The Most Talented Man Who Never Pitched in the Majors

Blake McFarland, center, saw his talents expand beyond the field. (Courtesy of Blake McFarland)

He’s not in the game anymore, but in the midst of his career, Blake McFarland was almost indisputably the most talented guy in baseball in a particular sort of way.

During his six minor league seasons in the Blue Jays organization, the right-hander posted unspectacular numbers – he had a 4.07 ERA over 327 innings with 104 walks, 308 strikeouts, and a 1.30 WHIP – but left his teammates in awe of what he could do off the field.

McFarland ventured into the world of art when he was 20 years old, getting his start with a paintbrush after noticing a painting at his parents’ house that he told his mother was ugly, before adding that he, “could do better.” And he did.

“So my very first painting I had to teach myself how to do it and I did an ocean scene,” McFarland said. “Actually, one of my parents’ friends liked it so much they bought it from me. And from them on, I started painting.”

“Everything started with painting scenery and landscapes and in my first two years of pro ball, 2011 and 2012, in the off-season I would actually paint and that was my job. I’d sell the paintings. That’s how I got involved in the art world, and that transpired into other mediums of work.”

Many of McFarland’s friends, family, and teammates had seen drawings he had compiled over the years. So though some of them might not have been surprised that he ventured into painting, what came next was as unexpected to anyone he knew as it has been to the art world.

“In 2012 during the off-season, my wife [Jessica] and I were in St. Louis and we drove by this playground where there were a bunch of tractor tires stacked up in a dragon-snake-serpent design,” the 30-year-old said. “It sparked my interest. Tires were not being used anywhere – you see them on the side of the road all over the place – and maybe it’s something to work with. From there, I had to teach myself that entire thing, too, which took some time.”

Those closest to him agree that the tire sculptures McFarland has put together are the most impressive of his pieces. Two years ago, when Goodyear began to sponsor the Cotton Bowl, it commissioned the player-turned-artist to make tire sculptures resembling the mascots of the teams in the final. Last year, they made the same request, and this year, they want four sculptures.

“My favorite piece is probably the USC Trojan,” McFarland said. “I did that [piece] this past year. I really like doing human anatomy, and I think I depict that pretty well with tires. That piece came out really well. I was pretty pumped about it…

McFarland’s tire sculpture of Tommy Trojan, the USC mascot. (Photo courtesy of Blake McFarland.)

“Goodyear donates them to all the schools, so those sculptures are at all the schools – USC, Western Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State – on campus now. I will be doing it this year for the top four teams of the NCAA football playoff, so that will be fun. That’s probably going to be the most difficult thing I’ve probably ever done. To do two of them in 20 days is near impossible and now I’m doing four.”

The beginning of McFarland’s venture into tire art was a work in progress for the former hurler, who has used his talent – combined with just plain old stubbornness – to find success.

“The more you tell other people that you want to do something, the more you kind of have to do it,” he said. “I’m all or nothing, so when I think of something I go full speed at it. I was asking people what they thought about it, so at that point I had to do it.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“My first one was a little jaguar, and it was a big experiment because I started with car tires, not realizing they were all steel-reinforced. I tried five or six commercial saws to cut them and nothing would cut them, so from there I picked up some motorcycle tires and off-road tires, and they were a little easier to work with but still very tough. I finally found bicycle tires and realized I could work with them, so that’s what I’ve been mostly using.”

McFarland’s first tire sculpture. (Photo courtesy of Blake McFarland.)

When McFarland found success with his experimental artwork, he still had an issue gaining exposure, and lacked an understanding of the world of art. So, he took a chance. The native of San Jose printed up flyers with highlights of his work, and took them to local galleries, often slipping them under the doors of those galleries when they were closed.

“I actually stuck one under the door of Vernon Davis’ art gallery,” McFarland said. “He’s a professional tight end for the Redskins and at the time he was with the Niners. He owns an art gallery in San Jose, so I slipped it under his door and he actually saw the flyer, called me, and he was the first gallery that took me in, and he bought my first two tire sculptures.”

McFarland also began to share his work on his own website and through social media, and he quickly gained the attention and fandom of several of the guys he was already spending all of his time around.

