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Interview with minor league pitcher and artist Blake McFarland, Part One

Blake McFarland

The opening of the minor-league season is upon us. Players have been assigned to rosters, found host families, and begun to settle into their new environs. Minor-league baseball can be an up-and-down experience, as players are shifted from level to level based on performance (or lack thereof), or simply the needs of another roster in the organization.

But I wonder, sometimes: what does a baseball player do when there’s no opening day assignment, no team to which they have to report, no roster spot for them any longer? What do players do when they’re no longer players?

Some start their own baseball training schools, or sell lessons to Little Leaguers and their parents. Others may go into real estate, or sports management, or auto sales. As individuals, they are more than the sum of their box scores; each player has interests or hobbies, or even professional skills outside of the game.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a young man who now finds himself outside of the game, though on his own terms. His name is Blake McFarland, and he was signed as a free agent by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011. He certainly put up some good seasons during his six-year minor-league career, but there’s an awful lot more to him than his skill with a baseball.

In Part One of this interview, Blake spoke with me a bit about some of his experiences in the game, as well as another passion of his that he seemingly stumbled upon as a child, one which has made his transition to “retired professional baseball player” much easier.

Clinton Riddle: Can we start off with the baseball side of things? I noticed that you hadn’t really committed solely to baseball until you got to college. Was there any sort of specific reason for that? Did you have other interests that took away from your time? Were you decisive about it before you went to college?

Blake McFarland: Not at all. I was actually a football player, so out of high school I got three offers for football and nothing for baseball. For me, you know, deep in my heart I love baseball more, but I was actually a lot better at football at the time. I’d always been a big guy in high school.

I was six-foot-five, 240 pounds as a tight end, and had a lot of colleges looking at me. So what I ended up doing is I went to junior college and I played both for the first year. I actually red-shirted in baseball and I played football the first year. From then on, I knew I was still better at football, but I just absolutely loved baseball. And then, that year, I kind of progressed in terms of velocity, and I got a scholarship to San Jose State out of that. That’s kind of what sparked everything.

CR: In that first year, they named you Rookie of The Year, you were First Team All-WAC, as I recall, and things really took off. Was there any sort of specific, new focus or something you concentrated on that you would credit for helping you succeed in that first year as a pro?

BM: It was a pitching coach by the name of Tom Kunis, and I think the world of this guy. He honestly worked with me every single day, you know, developing my pitches, my pitching style, mechanics, and he really honed my craft. But aside from him, my grandfather actually was the head coach at Santa Clara University for about ten years. So between my grandfather and Tom Kunis, I really progressed in my college career.

CR: Could you take me from the first of the month before you were drafted? To the point that the Blue Jays picked you up, did you have other teams calling you, any other team showing interest? Did you have an idea of who you’d like to go to, if you had your pick?

BM: OK, it’s a month before the draft. You actually sign all these little waivers from every team. They’ll give you something like a little flyer, and you fill it out. And I was always super-excited to get all these flyers; you know, that was a pretty cool experience. But in the long run, flyers really don’t mean a whole lot to a lot of people.

But a month off from the draft, you know, I thought I was going to get picked between the thirtieth and fortieth rounds on draft day. So I’m waiting by the phone, they’re reading all the names, and by this point I’ve seen a bunch of my buddies get picked up. You know, I never saw my name. So that was...I was kind of heartbroken from that point because, you know, this is obviously a dream of mine.

BM: So right after the draft is finished, you know, fifty rounds go by, and I actually had a call from the Diamondbacks. They said “hey, we’re going to stay in touch with you for the next round.” This is actually around the late-forties, round-wise. They weren’t saying “we’re going to take you”, nothing like that. So it actually didn’t end up happening. It was a rough day for me. But as soon as the draft ended, I actually got a call from the Blue Jays, first. They offered me a free agent contract and I asked them some questions; “where do you see me starting out? As starter or reliever?”, and that sort of thing. And you know, the guy who drafted me, Randy Kramer, who spoke the world of me, he knew me. He definitely put me on the board. It just didn’t happen (in the draft). But from then on, and after talking to Randy, you know, it convinced me that I wanted to play for the Blue Jays. So it was an interesting process.

