Mizuno’s Glove Magician, Nori Ito, Is MLB Players’ Best Friend
SURPRISE, Ariz. — “Nori-san, Nori-san.”
The joyful cheers matched those normally afforded Major League Baseball superstars like Los Angeles Angels Mike Trout. Except these shouts weren’t coming from fans. They came from the Texas Rangers spring training clubhouse. They came from MLB players.
This otherwise normal Saturday morning was treated like a holiday because Nori Ito, better known as the glove magician, was visiting from Japan. Ito, entering his 29th year as a Mizuno gloves craftsman, is much more to players than just a glove fixer.
The ear-to-ear grin on Ranger catcher Jeff Mathis’ face when he saw Ito, in turn, triggered a smile on Ito’s face. Mathis can’t explain the science behind the work that Ito performs. All that he knows is it’s one of a kind.
“All I can tell you is when he gives me my glove back, it’s in a lot better shape than it was before when I had it,” Mathis said. “He just has a way with that leather and turning them into a way that you want them. Designing them in a very short period of time, putting them back in your locker, them being lathered up and ready to go. What he does is pretty special.”
Ito doesn’t speak much English, but when Mathis told him he wanted the webbing in his catcher’s mitt loose after Ito redid the lacing, he understood Mathis’ request exactly. The two may not understand each other’s language, they do, however, understand the language of leather. Ito takes great pride in that.
“In order to respond to the requests and opinions from the MLB players, you have to not only brush up your technical skills, but also refine your sensibilities to be able to understand what they want,” Ito said through a translator.
Ito, 46, makes his rounds through the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues in Arizona and Florida before the regular season starts. He made his 19th spring training pilgrimage before MLB canceled it due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Ito represents Mizuno, which has been sending glove craftsmen out to spring training sites since 1979.
Gloves mean a lot to Ito. The fielding utensil for all baseball players isn’t just a glove to him. It’s his artwork. He says he puts love and affection into each mitt he designs for Mizuno’s clients. Ito played and found joy in baseball in his younger years.
“I love everything about baseball,” Ito said. “Among everything, gloves hold a special place in my heart. I like to be on defense and gloves are essential for defense. There are athletes who use gloves beyond the steps of learning craftsmanship and passing it on. I bring passion to this process and that is my love for gloves.”
Outside each clubhouse Ito visits, he and the Mizuno spokespeople that follow him create a makeshift glove laboratory. Set up with a table that features all of his tools, Ito returns the finished gloves to players quickly, each molded perfectly to its unique hand.
“I just like having something that feels really comfortable because it’s an extension of my hand,” Ranger pitcher Corey Kluber said. “Couple of years ago, I tried to make some changes to a stock glove that was offered and he nailed it. Now every glove I get is perfect.”
Mathis echoed the comfort sentiment.
“It’s a big part of my game. It’s a really big part of my game,” Mathis said. “Being comfortable with the glove on my hand is something that is very important to me. Any time he rolls around, I’m really happy to hand it over to him and get me squared away.”
Kluber said it is highly unlikely he’d use a glove not modified by Ito.
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“At this point in time, I’ve been using him for so long and I’m comfortable with him. It’s one of those things (where) it’d feel odd to put something else on,” Kluber said.
Getting gloves back to players quickly builds a connection and trust between him and the players. They generally receive their gloves before they head out to practice. For the time and dedication he puts into his work, Ito just asks one thing in return: that the players sign his tool case.
The once completely silver case is now coated in black Sharpie cursive letters and, for Ito, memories. It is signed by players past and present, such as Andrelton Simmons, Brian Jordan, Jimmy Rollins, Alfonso Soriano and Adam Wainwright. Those small moments alter Ito’s perspective.
“The relationship I have with the MLB players is very meaningful,” Ito said. “That allows me to see through the lens of athletes, learn various things to make gloves, and to gain knowledge of athletes’ field conditions and environment.”
Ito gains satisfaction from the progress he has made as a craftsman, a baseball fanatic and as a person. He started at Mizuno as an 18-year-old out of high school working at the factory in Haga, Japan. He wanted a job in baseball and one time feeling a custom glove had him hooked.
“I ordered a custom glove when I was in the 10th grade,” Ito said. “When I got the glove, I learned that there were people making gloves as their jobs. That was the turning point in my life that made me realize, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Ito takes pride in what he does, and it’s been that way since he started this job. It doesn’t matter if it’s a child’s first glove, a parent’s last glove or a professional player’s 37th. He treats them all honorably.
“Whether they are children or professional baseball players, it makes me happier than anything else to see people using gloves made by Mizuno,” he said. “It is my greatest pleasure whenever I see someone using our glove. I never take it for granted. Every time I see someone using our glove, I feel, ‘Thank you for choosing Mizuno from numerous glove manufacturers.’”