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Technological advancements have allowed baseball equipment manufacturers to develop better gloves that buyers can use upon purchase. Improvements in tanning, sewing and stitching technologies have eliminated the need to break-in newly bought mitts, while new design configurations have improve their fielding capabilities. Research and development efforts have also improved the quality of wood softball bats. An example is Easton Sport’s Connexion Z-Core, which offer more batting flexibility and power.

Through technological advancements manufacturers are producing better baseball bats and mitts, allowing consumers to “play ball” as soon as they hit the diamond without wasting valuable time and energy breaking in the products.

For generations of Americans, breaking in a baseball glove was a rite of passage. However, the technological era and the impending 21st century have all but obliterated any task mandating more than a few moments. Nestling a hard ball in the rough leather pocket of an oiled glove overnight retains no appeal in an Internet -transfixed culture. Play ball means be ready to play now.

Baseball equipment makers are responding to the challenge of ready-to-wear gloves. By sourcing leather from new tanneries and devising novel custom sewing and stitching patterns, gloves today are as soft and pliable upon purchase as the coveted infielder’s mitt that conforms to a veteran’s hand.

“There is an increased demand from consumers to procure product from store shelves that can be played with immediately,” says Scott de Grasse, division manager of diamond sports for Franklin Sporting Goods.

In fact, vendors say, a recreational player leaving the office and heading for a league game can stop at the local sports retailer, pick up glove and head straight to the field with the new purchase.

“There’s nothing like a broken-in glove,” says Jim Hackett, Wilson’s business manager for baseball. “Now there is no breaking time.”

The supple, pre-oiled leather gloves are but one technical advancement stimulating sales in diamond sports equipment as baseball and softball continue to enjoy a resurgence of sales and register gains at retail and among vendors. New design configurations with bigger sweet spots and position-specific gloves touting unique pocket patterns are improving the fielding averages of both serious and recreational ballplayers.

And by offering consumers credible technical benefits without excessively elevating prices, diamond sports manufacturers are reporting strong sales increases for the second consecutive year.

Franklin, for example, will introduce a series of fielding gloves, called RTP (Ready To Play), utilizing a “special tanning process for the leather making it softer and more pliable,” according to de Grasse. Priced aggressively at $49 retail for a 100-percent cowhide glove, the RTP line also includes synthetic-based products. The company reports sell-through of as much as 85 percent for its current diamond sports products, which include fielding and batting gloves and accessories.

POWER SWINGS

Yet consumers are not ignoring highend equipment – top-of-the-line bats and gloves now carry retail prices as high as $250 – when the product technology contains viable advantages and, in some cases, is the same gear used by major league players. “For the past couple of years, we’ve been trying to address the need for more technology (in equipment),” says Matt Arndt, director of baseball and softball products for Easton Sports. Arndt expects the company’s new bat, the Connexion Z-Core, will fulfill that demand.

Due for delivery in fall ’99 and Spring 2000, the Connexion Z-Core is the result of a two-year R&D effort devising a patented process with a “two-piece bat” design, according to Arndt. By mechanically interlocking the handle and barrel and bonding the two pieces together with elastomer, the bat’s flexibility increases. And with the handle “isolated” from the barrel, Arndt says, a “huge sweet spot” is created.

In recent years Easton, which reported an increase of about 10 percent in diamond sports sales this year, has led the charge in highend bats, a strategy that will continue. The Connexion Z-Core, a black bat graphically emboldened with blue, gold and silver, carries a suggested retail of $250.

Arndt says recreational players are willing to invest in a high-end product such as Z-Core, which is designed with a graphite-reinforced inner wall inside the bat, enhancing not only the bat’s performance characteristics but also its durability. Adds Arndt, “Players don’t want to go out there and keep denting bats.”

GOLDEN GLOVES

Nor, apparently, do they want to commit embarrassing errors. To keep fielding percentages high, Wilson introduced its “Big Sweet Spot” glove last year. Based on a similar theory to its sweet spot technology in golf and tennis, Wilson’s Hackett says the glove “makes catching easier” with the prime catching spot as much as 15-percent bigger.

Hackett says Wilson’s year-to-date increase of over 30 percent in sales of baseball hard goods is largely attributable to the company’s alignment with new tanneries. “All leather glove offerings have dramatically improved with the quality, of leather and the patterns,” Hackett says.

According to Hackett, Wilson’s A2000 line featuring “Quick Stop” leather is on schedule for a fall ’99 delivery. Tanned with acrylic resin, which acts as a shock absorber, “Quick Stop” leather imposes a “dampening effect” on the rotation of a bali’s rebound and reduces the spin, Hackett says. The pre-oiled leather allows for pliability and conformity, rapidly molding to any fielder’s hand. The glove’s suggested retail will be about $180.

Mizuno USA is addressing fielding proficiency via its own glove designs, dubbed 3-D technology. Developed with data offered by an estimated 200 professional ball players, who Mizuno began gathering during spring training in 1996, 3-D patterns create the ideal pocket design for each fielding position. Available only in Mizuno’s Pro Limited baseball glove line, the 3-D gloves are crafted by hand and embossed with the company’s “Limited Edition” logo.

After celebrating the production of its 25,000th hand-crafted baseball glove at its Norcross, GA, factory earlier this year, Mizuno reported an increase of nearly 20 percent in its market share of ball gloves. Citing market statistics compiled by NPD/SMART, Mizuno says its brand accounted for six of the top-eight selling gloves in January in the U.S.

The company claims its market share is now about 33 percent and has increased 243 percent since December 1997. It attributes those numbers, in part, to more visible promotional efforts with its roster of major league players, including the Atlanta Braves’ Chipper Jones and Tom Glavine.

Many diamond sports companies are now banking on the allure of their star endorsees to stimulate product sales. While athlete endorsements have long been a facet of product marketing, some brands are offering recreational players the precise equipment used by major league players for the first time. Sold at the highest end of the pricing spectrum, vendors say they are surprised at the demand for this gear.

Wilson, for instance, now makes Texas’ Golden Glove catcher Ivan Rodriguez’s mitt available in its A2000 series. Identifying Rodriguez by his nickname, Wilson stocks the glove as the A2403 Pudge.

“You can buy his exact glove, with the black back and tan palm,” says Hackett, noting that Wilson is also marketing Braves’ pitcher Greg Maddux’ glove. “For over 50 years we’ve had the A2000. The two gloves we’ve introduced in the past two years – Pudge’s catcher’s mitt and Maddux’ glove – are already the best-selling gloves we have.”

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