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Mozart, Francisco Lindor, and questions of genius

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There are some unusual similarities between the Austrian composer and the Puerto Rican shortstop

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At age 22, Francisco Lindor may already be one of the best defensive shortstops of our era. It's easy to claim that he's just a freakish natural athlete; that his success on the diamond is guaranteed by his genetic makeup. The average person could practice every single day, and they would never reach the same level of performance.

By age 21, Mozart reached international fame. When people discuss the short list of true, natural-born geniuses in the history of the world, his is always one of the first to come up. I've even been told that a friend's father believes in God partially because of the beauty of his music; how else could it come to be if not through divine intervention, he wonders.

The parallels between two people who could not appear to be any more different at first glance are surprising, and they shed light on what the roots of perceived genius may be. Modern research suggests that improving a skill requires deliberate practice that pushes someone beyond their current capabilities. In other words, you won't get better if you stay within your comfort zone. This is not something that normal people enjoy, but Lindor and Mozart experienced this kind of practice at a very young age, and in similar circumstances.

Mozart's father — a music teacher — gave piano lessons to his daughter. Mozart would always be around to watch. As his sister later reminisced,

He often spent much time at the clavier, picking out thirds, which he was ever striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good.... In the fourth year of his age his father, for a game as it were, began to teach him a few minuets and pieces at the clavier.... He could play it faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time.... At the age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down.

— Otto Erich Deutsch (According to Wikipedia anyway)

This is exactly the kind of practice that leads to improvement. Mozart, out of his own desire to learn and improve, picked up an instrument on his own and started fooling around with it, then tried to integrate the lessons he learned while watching his sister. Encouragement from a loved one and a little bit of sibling rivalry almost certainly helped, and being given a chance to riff off of the early songs he'd learned definitely put him out of his comfort zone.

Miguel Lindor pushed his son the same way.

While Miguel Lindor helped hone his son's first step and fundamentals, he also encouraged him to try trick plays during their ground-ball sessions. It helped to have his older brother, Miguel, and cousin, Christian, taking grounders with him when he was young. The elder Lindor would throw some verbal jabs their way, convincing them to show off a little more.

Francisco Lindor did what he could to not only keep up, but to one-up.

"I was always taught that making plays was pretty cool," Lindor said. "[My dad] would make me catch a lot of ground balls, and he always made it fun. It was never right at me. It was to the side. He let me have fun with it. He'd let me do tricks. He'd hit me a ground ball and he'd be like, 'All right, try to do something nice.'"

— Jordan Bastian

Again, we have a very young person with obvious aptitude and love for a specific hobby being pushed by a father just beyond the limits of their abilities. In addition to words of encouragement, he admits that he wants to one up his siblings, the same way a young Mozart sitting in the room tapping along wanted to show up his. Even when Lindor mastered a ground ball, he to tried and make it even better by adding some flair, or a trick. Once Mozart became competent in pre-existing minuets, he started to make them his own.

Many geniuses also point out the influence that early greats in their field had on their development. Shakespeare — who spent his younger years as an actor, learning others' work before writing his own — borrowed heavily from the work of Terence and Plautus and the characters of Commedia Dell'arte; Mozart admired the works of Bach, Handel, and Haydn; Francisco Lindor openly admits that he's tried to incorporate aspects of Omar Vizquel, Roberto Alomar, and Alex Rodriguez into his own game. The key in each case is that they used their idols as a platform from which to build their own unique talents.

Three different eras, three different crafts, but strangely similar circumstances and training leading to the same outcome: brilliance. However, the truly brilliant don't shine as bright amongst their peers anymore. How much better than his counterparts would Francisco Lindor be in 1941? According to experts (and common sense) the reason we no longer see a .400 hitter is because the average level of performance from all baseball players is improved due to our better understanding of training and the wider pool of talent from which players are drawn. As such, the most talented hitters of today are facing better fielders and pitchers on average. People have even tried to compare, based on standard deviations, how hitters from different eras stack up.

Still, there's a part of me that refuses to believe that genius can be systematically broken down. We can throw all of the statistical analysis and historical anecdotes at it we want. I listen to some of the things Mozart composed, and I watch some of the things Lindor does on the field, and I can't let go of the idea that some people are simply born to do certain things. Maybe that's just an excuse I use to rationalize my mediocrity.

Or maybe real genius is finding joy in the practice itself; in being outside of one's comfort zone and always wanting to do just a little bit more. See Larry Bird, spending every moment between classes in the gym. See James Joyce, rewriting portions of Ulysses even after it's gone to the printing press.

See Francisco Lindor, teeth flashing whiter than the keys of a piano, reaching a little bit farther than yesterday to field a hard hit ground ball.