Getting Equipped to Play Baseball

When you take the baseball field, you should take along the best equipment available. You don't need to spend vast sums to purchase top-quality accessories as long as you know what to look for and where to find it.

Unless you are under ten years old, buy equipment that meets all the major league specifications. Buying equipment that is licensed by a reputable body, such as Major League Baseball, the NCAA, or the Little League, offers you some quality assurances.

Baseballs that last

You don't have to go to your local sporting goods store armed with a tape measure, scale, and scalpel (for filleting the ball to check its innards) to make sure you're buying a baseball that conforms to major league standards. Rawlings is the only company licensed by both major leagues to manufacture their official baseballs. So if you buy one of their baseballs, you know you're getting the genuine article.

A ball whose insides are poorly wrapped rapidly becomes misshapen with use. If your baseball is poorly stitched or constructed from inferior leather, it falls apart. Avoid balls made with synthetic leather wrapped around a core of hard plastic. This kind of ball makes a good toy or first ball for a toddler, but if you're a young adult or older, you'll tear its cover off in one good afternoon of batting practice.

Bats that really swing

Although pro players are required to use wooden bats, many people prefer the power that aluminum can offer. Here's a breakdown of three styles of bat:

  • Professional wood: A major league bat must be a single, round piece of solid wood, no more than 2-3/4 inches (7cm) in diameter at its thickest and no more than 42 inches (1.06m) long.

    Choose a bat that you can swing comfortably with control and speed, but also look for one that will last. Bats made of white ash have greater durability than bats constructed from less dense woods. When you choose a bat, look for one with a wide grain, the mark of an aged wood. These bats are more resistant to breaking, denting, chipping, or flaking than bats made from less mature wood.

  • Powerful aluminum: Aluminum bats are currently popular in many levels of nonprofessional baseball. The choice of aluminum over wood is largely an economic one: Most nonpro leagues find that the cost of regularly replacing broken wooden bats can bust their budgets.

    Hitters love aluminum bats because they are hollow and light yet they have more hitting mass than heavier wooden bats. This quality enables the hitter to generate greater bat speed and power. Balls that are routine outs when struck by a wooden bat are out of the park when launched by aluminum.

    An aluminum bat's sweet spot is twice the size of that found on a wooden bat. Aluminum bats have a longer game-life than wooden models, but they aren't immortal. After 600 hits or so, metal fatigue becomes a factor.

    If your league insists that you use an aluminum bat, buy one that rings or lightly vibrates when you strike its barrel on something hard. Bats that don't ring have no hitting life left in them.

  • Other batting options: Ceramic and graphite bats are the new kids on the block. They have the durability of the aluminum bats but are closer in weight/mass ratio to wooden bats, so they don't give hitters an unfair advantage over pitchers. Their price, however, can be prohibitive: Top-of-the-line models can cost as much as $220.

Gloves that fit the job

All major league gloves and mitts are made of leather. Children can get by with using vinyl gloves and plastic balls, but once you're playing serious baseball, leather is the only way to go.

Pick a glove that conforms to the major league standards and fits your hand comfortably. Gloves with open webbings allow you to watch the ball until you catch it, which is always a good policy. You don't have that advantage with closed-web gloves, which are also more difficult to break in (though if you're a pitcher, you need the closed webbing to better hide your pitches).

The best way to break in a leather glove is to play catch with it frequently. You can also make it more pliable by rubbing it with linseed oil, saddle soap, or shaving cream (though you may want to avoid shaving gels, which tend to dry out quickly).

If your glove gets wet, let it dry naturally. Placing it on a radiator or some other heat producer cracks the leather. When your glove is idle, place a ball in its pocket, and then tie the glove closed with a leather strap or wrap a rubber band around it to maintain its catching shape.

Shoes like the pros

Most nonprofessional players give little thought to their shoes; they just put on whatever they can. In fact, standard baseball shoes are no longer obligatory for many pro players — Frank Thomas has been known to hit in tennis shoes.

But traditionalists believe you should buy a light shoe with metal spikes (the shodding of choice when you're playing on natural grass) so that you can get maximum traction in the batter's box and on the base paths. If you don't want to wear spikes, at least get shoes with rubber cleats (preferably worn on artificial turf) so that you can grip the playing surface as you run.

Your shoes should fit properly and offer your feet adequate support; otherwise you risk damaging your lower legs' connective tissue. Choose a sturdy shoe with support that runs its entire length. Because your shoes stretch with use, choose a pair that fits snugly when you first wear them.

Batting helmets

Both major leagues require hitters to wear batting helmets with at least one earflap (protecting the side facing the pitcher). Anytime you go to bat against live pitching without wearing a batting helmet, you should have your head examined. And if you're unlucky, that is exactly what you will have to do.

Even a low-grade fastball can permanently damage or even kill you if it collides with your unprotected cranium. A solid batting helmet with double earflaps is the best insurance policy a hitter can buy.

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Light plastic batting helmets, such as the freebies that major league teams give away on Helmet Day at the stadium, are too flimsy to protect your head from an errant fastball. Do not wear them to the plate.

Batting gloves

Batting gloves protect a hitter's most important tools — his hands — from painful blisters, cuts, and scrapes. Runners can wear them on the base paths to protect their hands while sliding; fielders can don them under their fielding gloves to reduce the sting of hard-hit balls. For hitting, choose gloves that do not detract from your feel for the bat.

Caps and uniforms

Your cap should fit snugly enough that the bill doesn't droop over your eyes to block your vision. Uniform fit is a matter of personal comfort; your pants and jersey should permit unrestricted movement at the plate and in the field.

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