ST. LOUIS • It takes a moment to notice what's so different about Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter as he steps in to bat.
He digs his cleats into the dirt in a familiar way. His black bat hangs over his shoulder at a typical angle. He's a lefty, but plenty of players are. Carpenter holds his pose, waits for the pitch. And that's when you see it: Carpenter's not wearing batting gloves.
He looks vulnerable out there with his bare hands. It almost looks like a mistake, like he forgot his gloves in the dugout.
Nearly every major league player wears batting gloves. Even kids wear them. Batting gloves have become just another piece of the uniform, as assumed as batting helmets. But it wasn't always this way. Carpenter's gloveless hands are a throwback to a previous era, and a source of curiosity among teammates and fans.
"If I didn't wear them, my hands would be cracked and splitting," Cardinals teammate Daniel Descalso said with a touch of wonder. "I don't know how his hands hold up."
Carpenter, 26, has never worn batting gloves. Not as a kid. Not on his high school team outside Houston. He recalls wearing gloves just once at Texas Christian University, when his team traveled to Colorado to play Air Force. It was bitingly cold and snowing. Otherwise, he goes without.
"Most hitters feel naked without them," Carpenter said of the familiar accessory. "I feel the same way with them on."
Sitting by his locker in the Cardinals clubhouse this week, Carpenter cut an unassuming figure, a 13th-round draft pick in 2009 with a tiny $1,000 signing bonus who hit his way through the minors with a consistent bat. He works hard. He often can be found in the indoor batting cage.
Last year, as a rookie, Carpenter made it into seven Cardinals games. This year, he's already played in 12 of 14 games. He was batting .321 through Thursday's game. He's hit his first major-league home run. A few days ago, he drove in the game-winning run in an extra-innings game against the Reds.
People are beginning to notice him, and his bare hands.
One fan started a spoof Twitter account, @NoBattingGloves, for dispatches from Carpenter's "nonexistent batting gloves." Radio and TV sports commentators frequently take note.
Carpenter holds out his palms for inspection. His right palm, which he wraps at the bottom of the bat, shows the most wear. The skin is a study in calluses and cuts. During spring training, a deep cut opened up at the base of his right middle finger. He complained about it to teammate Skip Schumaker.
"I know how you can fix that," Schumaker offered, recalls Carpenter.
How? Carpenter asked. He was expecting some insightful advice from the older player.
"Wear batting gloves," Schumaker said.
Instead, Carpenter uses a variety of hand lotions. He applies Super Glue for the deeper cuts. He says he has not, however, turned to one remedy for calluses supposedly employed by some players: urinating on his hands.
Before the 1960s, batting gloves made brief and very rare appearances. But on Sept. 4, 1964, Ken "Hawk" Harrelson began to change all that. The platoon player for the Kansas City Athletics was not expecting to play in the game that night, so he'd played a couple rounds of golf earlier in the day. Then he was inserted into that night's lineup.
His left hand was sore. He wore a bright red golf glove to bat. He hit two homers. And Harrelson wore gloves from then on. Other players started to try them out, too. Then, in the early 1980s, sports equipment makers such as Franklin Sports began designing and marketing batting gloves, touting an improved batting grip.
Now, almost every major league player seems to wear two batting gloves — plus, maybe a wristband or two and perhaps a plastic guard for the forearm.
In recent years, Carpenter's no-gloves approach has grown ever more unusual. The number of major leaguers who bat with bare hands is dwindling. Free-swinging slugger Vladimir Guerrero is not playing this year. Yankees catcher Jorge Posada retired last season. So did Milwaukee's Craig Counsell. Pittsburgh's Jason Kendall departed after the 2010 season. Doug Mirabelli and Doug Mientkiewicz left the game a couple of years ago.
John Mabry, who batted without gloves during a 14-year career, is now an assistant hitting coach with the Cardinals.
Trying to figure out who still bats without gloves can become a clubhouse parlor game. Oakland's Coco Crisp doesn't seem to wear them. Texas' Nelson Cruz does, most of the time. Hunter Pence of the Phillies wears just one batting glove.
"I just remember Mark Grace, playing in Chicago, in April, in the freezing cold," said Chris Duncan, the ex-Cardinals slugger who now hosts a sports talks show on WXOS (101.1 FM), recalling the long-retired Cubs player.
"Let me think," says Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday, standing by his locker, next to Carpenter's. "Moises Alou. Guerrero. Most of the guys don't play anymore."
Holliday wishes he could bat without the leather gloves he wears now. He prefers the feel of the bat in his bare hands. "But I'm a heavy hand-sweater," he says. "I'd have to constantly use rosin."
At the bottom of Carpenter's locker sit a few dozen pairs of new red and white batting gloves, still in plastic packaging. They were given to players by Nike, Carpenter explains. He didn't ask for them. And he doesn't plan on using them.
Instead, he thinks he might give them to his brother Tyler, who plays in the New York Mets' minor league system. Tyler wears batting gloves.