In the spring of 2012, Nike Baseball senior designer Matthew Hudson and product manager Jeremy Hewitt met with Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. At the Nike campus in Oregon, the company was studying mechanisms to improve baseball gloves. Hudson and Hewitt had taken tips from players, but they wanted to hear from the MLB superstar.
Gonzalez brought up two main desires for the perfect glove. He wanted a mitt with lighter weight and the ability to break it in quickly. "CarGo" hypothesized a mesh back would do the trick.
"We took that as a challenge to go back to the Nike headquarters and think, if we were trying to design a glove that was lighter weight and had very little, if not no break-in, what would we create?" Hewitt says. "The answer would not be a piece of cowhide with a mesh-back. We would tap into all the resources we have in our innovation kitchen."
The result is the Nike Vapor 360, a glove Gonzalez has been using since 2013, and other players have tested. The 2013 NL MVP, Andrew McCutchen, is expected to wear the glove for Tuesday night's All-Star Game.
Hudson hails from Leeds, Yorkshire, United Kingdom. "That is about as far away from baseball as you can get," he jokes.
A longtime soccer cleat designer, Hudson switched over to Nike's baseball department in a critical time for gloves. The vast majority of gloves in the industry feature traditional leather in a black or brown shade. Hudson did not see much turnover in the "foreign" sport.
"I was a very fresh pair of eyes," he says. "I think I was always pushing the boundaries, saying, 'Why can't we do this?' Everybody knew we needed to move the dial in baseball. We needed some disruption–something provocative."
Hudson and Hewitt, and Gonzalez, for that matter, saw parallels in the soccer boot industry to baseball gloves. Only a dozen or so years ago, soccer cleats displayed little variety. Most were black, leather boots. As this year's World Cup displayed, that bland trend is long gone. Soccer cleats are now predominantly made of lightweight synthetics and feature an array of colors.
"[Carlos] is a huge soccer fan," Hewitt says. "He's a big Cristiano Ronaldo fan. He's very in tune with what's going on in the soccer industry."
The Nike Vapor 360 still maintains a traditional level of leather, although it is altered. The palm features a leather design, but the material consists of a perforated pattern. The dimpled design helps the glove to be game-ready upon opening the box. While standard gloves sometimes take months of break-in, the Nike Vapor 360 is ready to play with right away.
The interior of the glove includes fused layers of performance synthetics, providing a distinct quantity of modern technology. A Nike Flywire lacing system in the pinky and thumb allows those areas to be customized for the user. A soft PORON foam by the wrist keeps the glove comfortable on the skin.
To keep the mitt light, Nike's TrueAdapt heel construction is used on the palm to limit interior layers. The webbing also features a lightweight, high-frequency molded web that retains strength (think actual spider web). The new synthetic structure does not deter from durability, while making the product lighter.
A year after Hudson and Hewitt met with Gonzalez, they provided him with a prototype for 2013 spring training. The idea was to learn from the Nike Vapor 360's use in a series of exhibition games. Gonzalez would then go back to a leather glove.
"We said, 'This is a prototype. We expect you to break it. We want you to break it. We want you to show us where and how it broke, so we can go back and improve it and make it better,'" Hewitt says.
When Hudson and Hewitt visited Gonzalez at the end of spring training to retrieve their prototype, his answer surprised them.
"He refused to give it back," says Hewitt. "He said, 'You can't make me go back. I won't.'"
Coming off two Gold Gloves in three years (2010, 2012), CarGo made the bold decision to stick with the new synthetic glove. Nike wanted to make sure it provided Gonzalez with the best product possible, at that point, for regular-season games.
"We sent him a fresh prototype that had some changes. We sent it to him on Opening Day. They were playing in Milwaukee, and it arrived 50 minutes before the first pitch," Hewitt says. "He took it out of the box and actually used it that night. He had two highlight reel plays he made saving doubles in the gap."
Hewitt says he could not stop watching the highlights that night. Gonzalez had faith in the glove and proved everything about it on opening night. Not only did the lightweight glove perform–it needed no breaking-in.
Gonzalez used the Nike Vapor 360 for the rest of the season. He won a third Gold Glove -- a big step for lightweight synthetics. Nike provided him the glove in all black, which Hewitt says kept the product in "full stealth mode."
Although his baseball background is adopted, Hudson noticed a difference in Gonzalez swagger. In speaking to the two-time All-Star, Hudson noticed new abilities in CarGo's play.
"Players have the ability to try and make plays they would not normally catch. He decided to use the glove in a slightly different way because he had more confidence in this glove than he had in his normal glove ... ," Hudson says and pauses.
"... For example, he could trust a backhand shoestring catch," Hewitt adds to his British colleague's point.
The glove does not have super glue, but it might as well, compared with standard leather gloves. Based on Gonzalez as a prototype, the glove allows users to cover more ground and trust the pocket.
"My first impression was ‘wow, this is different,’" Gonzalez says. "Once I put it on and played catch in camp, everything clicked. This is what I was looking for. I wear this glove and I feel like I can catch any ball."
Following Gonzalez and Hudson's soccer background, the official Nike Vapor 360, which was unveiled Tuesday, includes a yellow and black design. Hewitt says the unique Nike yellow color has become "synonymous with performance." In Nike terms, vapor means "enabling speed through lightweight." The 360 part is inspired by an outfielder (the glove is currently only made for outfielders) being able to make a grab in all directions.
The Nike Vapor 360 is on pace for sale to the public by the 2014 holiday season with a possible release on Black Friday on Nike.com. In the meantime, Gonzalez, McCutchen on Tuesday night and other MLB players dabble with the current limited edition.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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