To Break in a Glove

How do you break it in?

Well, it's all a process that is really quite precise
A sort of secret method known to very few
So, if you're in the market for professional advice
Well today could be a lucky day for you

— “To Break in a Glove” from Dear Evan Hansen

We had a shortstop on our team, this was in Little League. His name was Pete. He was a talented defender; I remember that I used to envy his easy sidearm motion. The ball would jump out of his hand, as if he was letting a bird go free.

Pete was also something of a hothead; I used to think those things — talent and fury — had to go together. I sometimes still believe that. In any case, he had this one game when he made three or four errors. I believe one of them cost us the game, you know, as much as any one error can cost a 10-year-old baseball team a game. He was inconsolable. He was livid. When the game ended, he took his glove and smashed it into an open trash can in the park. And he went home.

When he got home, his parents tried to talk to him about the game. Pete admitted that he had thrown out his baseball glove. Pete’s Dad was obviously outraged and made him ride his bicycle back to the park to find it, though it was getting dark by then. When Pete arrived at the park, he couldn’t quite remember which garbage can he had used. He went to the one he thought was right, but the glove wasn’t there. He went to another one, but the glove wasn’t there either. He stayed out at Bexley Park until the light was gone, and he had searched every garbage can. None of them had his glove.

When he got home, Pete was in tears. It’s hard to explain what a baseball glove — what the RIGHT baseball glove — means to a kid. He raced upstairs, lacking the courage to face his parents, and he went to sleep.

When Pete woke up the next morning, his glove was sitting on his dresser. It was tagged with a note.

“Don’t lose me again,” it read. “Signed the Glove Fairy.”

Shaving cream

Shaving cream?

Oh yeah you rub that in for about five minutes, 
Tie it all up with rubber bands, put it under your mattress, and sleep on it
And you do that for at least a week, every day, consistent​

— “To Break In a Glove.”

Dear Evan Hansen, best I can tell, is in that sort of second or third stage of Broadway life. It had its time as a phenomenon. It opened in 2016 and was sort of the next big thing after the cultural tsunami that was Hamilton. It took home a bajillion Tony Awards, which is a big deal in the Broadway community, but even more it created the songs that middle schoolers and high schoolers were singing at my daughters’ schools, which is my way of telling just how powerfully a Broadway show breaks through.

Dear Evan Hansen still a tough ticket, but the original cast has mostly moved on, and it is now touring nationally, and it’s no longer the thing you hear in middle school hallways. So it’s not quite the big deal that it once was.

But that doesn’t dampen its power for those of us who haven’t seen it. The story builds around that teenage boy, Evan Hansen, who feels lonely and lost and hopelessly disconnected from the world. In other words: Most teenage boy.s In his particular case, his father left when he was 7. His mother works all the time. The girl he loves doesn’t know he’s alive.

In this way, this sounds pretty common, but the story takes a wicked turn very early. I don’t want to divulge the story because I’d love for you to see it with fresh eyes. I can tell you people were sobbing throughout the Music Box Theater all night. And what made this remarkable is that none of them were sobbing specifically over the singular tragedy in the play. It’s just something you have to see.

And there’s a baseball scene. A great baseball scene. A grieving father who doesn’t know quite how to grieve is showing Evan his baseball autograph collection. There’s a special bonus in here for baseball fans because the play doesn’t offer many clues about its location, but through baseball we learn that the father is from Baltimore — his autographed baseballs include Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken and “even one from the 1979 (championship Orioles) team.”

Together they come upon a baseball glove, still new, still stiff, unused for reasons that the story makes clear.

Even asks how someone breaks in a baseball glove.

The father explains that you use shaving cream and perseverance.

And that’s the song.

You might not think it's worth it
You might begin to doubt
But you can't take any shortcuts
You gotta stick it out

And it's the hard way
But it's the right way
The right way to break in a glove

— “To Break in A Glove.”

Maybe it’s because we were all taught a similar way to do it — maybe that’s the power of the baseball glove, the reason why so many of us get weepy thinking about old gloves. We mostly don’t get weepy thinking about old footballs or tennis rackets or even baseball bats. But gloves … something about gloves.