“It’s mostly teammates that I know personally,” McFarland said. “Like [now-Texas Rangers pitcher Austin] Bibens-Dirkx, he was the first one who actually bought one of my pieces. It was a wine cork fleur-de-lis. We were playing during the season and he really liked what I was making…

“Then I did a couple paintings for Max Pentecost and Rowdy Tellez. During spring training they talked to me about wanting a couple pieces of artwork and I was more than happy to do that for them.”

Tellez knew he wanted a piece of artwork from McFarland, but didn’t know what. So he gave the pitcher a little instruction and a lot of freedom, never seeing the final product until it was completely finished.

“I’d seen a lot of his stuff since we first met when I signed with the Blue Jays,” the Buffalo Bisons infielder said. “But I think the whole country started to figure it out when he got to do the Cotton Bowl. He’s insane. It’s so cool to watch him do that kind of stuff…

“I had seen hand-drawn art and some other paintings he had done for fun, and I asked him to do a huge painting for my house. He asked what I wanted and I didn’t know so I told him just to do something and he suggested the Sierra Nevada [mountains]. They’re in California and I said, ‘Yeah, do that.’ He found a picture, and he completely surprised me. I didn’t see any of it. He saved it in a time lapse and sent it to me, and then gave me the picture. It’s cool.”

Pentecost had a few more specifics in mind when he commissioned McFarland to help him decorate his house with some original artwork, but shared the same positive reaction as Tellez.

“I knew about the sculptures he made out of the tires, and then we were down [in Florida] early before spring training last year, getting ready for spring training, and he did a painting for Rowdy,” the catcher for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats said. “I had just gotten a bird dog, and I decided to ask him if he could do a painting of my puppy, bird hunting. He came up with a design and drew it out, and just painted it. It was really cool.

Max Pentecost, his bird dog, and the painting he commissioned from McFarland. (Photo courtesy of Blake McFarland.)

“I actually have a room back home in my house where I pretty much have all my hunting stuff; all my deer heads and everything. I put that painting right up on the middle of one of the walls. It’s the first thing you see pretty much.”

Though the end results have never disappointed McFarland’s clients, he is quick to share that, as in baseball, he has experienced many failures along the way.

“Nothing’s right from the start, nothing at all,” he said. “For example, the first tire sculpture – that took around two months of trial and error. First I had to figure out the bike tires; that took a couple weeks, and then you have to figure out how to attach these things to the form. I tried all these different glues, and it’s really failure after failure until something sticks.

“I finally learned that wood screws into a dense polyurethane foam will work, so there’s a lot of failure before you get it right or how I like. Even on my finished sculptures, like with the paint drip ones, there are still areas where I just have to be done with it. It’s a lot of experimentation, and trial and error, and a ton of failures that I don’t show.”

And even with a number of commissioned pieces, a few of which garnered tens of thousands of dollars in commissions, and featured artwork in venues such as Gallery 85, McFarland still isn’t comfortable equating himself with his work.

“Still today, I don’t really consider myself an artist,” he said. “I just like to make cool stuff. I’m the least artist-like person. I think of artists going to art galleries, and doing things like that, but I just like to make cool stuff that people haven’t seen before. I honestly don’t involve myself in the art world too much other than that, and that’s how I want to keep it. When I played baseball, I always considered myself a baseball player, and just someone who likes to make things in the off-season.”

McFarland’s creative side actually first crossed over into his baseball career when he was playing in the Florida State League, where he delved into the recycling of wasted food items with his roommate Arik Sikula.

“We always watched Shark Tank together and would always come up with random ideas and different things,” Sikula said. “In 2013, we started making little protein bars out of the recycled [food] from Whole Foods. They make smoothies and then get rid of their waste from vegetables and fruit. They juice it and serve the juice but don’t do anything with the leftovers.

“We ended up getting their recycled scraps and putting it with our own protein powder, and we actually cooked it at the Dunedin facility and made protein bars that we would give to the guys at spring training…The guy can come up with any idea, and turn it into gold.”

When the two played together in the Arizona Fall League in 2014, they also made wine cork art as a team because it was something they could do to stay busy, and artwork they could put together at their temporary apartment. Sikula has seen firsthand the array of talents McFarland can utilize, and believes his friend could do any number of things and find similar success.

