During his early years on the job, one of the first designs Clevenhagen made was for Dave Concepcion, the perennial all star shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds. He changed the back of Concepcion’s Pro 1000 to make it deeper and easier to break in. Another early project was redesigning the Rawlings signature softball glove. Clevenhagen played a lot of fast pitch softball in those days and the typical glove design was just to add a few inches in length to a baseball glove. He made a pattern with a wide, deep pocket, spreading the fingers suitable for the bigger ball, a model RSGXL that’s still sold today. Over the years, he’s also designed gloves for young players with physical disabilities such as missing fingers that make it difficult or impossible to use regular gloves.
Dennis Esken, a Pittsburgh-area historian and glove collector who owns three game-used Mickey Mantle mitts and has owned a host of gloves worn by All Stars, says Clevenhagen has made gloves more streamlined and, in particular, lightened and improved catcher’s mitts. “He’s made them easier to use, more functional,” adds Esken, who speaks regularly with Clevenhagen.
Gloves are now designed with every position in mind, not just first base and catcher, which traditionally have used specialized mitts. The differences are more than just the appearance and size, but in the interior changing how the glove closes around the ball. “For outfielders, the ball will be funneled into the webbing. They are more apt to snag the ball up high in the web,” Clevenhagen says. “An infielder wants the ball where there's no problem finding it with his bare hand, not in the webbing, but at the base of the fingers.”
Most players today grew up brandishing a retail version of the glove they flash in the big leagues. Alex Rodriguez now has his own model, but for years he used the same model as his hero, Cal Ripken, a Pro 6HF. When Ozzie Smith, the St. Louis Cardinals acrobatic shortstop, began brandishing a six-finger Trap-Eze model made famous by Stan Musial in the 1950s, a generation of young shortstops followed suit. Clevenhagen says 99 percent of the players use the same model their entire career. "There’s just something about it,” he adds. “They just can’t bring themselves to try something different."
In past years, players like Dwight Evans of the Boston Red Sox, Amos Otis of the Kansas City Royals and pitcher Jim Kaat, who won a record 16 Gold Gloves, hung on to their favorites, their “gamers,” for a dozen years or more, repeatedly sending them to Rawlings to be refurbished. Mike Gallego, then a shortstop with the Oakland A's, went back into a darkened clubhouse during the World Series earthquake of 1989 to retrieve his glove, an eight-year-old RYX-Robin Yount model.
Now young players don’t want to spend weeks breaking in a new glove. Sometimes, they don’t get through a season with the same gamer. One reason, he says, is that the materials are better and the gloves are more consistent. “We used to go to spring training with 50 of a certain model and go through 47 before a player found one that felt right,” he says. “Now, they're happy right off the bat.”
Some players still name their favorites. Torii Hunter, the Los Angeles Angels outfielder and a nine-time Gold Glove winner, has three or four gamers, each with a name. Over the years, he's taken Coco, Sheila, Vanity, Susan and Delicious into the field with him. When he makes an error with one, he sets it aside, like a petulant child being sent to the corner, until he thinks it’s ready to return.
“It's like a relationship, you just know,” Hunter said earlier this year. “You start dating a girl, you hang out with her a couple times, you know this is the one for you. After a year, you get comfortable and you figure out whether she's the real deal.”
Clevenhagen, who figures he’ll retire in a few years, is careful to put his contribution into perspective. One of his favorite players, Ozzie Smith, exchanged his XPG12 model for a new gamer regularly.
“A pro player could probably play with anything,” he adds. “I always thought it didn't matter if Ozzie had a cardboard box on his hand. He'd still be the greatest shortstop ever.”