This is an interesting article. Mizuno has always been my choice as well...http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/m ... ove25.html
Ichiro's glove â€” The hands of a master
By Brad Lefton
Special to The Seattle Times
OSAKA, Japan â€” Ichiro has immaculate hands.
There are no calluses, no swollen knuckles, no bent fingers, not a smirch of any kind. No one takes more pride in the beauty of the All-Star outfielder's hands than Nobuyoshi Tsubota, the man who has handcrafted nearly every professional glove Ichiro has worn.
For Ichiro, the glove is a precision instrument that has to be learned to be used properly. He has challenged Tsubota to craft a glove lighter and softer than any other; a glove, Tsubota insists, that would hurt the hands of other outfielders.
Ichiro's unblemished hands are proof that he has mastered the instrument, a thought that brings a smile to Tsubota's 75-year-old face. In contrast to Ichiro, he proudly shows off the calluses and crooked fingers he has developed over the years shaping the leather, like they were battle wounds.
But after 60 years of pounding, bending and stitching leather, Tsubota has put his tired hands to rest. Upon giving Ichiro the final two gloves of his life's devotion, he retired before the start of the 2008 season. Ichiro will dearly miss the man once chosen by Japan's national government as a Contemporary Expert Craftsman and known throughout its baseball circles simply as the Master.
"The Master can only listen with his ears to my demands about my glove," Ichiro says with reverence. "It's not like I make a sample that helps explain to him what I want. The ability to craft a tangible, high-precision object solely based on the information he hears is the definition of a master. Ordinary people can't do that. The feeling that I'm trying to capture when I put on a glove is different than another player's he might be making a glove for. So it's this uncanny ability to so precisely craft an object from an image that exists only in my mind that makes him a true virtuoso."
A master begins
Tsubota began working for sports-gear giant Mizuno in 1948, fresh out of junior high school at the age of 15. He started hand-crafting baseball gloves in a postwar period when leather was scarce and there were only two kinds of Japanese baseball gloves: an infielder's and an outfielder's. His users and teachers were players in Japan's pro leagues.
At the same time his reputation and offerings were growing at home, Mizuno began pushing its product lines overseas. Tsubota predated Ichiro's arrival in America by more than two decades, first coming over in 1978. He would travel between spring-training camps in a van that had a makeshift workshop in the back, where he would hand-make gloves on the spot. Bobby Valentine, a Mets player at the time, was the first major-leaguer to use a Tsubota glove handcrafted from the touring workshop.
Ichiro was only 4 at the time, but both Mizuno and Tsubota were already long-established, household names in Japanese baseball. In fact, when Ichiro wanted his first pro model glove as a sixth-grader, he demanded that it be a Mizuno â€” a $400 Mizuno at that, unheard of for such a pipsqueak.
Ichiro estimates the same glove today would cost more than $600, but he already was drawn to its quality craftsmanship. That means Ichiro has been using a Tsubota-made, or at least a Tsubota-overseen, glove since elementary school.
Tsubota didn't become aware of one of his most loyal users, though, until the rest of Japan did, when Ichiro burst onto the pro scene by setting the season hits record in his first full year with the Orix Blue Wave in 1994. Tsubota remembers personally handcrafting a glove for the young record-holder that offseason.
"I made it after asking some people with the team about his preferences. Then, I went and checked on it during spring training," Tsubota recounts. "He was very complimentary, saying, 'It's even better than I could've imagined.' From that point on, I've had the privilege of personally handcrafting his gloves." A 14-year relationship of tinkering between the two began.
Changing of the guard
Although Tsubota didn't announce his retirement until February, succession planning had been under way for more than two years. One of his longtime understudies, Kosaku Kishimoto, who joined Mizuno right out of high school in 1976, got the nod. He first traveled to America to consult with Ichiro in August 2006. Kishimoto remembers presenting Ichiro with six handcrafted gloves during that visit at Safeco Field.
They met in a tiny room just inside the main entrance of the Mariners' clubhouse. Kishimoto nervously sat there as Ichiro inspected each of his six offerings. Norihito Kubota, a fellow Mizuno employee who was also in the cramped room, recalls it this way.
