Aso the 'Jedi Master' of gloves

Aso the 'Jedi Master' of gloves

CHICAGO -- When Wilson Sporting Goods recently moved its main offices, the company went from an office jammed with cramped cubicles to the top floor of a newer development filled with plasma screens, museum-like displays and conference rooms that more resembled living rooms than places of business.

Every desk in the spacious office is carefully organized, kept clean in an effort to maintain the desired ambiance. Except for one.

Off in the back corner on the 14th floor of the building, one desk looks out of place. It is strewn with gloves and papers. Boxes with the FedEx labels still attached, showing shipment labels from factories in Asia, surround the workspace, spilling over onto a big worktable to the side. Half of a cowhide sits rolled up on the floor.

In an office where aesthetics were so important, no one seems to mind the clutter, because the desk belongs to the "Jedi Master."

"The Jedi Master" is Shigeaki Aso, the development manager for baseball and softball gloves. After nearly 30 years as a glove designer, and as the mind behind some of Wilson's most popular retail and specialized gloves, Aso has earned the right to make a bit of a mess.

"No one else has a guy like Aso," said Jim Hackett, the general manager of baseball and softball at Wilson.

Aso's primary duty is to develop Wilson's retail glove lines, which include the hugely popular A2000 models -- the gloves anyone can buy in a sporting goods store. But that is not his favorite part of his job. What Aso likes best, and does best, is to work with athletes to customize gloves to their specifications.

A glance into an open box on Aso's desk reveals a row of gloves with the name "Magglio Ordonez" stitched on the side. On Aso's computer desktop is a photo of his 4-year-old daughter helping to break in a glove that will soon be on Barry Bonds' right hand.

Half of the position players starting in the All-Star Game, and 10 other All-Star reserves and pitchers, wore gloves Aso helped design.

His skill, which leads to his popularity among Major Leaguers, stems from his ability to observe. Aso can create the beginnings of a specialized glove pattern just by looking at photos of a player fielding on the Internet. He can determine how thick the glove should be by putting his hand palm-to-palm with the player's. And if he can get a player's game-used glove, Aso can design the perfect glove nearly every time.

"If I see a player's glove, I would say 90 percent is right," he said.

Hackett puts the chances of success a little higher.

"I don't remember a time when he didn't get it right if he got to see a player's old glove," he said.

Since 1985, Aso has been working with Major Leaguers to design gloves.

Born in Toride-chi, Japan, in 1945, he began work as an inspector at a glove factory that Wilson contracted with in 1974. After a while, he realized he had a knack not only for inspecting, but for designing gloves as well.

"After about five years, I realized I had become kind of an expert," Aso said.

His first breakthrough as a glove designer came in 1986. In the early 1980s, Wilson was considered a trendsetter in outfield gloves and in catcher and first baseman mitts, but their selection of infielder gloves was seriously lacking.

"Our infielder glove then was not good," Aso said. "The fingers were too long. It wasn't good at all."

So Aso designed the 1786 model and introduced it to Major Leaguers during Spring Training. The glove put Wilson on the map with infielders. Since that time, the glove has been specialized and tweaked for specific players, but the general model is still one of the most popular infielder gloves that Wilson sells.

That is part of the philosophy that Aso has developed during his 11 years as a full-time employee with Wilson: work from the top down. Take glove designs that are popular with Major Leaguers and translate those designs into retail models.

Aso worked closely with Mets third baseman David Wright to design an infielder's glove to fit his hand. Wright put pressure on the thumb in an unconventional way and dramatically shifted his palm to the outside of the mitt to help take spin off the ball. Aso, who was based in Arizona at the time Wright signed as a Wilson client, flew to Florida for a 30-minute meeting with the Mets infielder to work out the design details.

Wright loved the mitt and still uses it today. An enormous poster of Wright now sits in the Wilson headquarters, proudly showcasing one of the company's up-and-coming stars.

But Wright is not the only player who now gets to enjoy his glove. Aso turned the basic Wright model into an infielder's glove that is commercially available at a number of price ranges, from the most expensive Wilson makes to the cheapest children's glove.

Softball star pitcher Cat Osterman has a similar story. After Osterman finished her career at the University of Texas, she decided to sign with Wilson and Aso on the condition she could meet him first and see his work.

At the meeting at the former Chicago headquarters, Aso showed Osterman the preliminary glove design.

"When I showed her the first design, she liked it but asked that I take the knot off from the back of the fingers," Aso said. "I asked her why. She showed me how it hit her leg every time and left a bruise. So we got rid of the knot."

Osterman is pitching with the Aso-designed glove in the ongoing World Cup. The "Cat" line of commercially available softball gloves has no knot on the back -- at the pitcher's insistence.

Her story is proof that even after 30 years in the business, Aso is still learning. He fondly recalls the glove he created with Greg Maddux in 1997.

Maddux was having a problem in the late 90s because batters were apparently able to tell what pitch he was going to throw by how he was touching his glove. So Maddux came to Aso looking for a glove with a wider pocket that would better mask his pitches.

Maddux explained that when he gripped the ball to throw a circle changeup, he would bump the side of his glove because the pocket was too narrow. Hitters could see the glove moving and would pick up on the pitch.

"If the glove is too narrow, the touch will help hitters recognize the pitch," Aso said while demonstrating on a baseball he picked up off his desk. "Fixing a problem like that makes a player very satisfied. There was no more tipping, and it helped relax the player. I learned so much from Greg Maddux."

Because of the quality of his gloves, Aso has become a popular man during Spring Training. He spends his time helping players find gloves that work for them. His success with a few major stars made his gloves popular among other big leaguers. He helped design a glove for catcher Ivan Rodriguez, the "Pudge Model," that became the hot item for catchers one spring.

"Pudge wanted a smaller glove," Aso said. "He catches the ball very differently than other catchers and wanted an extended palm and a smaller web. Within two years, a lot of catchers wanted that mitt."

And while players from big leaguers to Little Leaguers use Aso's gloves, he remains very far behind the scenes, working at a messy desk in an office building just minutes from O'Hare Airport.

In his career with Wilson, Aso has put his name on just one glove out of the 20 or so different base models that he has created. It's the A2000 ASO with its specially designed webbing.

But Aso does not design gloves for the recognition. He does it for the players.

He told the story of the glove he designed for Kirby Puckett in 1992.

"I met him and made a special glove for him," Aso said. "He really liked the glove and tried to ask other players to use the model. I would see him at Spring Training every few years or so. He never forgot my name. That was special for me."

Alex Gyr is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.