Written by Bob Padecky for the Press Democrat.
The smell of leather and wood fills the room, which is not exactly an atmospheric miracle, considering the room is 10 feet by 10 feet with a 10-foot ceiling. Abner Doubleday would approve, for this is what baseball smelled like and looked like 150 years ago. Intimate, basic, without frill, without pretense. Such is the description of the room and also the woman sitting behind the 1910 Singer sewing machine.
Fran Fleet, 74, sat back in her chair and admired her eclectic kingdom. Seventy-five baseball gloves, 11 baseballs and seven softballs hang from three walls, with another 35 gloves stacked in front of the Singer. The 10-foot cube shrinks even further after seeing five catcher’s mitts, three speed bags for boxers, two baseball bats, a leather football helmet, a dusty golf bag with a rusted sand wedge from God-knows-how-long-ago, hanging next to a flattened basketball with the same age characteristic.
Noah’s Athletic Arc just made a house call. This ain’t Dick’s Sporting Goods, folks. Looks so quirky, so eccentric, so outside the box that Fleet felt committed to a response.
Thrusting her arms to the side, parallel to the ground, Fleet threw out a big smile and said with flavor, “I am what I am!” This was just the tip of her quirky iceberg.
So of course there’s a rusted door to a wood-burning stove on the wall. Five doorknobs somehow fit with another piece of rust, an old apple peeler from Graton. This is Fran’s place, the “Sandalady,” it says on her website, when 40 years ago she stopped repairing sandals.
“Birkenstocks came to be popular,” she said. “I told people just go buy another Birkenstock.”
Being a “craftsy person,” Fleet — among the first graduating class of Montgomery High School — needed a challenging outlet for those itchy fingers. Voilà, it was baseball gloves and mitts. So respected she became and so well known for her work, Fleet has been sent gloves from all 50 states and from as far away as Australia. Those 35 gloves on the shelf in front of her, that’s a month’s worth of work.
“Someone will come in and say they need a glove repaired by the afternoon,” Fleet said. “I’ll ask if they have a backup. They’ll ask why. I’ll say, ‘Well, when you get your car repaired, do you get a rental?’ ”
That they get what they pay for, Fleet is also firm about that, too. Savvy at business and aware that discretion is sometimes necessary, Fleet has to keep her tongue in check when common sense is dramatically abused.
“Someone wanted to break in his glove,” Fleet said, “and so he drove a forklift over it.”
That the glove became shredded wheat, Fleet was tempted to give last rites to what was once a ball repository.
“People have put gloves in water to soften them up,” Fleet said. “Why? They have soaked them in motor oil. Huh? I tell people to wear a batting glove or a golf glove, then put on their baseball glove. Helps with odor and makes the glove last longer.
“Here, stick your snoot in here!”
She presented a glove to me for sniffing. I declined.
“Does it smell like dirty underwear?” I asked.
“Not MY dirty underwear!” Fleet said with feigned indignation.
There was a pause. This is code for Fleet preparing to deliver a one-liner.
“I’m sure glad I don’t repair bicycle seats!” she roared.
Fleet doesn’t suffer fools or prolonged periods of silence. By herself for 6-7 hours a day, Fleet needs to keep her brain moving along with those fingers. So she listens to audio books, as many as 10 a month. She is quick with humor as well as honesty, and the combination has served her well. It makes an impression. You don’t meet Fran Fleet and think you’ve seen someone like this before.
A point that will be illustrated by the man who walked into her shop Tuesday.
“Hey, thanks so much, Fran; here’s 20 bucks,” said Greg Smith of Santa Rosa.
Fleet was bewildered. She didn’t know the face.
“You have to be around me for a couple years before I know your name,” she said later. “Now, a glove, a glove I never forget.”
So, please, unknown man, identify yourself.
“You worked on my glove two years ago and you charged me $15,” said Smith, who runs a powder coating shop in Rohnert Park. “I didn’t pay you then and it’s been bugging the crap out of me ever since. So here’s 20 bucks. There, I feel good already.”
Fleet accepted the bill. That’s the loyalty she inspires. You don’t stiff the Sandalady. Around Cotati it’s considered more disgusting than spitting on the sidewalk. So disrespectful. At Friar Tucks, the bar next door, they call her ”The Legend.” To verify that compliment, all one needs to do is take another look at her three walls — a much closer look.
“This is what I’m most proud of,” said Fleet, who has sponsored youth baseball teams for the past 40 years.
Beginning in 2011, players who have had their gloves repaired by Fleet are asked to sign their name on a wall. Joey Gomes, Brandon Paulson, Will Krout, Chad Fillinger, all local legends, have signed. Cole Tomei, who played on Petaluma’s Little League team that finished third at the Little League World Series a few years back, has signed.
How many signatures are on the wall? Too many to count. Hundreds. Thousands. Who knows? Who has the time to count?
“Don’t count them,” Fleet said. “You don’t need to.”
“But I want to,” I said, pretending.
“I don’t care if you care,” Fleet said.
Normally, such a direct, uncompromising comment would curl the toes. Somehow, and this is weird, I grant you, it felt that Fleet was being polite.
“So you live in Cotati?”
“You don’t need to know.”
“I see you have another bucket of balls back there. I want to count them to know how many you have in your shop.”
“No, you don’t.”
“What’s in that cardboard box there?” I said, pointing to a shipment.
“Can I open them to count?”
“Nope. Not necessary.”
I never asked why. Didn’t need to. Already had all my answers. Turns out I wasn’t there for the gloves. I was in there for Fran Fleet.
To contact Bob Padecky email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.