My Dad taught me, the way Pete’s Dad taught him. We didn’t use shaving cream; we got some glove oil from the sporting goods store. Rub it in. Put a baseball in it. Wrap it with rubber bands. Stick it under your mattress and sleep on it. Repeat.

Maybe the power comes from it being such a personal process. You have to sleep with the glove to break it in.

My first new glove was a McGregor Model, Hank Aaron Autograph. That wasn’t my first glove; for my first Little League years we had picked one up at a yard sale that was already broken in, overbroken in fact. It was one of those gloves that was harder to open than close. Still, I loved that glove, loved it until some kid hit a line drive (or whatever a 9-year-old line drive might look like) and I reached up to catch it, and the ball actually broke through the webbing and sort of wedged into it, like Winnie the Pooh trying to get out of the tree after eating too much honey.

Within a week, we got the Hank Aaron Autograph, and what I remember more than the excitement of having my first new glove was my certainty that it was NEVER going to break in. I’m pretty sure glove technology has gotten way better because I pick up new gloves now, and they’re supple and somewhat flexible; I’m sure they still need to be broken in, but they’re usable from the first minute you buy them.

But with that Hank Aaron, that thing began as a rock. I honestly lacked the strength to even close the glove at first. With Dad, we oiled it up, put in a baseball, wrapped it in rubber bands, and I slept on it.

Next day, I still could not close the glove. We had a game that night. I had to use the old glove with the webbing tied together with shoelaces.

I again oiled the glove, followed the process, still couldn’t close the glove. My Dad offered to sleep on it. Next day still couldn’t close the glove. I took out the baseball, slammed the glove shut (hoping to break its spine, the way you break the spine of an overly stiff schoolbook) and slept on it. Still couldn’t close the glove. It was only four days. But I began to lose faith.

Some people say just use a microwave
Or try that run it through hot water technique
Well, they can gloat about the time they saved
'Til they gotta buy another glove next week

— “To Break in a Glove.”

Someone did tell me to run the glove under water. Well, actually, he said that he left his glove out in the rain, and that had made all the difference. I was tempted. I really was. But I told Dad, and he made it very clear that, no, I would not be running my new glove under water.

The next night, I put the glove under the foot of the bed rather than under the mattress. I jumped up and down on it for a while. The thing was as inflexible as Twitter. But, very, very slowly it began to bend. I began playing catch with it — at first one out of every two balls would jump out of the pocket. Then it was out of every three balls. And then one out of every four.

It never felt right that summer. But autumn came, and winter, and that meant a hundred basement sessions of me throwing a baseball against the concrete wall. Slowly, very slowly, that glove began to close on command. And by spring, the glove had molded to my hand. With that Hank Aaron Autograph glove I developed the only semi-elite baseball skill of my life — I could catch the ball and instantaneously transfer it to my throwing hand. And at that point, I loved that glove like I had never loved anything before.

That next year, I was the second baseman when Pete was the shortstop.

I saw him throw out that baseball glove.

Shaving cream, rubber bands, mattress, repeat
Got it?

Got it
It's the hard way
But it's the right way
The right way
To break in a glove

— “To Break in A Glove”

So, yeah, maybe that was me crying a little during the glove scene in Dear Evan Hansen. What of it? If you can’t get emotional about fathers and baseball gloves, well, I don’t want to live in that world.

Every now and again — though not very often — I go into an old box where I keep old baseball gloves. None of them are broken in right. You know how that goes — they are just a little bit off, like doors that stick. There are a couple of little gloves for the girls; they quickly lost interest and neither one of them is broken it at all. The best of the bunch is a black Roger Clemens model. It isn’t terrible. But it shuts awkwardly, and you have to go fishing for the baseball deep in its pocket …

Sometimes I think of going to Dicks Sporting Goods or someplace like that and buying a new glove, breaking it in like the old days, but I suspect that time has gone by. The Clemens glove is probably good enough for a 52-year-old man who hasn’t turned a double play in many years. Maybe that’s what the tears were about.