“It’s hard to argue against the uniqueness of the tires,” Sikula said. “I don’t know anyone else who does that. And he does all this stuff underwater too. He does his scuba stuff just for fun, and I feel like he could go professional in scuba diving. He has the all-around talent of being an artist, an athlete, and just as a kind-hearted person.”

Added Tellez: “He can do it all. He surfs, he spearfishes, he does everything. Blake’s definitely one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. Outside of baseball, it has to be him, with all he can do.”

This spring was really where it hit home for McFarland and his teammates that the righty was moving on from baseball, and though it was a tough realization, they all believe it was made easier because of the former player’s affinity for so many other things.

“It was kind of tough to not see Blake at spring training,” Tellez said. “But I know he’s extremely happy with his life, and I would be too, with everything he’s done and accomplished. He’s doing great things as an artist, and as a human. He’s a phenomenal person. I never actually got to play with him but I was hurt with him, and then spring trainings, and living in Florida, I would see him a lot.”

Said Pentecost: “It’s always sad to see people go, especially because we actually rehabbed together a good bit. We both had shoulder surgeries, so we had a lot of time to get to know each other and do some fishing together. But everybody thinks baseball players, that this is all they have in life. Sometimes it’s really just a job.

“Everybody has their hobbies which they really enjoy. A lot of times they use it to get their minds away from baseball, but after baseball they can use it as their means of income. I know he enjoys doing artwork, so I’m sure he’ll be happy enough doing that, but it’s always sad to see someone’s career come to an end, especially because of injuries.”

For McFarland, the decision to leave the game he loves wasn’t one he came to of his own volition.

“It made it easy because I couldn’t play anymore,” he said. “There was no choice. I had shoulder surgery in 2016 and after two years of rehabbing it just did not get better. That was the first thing and that was very easy for me to say, ‘I can’t throw a ball, so I’m done.’

“But it also did give me relief that I know exactly what I want to do, so it was probably a lot easier for me probably than a lot of guys. It’s still difficult being out of the game now, seeing all your buddies playing, and having that dream for so long and it just coming to a complete halt. It is tough still, but I did have it easier than a lot of guys.”

And next on the docket, after he completes a second painting for Tellez – the subject of which has once again been completely left up to the artist – and prepares for the upcoming Cotton Bowl, is a contest.

“Art Prize is the world’s largest art contest,” McFarland said. “I actually didn’t know anything about it until two years ago. I would get emails from people saying I should enter the contest but I didn’t think anything of it.

“I finally did some research, and it’s basically the biggest art contest in the world, where people come from all over to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in September and October and it’s a publicly-voted art contest…I’m going to enter it this year for the first time and I’m very excited about it. It will be a really good opportunity.”

The event takes place over two-and-a-half weeks, and is free and open to the public. Winners have a chance for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes, and McFarland couldn’t be more excited about the piece he’s decided upon for the prestigious occasion.

“It’s titled, ‘World at War,’ and it’s going to be a hulk human coming out of a pile of actual garbage that I hand select, which is going to be interesting,” he said. “It’s recycled tires, this hulk human coming out of the garbage, and he’s going to be holding up a globe, the world basically, and the world’s going to be crumbling down.

“The whole piece is going to be symbolic of conservation, and the whole thing’s going to be made out of recycled material, so the meaning behind it is going to be as cool as the actually appearance, which hopefully will do well at an event like that, so I’m really excited about it.”

Though his first career has reached its end, it seems as though McFarland has found a way to embrace another. He doesn’t ever see himself fully immersed in the world of art, but as long as he can keep making a living, he’ll keep producing artwork.

“My dream would be just to make whatever I want to make and then have them sell,” he said. “That would be it. I’m not a salesman, and I don’t even know where to begin to try to sell them, but I really enjoy creating, and that’s what I want to stick to.”

A competitive baseball player growing up, Alexis Budnicki has worked for the Toronto Blue Jays, and written for Baseball America, the Australian Baseball League and Canadian Baseball Network, among others. Follow her on Twitter @baseballexis.

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