car hood with a new wax job.

My mitt was never very far away, as I practiced constantly, even during snowy Denver winters, throwing tennis balls against walls and catching them to refine my fielding technique. The brick wall in our front room, which had protruding ledges, provided surprise bounces that helped me develop backhand grabs.

As a second baseman, I worked hard on my “pivot” to turn a double play. That involved finding the sweet spot in my mitt to catch a throw from the third baseman or shortstop so I could quickly remove it for a controlled throw to first. I spent hours on juggling drills to improve my hand-to-hand coordination with a baseball. I got good enough to juggle a baseball with my eyes closed.

When my family or friends went to baseball games, my mitt came along. I wore my glove while watching baseball games on TV, imitating the defensive moves of my favorite player of that time, Bobby Richardson of the New York Yankees. The mitt was on board even when my dad decided to go for a drive in the mountains. You never knew when there would be a chance to play catch.

In high school, my now well-cured mitt helped establish me as a solid, steady defensive player, though the curve ball remained an untamed mystery for my bat. I played during cool Denver springs and mile-high hot summers. It was a glorious time.

Then it was time to head to college. My mitt found its way into my boxes of essential belongings. This was a time of more sporadic use, since college boys discover other diversions. The main purpose of throwing the ball around was to avoid doing homework.

After college, I was back on the diamond, this time playing softball. I bought a new glove, but soon abandoned it. After lots of games of slow and fast-pitch softball, the pocket of my old, faithful glove gradually expanded to accommodate a larger sphere, without sacrificing that intimate feel as an extension of my hand.

While working as an editor in Astoria, Oregon, I landed on a serious fast-pitch softball team – and was moved to third base. The coach’s son played second and the team’s third baseman had moved away. It took a while for my arm to adjust to a longer throw across the infield, but my mitt performed like magic, scooping up hot shots that required micro-second reactions.

My fast-pitch career continued after I moved  to Washington, D.C. I also played in more relaxed co-ed games on the Capitol Mall with other congressional staffers.

There was a quiet period following my return to Oregon in 1982. But that changed when our son came along in 1986. Out came the glove and an assortment of lightweight balls. My boy had a ball in his hand almost from birth. My glove was there to catch it.

After seeing an ad in the newspaper, I tried out as a lark to play adult baseball. That started a 10-year second career as a serious ballplayer, with doubleheaders, weather permitting, every Sunday from springtime until Labor Day. My mitt performed as well as before. And the adult leagues permitted metal bats, which did miracles for my batting average.

Like me, my glove needed some rehab. Vanek, a Beaverton shoe repairman, lovingly – and perhaps bemusedly – restitched tears in my glove and virtually reconstructed its worn-thin interior. It felt and smelled like new.

As a Yankee fan, it felt awkward to play for the Portland Athletics who wore uniforms patterned about the Major League Oakland A’s. My glove and I got over it, as the A’s  won our league championship one year. A picture of that team stands close to my glove.

I retired from adult baseball when my eyes and reflexes showed signs of wear and I could hear pitches before I saw them. But baseball never fully receded from my thoughts. Seeing my glove before climbing into bed every night brings back many sweet memories.

My mitt’s semi-retirement now is only disturbed for the occasional game of catch with a grandchild.

Some cultures celebrate talisman as objects that possess magical powers and provide good luck. I suppose my mitt has been my talisman.

My wife says she plans to toss my mitt into my coffin. I hope she does. You never know when you will have a chance to play catch.

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