Tradition or not, all sports will evolve,” the science-fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke predicted: even “the grand old game” of Ruth and Mays would be transformed by bionic-armed pitchers wielding lightweight, non-leather gloves. The cyborgs haven’t arrived, but their catching device has. It has spent the off-season in a display case at the Baseball Hall of Fame, whose curators think they might be witnessing a “historic moment”: the birth of the glove of the future.
Resembling a standard black baseball glove, it is composed primarily of synthetic microfibers. Only 30 or so were made last year, each custom tailored to the owner’s hand. Just a few pros use the glove—it is sold, through a personal Web site, for at least $300—but many early adopters consider it the best glove in baseball, and its inventor is exploring mass production. At the moment, however, his factory is the former living room of a friend’s house.
Scott Carpenter, the glove’s lanky 40-year-old craftsman, says that compared with bats and balls, whose design is more tightly policed by Major League Baseball, a better glove can radically change the game. It’s happened before. What looked like fingerless leather work gloves during the 1870s slowly morphed into the Wilson A2000, introduced in 1957 and still considered the prototypical modern glove. With a deeper pocket and an improved “hinge” between the thumb and forefinger, it could collapse like a set of jaws. Suddenly fielders could easily snatch balls from the air one-handed. “They say that’s a major reason why no one is likely to hit a .400 batting average again,” Carpenter says. Every present-day glove is a close descendant of the A2000. Except his.
The big innovation is Carpenter’s use of suede-like synthetics—matted polymer fibers pioneered by the footwear industry—that weigh less than half as much as leather. After a decade of tweaking, his glove, according to his tests, is five to 10 ounces lighter than any rival. A baseball, Carpenter points out, weighs about five ounces: “Imagine taping two baseballs onto the back of your hand, and what a difference that would make if you were fielding a bad hop.” Other advantages include breathability, durability, and memory-foam-like padding.
Carpenter’s design also sets his glove apart. Among the spools of thread, bolts of fabric, and antique sewing machines in his workshop lie plaster casts of players’ hands. He shapes a glove’s lining to account for every contour and joint. A perfect fit eliminates slipping and translates to better leverage. In addition, the entire glove is more curved than usual and has flared-out sides, all of which helps funnel a ball into the pocket.
Many players view this kind of change as the equivalent of asking grown men to buy T-ball gloves. (Synthetic gloves long meant only one thing: vinyl, the Fisher-Price kiddie car to leather’s Rolls-Royce.) “People were making fun of it left and right,” says Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Michael Schwimer, recalling his minor-league teammates’ reactions when he began wearing a Carpenter glove in 2008. “It was like, ‘Aren’t those the ones that come in the cereal box?’” Nonetheless, Schwimer says the half dozen or so pros who use the glove—mostly minor-league pitchers—agree that its performance is unequaled: once players give it two weeks, he says, they don’t go back.
Leather, Carpenter argues, has been in decline for years. Roger Clemens, he notes, popularized gloves with synthetic-mesh backs, which are now worn by stars including Alex Rodriguez and Roy Halladay. An updated Wilson A2000 contains synthetic microfibers. And in December, the MLB Playing Rules Committee quietly gave Carpenter informal approval to make synthetic gloves for major-league use during the 2012 season.
Contracts and endorsement money keep most MLB players tethered to well-known brands—for now. Large sporting-goods companies have been courting Carpenter, who is brainstorming ways to mechanize his tailoring process. There’s a recent precedent for a baseball-equipment revolution, Schwimer adds: bats made from maple, first used in the majors in 1997, have become more popular than their century-old predecessor, ash bats. “It takes forever for any change to occur. But when change happens, it happens really fast.”