Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ichiro: Farewell to a Master of the Craft

After 11 magnificent years Ichiro Suzuki asked to be traded from the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners obliged as only the Mariners can. They traded him to the New York Yankees on the very day they played the Yanks. Ichiro started against the team he had symbolized for a decade and got a hit: of course the Yankees won.

For ten years Ichiro has often been the only good thing about the Mariners. Cliff Lee passed through, and Felix Hernandez blossomed. But the team remained mired at the bottom of the league in offense and piled up ninety loss seasons, all the while Ichiro plied his game and the game of baseball with smooth well crafted excellence.

His batting skills had declined over the last three years as he passed into Bill James' statistical decline territory of the late thirties, and recently the Seattle media and baseball pundits have turned on him with a vengeance, forgetting the years of service, excellence and unflinching professionalism.They attacked his salary and aloofness and lowered production for the salary. I remembered once again why athletes must develop an internal composure and confidence because they cannot rely upon fans. I experienced this decline, but on a team bound to lose 90 plus games forever, he remained its best hitter. But I choose to recall his years of excellence. I believe he exemplifies a particular approach to sport and sport ethics. Ichiro Suzuki epitomized an athlete as a master of a craft.

At the heart of all professional achievement beats an ethic of craftsmanship. Each craft aims at a goal that requires mastery of small exquisite actions that are integrated into a whole addressing a challenge. Eye-hand coordination aligns with cognitive recognition and combines with deploying sensory and mental skills to remove an appendix, deliver a lecture, build a chair or hit a 2.7 inch ball breaking into you at 96 miles per hour.

I remember the quiet week Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners became the first person in history to have nine 200 hit seasons. He added this to eight gold gloves and single season record of 268 hits in 2004. His exemplary historical accomplishments illustrate the moral core of athletics craft mastery.

Each craft possess a vision of success and rules of skill that a person must learn to achieve that vision. The rules and skills are only the beginning. People can be indifferent or competent at what they do. Real mastery requires more. Mediocre and just so craftsmen approach work as a job without commitment to grow and perfect the skill. They go through the motions getting to acceptable outcomes much like a cook can slavishly follow a cookbook and get an eatable meal. Too many people of talent end up acceptable because they will not pay the price of mastery. Others possess enough talent to succeed but never achieve greatness because they will not combine the talent+skill+commitment needed.

Modern research suggests it takes up to 7000 hours of hard focused work to master a complex craft. More research suggests that what separates people with similar talent is the amount of reflective practice they devote to learning and improving their performance. This thoughtful discipline integrates mind, body and decision in a unique style of execution.

This uniqueness stamps their approach and product. Ichiro always arrives very early and undertakes a ritual of physical and mental preparations. His supple stretch before each at bat captures this. Yet no one would start out teaching youngsters to hit with his a tight controlled sweep that dominates the field and uses the plate and infield like a canvas. You can recognize the swing of a master as an expression of relentlessly practiced consistency. He has learned each year to adapt to pitchers as they adapt to him. Despite the singular focus on him, he improves. His fielding represents a triumph of anticipation, feline grace and speed. Even in his decline his arm still paralyzes running games. Master craftsmanship reaches consistency and maintains consistency by improvement and adaptation. This is what it takes to get 200 hits for nine seasons in a succession, a record that held for 108 years.

George Wills’ elegant book Men at Work explores baseball as a perfect illustration of the intelligence, talent, diligence and constant learning required of excellence in sport or life. Craft masters possess healthy egos that motivate the time and discipline. But they never let the ego override their respect for the integrity of craft. They are humble before their craft and that humility enables them to learn and grow. Their ego does not distract their practice, focus and preparation.

When Ichiro was asked about the records, he answered as a craft master.  “I always want to feel satisfaction, but when I accomplish a record, I only feel relief." Earlier he expressed a good lesson for how to relate to the task at hand. He spoke of the need to avoid setting records as goals because they made the got in the way of his potential. A true craftsman and superb athlete, he never stops growing and learning. The country of Japan has a designation of "national treasure" it bestows upon living embodiments of mastery of a craft. Ichiro deserved such a title for baseball.

In his comments upon leaving the Mariners, Ichiro mentioned that he wanted to make room for the young Mariners that the team needed to develop. He expressed hope that his new team will give him new challenges--trust me the Yankees will--but above all he expressed his profound gratitude to the Seattle Mariners fans. I can only reciprocate.

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