"Ichiro decides in a matter of seconds after slipping his hand into a glove whether it has potential or not," Kubota says with a chuckle. "He tried on the first glove, and within five seconds he said, 'I can't use this one.' He picked up the next glove, slipped it on, and five seconds later said, 'This one either.' He tried on another and five seconds later declared, 'No good.' "
Ichiro went through the batch of six gloves in 30 seconds, summarily rejecting days of painstaking craftsmanship by Kishimoto.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't crushed," Kishimoto confesses. "I mean, I had brought these gloves all the way to America, and he rejected the whole batch in one fell swoop. But his critiques paved the way for me to go back and make one that captured the feeling he was in search of."
Ah, that elusive feeling only Ichiro can articulate.
"I'm looking for that definitive feeling that comes from the proper overall balance of the glove," he explains. "It should feel like an extension of my body, not like a piece of equipment on my body. I accept that most gloves simply can't produce that right feeling. If I request a modification, that one change is likely to throw the balance off. The trick is modifying the glove while maintaining the overall balance."
That was another challenge Kishimoto was up against. Ichiro is back in right field now, but Kishimoto entered the process just as Ichiro was moving from right field to center field and had a multitude of new demands for his glove. Among them was increased sturdiness. Ichiro has a penchant for demanding the seemingly contradictory qualities of lightness and durability in most of his equipment. At 1.15 pounds, his right fielder's glove was roughly 23 percent lighter than average. But he imagined such a featherweight mitt wouldn't hold up under the increased workload of center field, so he requested more brawniness without a significant compromise to its lightness.
Kishimoto listened to Ichiro as he carefully articulated such thoughts. Kishimoto returned to Japan, studied previous models and consulted further with Tsubota. He produced several more samples and showed them to Ichiro again that October. As he anxiously sat by, one from that batch produced the golden sound.
"This one has potential," Ichiro declared. That decision also took just five seconds.
Ichiro used the glove during his offseason workouts, only to conclude that it had softened too much and would not hold up for daily game use. Kishimoto went back to the drawing board. In the meantime, Tsubota was still making gloves for Ichiro's consideration, and Ichiro eventually settled on a Tsubota-made glove to start the 2007 season.
Unlike most players, Ichiro typically uses two gloves a year. He starts the season with one, then changes midway through, a result of the limits in durability that come with the lightness he demands. This gave Kishimoto an immediate chance to perfect his attempts. Kishimoto presented Ichiro with several more gloves in May 2007.
While last year's All-Star Game at San Francisco will be remembered by most for Ichiro's inside-the-park home run, the first in the Midsummer Classic's history, Kishimoto has a far more personal memory.
"It was the first time Ichiro ever used a glove I made for him in a game," Kishimoto says with pride. Out of that May allotment came the one Ichiro used at the All-Star Game. He liked it so much, in fact, he employed it as his game glove for the rest of the 2007 season.
End of an era
This past winter, Tsubota created two final gloves for Ichiro's perusal before retiring. Then, those aged hands crafted one final work, a letter to accompany the samples. As with every work he had created with leather, this one in ink was elegant in its simplicity. "Thank you for consistently earning so many Gold Glove awards. Please accept these as the final works of my career," Tsubota penned.
In his heart, he says, he hoped Ichiro would use one of the gloves this season, but he could never request such a thing because he knows as a professional, Ichiro doesn't make decisions based on sentiment.
Ichiro did not choose one of the Tsubota gloves. He allowed the baton to be fully passed by choosing one that Kishimoto handcrafted to start the year. However, the always discerning outfielder decided that the slight extension to the fingers he had requested for those running catches in the gaps upset the glove's delicate balance. Kishimoto hurriedly made a few tweaks and got Ichiro his 2008 version just in time.
Ichiro says he keeps Tsubota's final two offerings at home, where he has elevated them to the role of good-luck charms. They are charms created from hands that have helped produce 14 Gold Gloves in two countries over the span of every professional season Ichiro has played; charms from the hands of the Master that have now touched the successor.
Brad Lefton is a St. Louis-based journalist who has documented Ichiro's seasons in MLB for Japanese TV. He has spent his career covering baseball in Japan and America and conducted all interviews for this article in Japanese.