CR: Speaking of the process, what was that first year like, adjusting to pro ball? Any specific difficulties, anything that you didn’t quite expect about life as a pro ball player?

BM: Yeah. Actually there’s some I’ve never really spoken about, before. Throwing in college, you know, you’re throwing once every seven days, and my elbow would actually be super-sore and I would literally not pick up a ball for three days after I pitched. I wasn’t going to pick up a ball for two or three days, and then it was just ice non-stop. Then by the second day I was feeling good again. In pro ball as a starter, not only is it every five days, but you have a bullpen as well, so that was a huge change for me. I don’t know what it was for me, but sure enough, the crazy thing is when you’ve thrown through (the pain) a little bit, it starts to fade. But I’d say, at first, I was sore for a month, month and a half.

BM: But then it just completely went away. It was absolutely gone. And I never had a sore elbow after that for more than a day or two. So it was kind of like I just needed to throw through it. Once you get over that hump, then you’re fine, you’re good to go. And that was honestly one of the biggest changes I’ve had, in that it happened the very first year of my career.

I’ve heard that before. It seems that, for whatever reason, some guys can do that. They will be incredibly sore for awhile, you know, or they try to pitch through it and it doesn’t work for them, but others can get on this regimen and that soreness just disappears. I can’t say I understand it.

BM: It’s really, really weird. I’m glad. I’m just glad it actually worked, you know.

CR: Let’s talk about Dunedin, for a moment. A lot of people will say that Double-A is really kind of a make-or-break level for a lot of prospects. And it seems especially true for pitchers. Was it dramatically different for you, or did you just go through your usual routine?

BM: So I’ll tell you a little back-story. My first year at Vancouver, Low-A, I didn’t have a very good year. My second year at Lansing, I had a really poor year and I thought I was going to get released for sure. There was no way they were calling me back there. And I knew I had a very, very low chance of making a team unless I changed something. And one of the guys that, to this day, I believe had the greatest influence on my career is Rick Langford. He’s now in player development for the Blue Jays. At the time, he was actually a rehab coordinator. So I was throwing a bullpen, and there’s all of these other guys throwing. He comes up and says, “Hey, McFarland, did you ever throw a splitter? You know, you’ve got these big hands. Have you ever tried it?” I said no, I’ve never tried it. So he shows me the grip and tells me how to throw it. It’s just like a fastball, basically. And I ended up throwing it, and it dove naturally, but it doesn’t always go exactly how you want it. That day, I ended up striking out two guys on my splitter that I had just learned around ten minutes before that.

BM: That was honestly the biggest change, really. And not only that, it I went from throwing the two-seamer to throwing a four-seamer, going down on everything in the zone, then I would get elevated and I would get guys on high strikes. So I was a completely different pitcher than I was in the first two years. I actually started closing, and improving on what I had learned the previous two years.

CR: I want to ask you about your art, for a moment. We’re obviously going to speak about the tire sculptures that you’ve done (note: more on that in Part Two). I wanted to ask you, also, about your painting. Actually, I saw the video that your local TV station did, and there’s a little bit online, and some of the examples of the artwork you’ve done, painting-wise. When did art become an interest for you? Was this something that happened early on and you discovered you had a talent for it? Was it something you wanted to develop, or did you just sort of accidentally discover an artistic talent?

BM: OK...I’m 18 years old, and it’s kind of funny how it started. My parents have an oil painting. It was a koi fish painting in one of their rooms, and you know, I’ve walked by this painting my entire life and I never really stopped and actually looked at it. I look at it, one day, and it’s like a bunch of scribble, like just a painted fish that honestly to me it looked like a five year old painted it! I went up to my mom and I say, “Mom, you know, this painting...I could do something way better than that.” And that’s kind of how it started. So, actually, that day I went out and I bought my first little acrylic paints set, I bought a canvas, and I actually painted an ocean theme. So, the koi fish...a family friend bought it from me (my very first sale) because she loved it so much. From there, I kind of started painting a lot more and I have done, I don’t know, hundreds of paintings. I mean, I’m sure I don’t really have pictures of the old ones. Been since I was eighteen, until now. I’ve done a lot of painting, and I love it. It’s fun.

CR: So you basically just fell into it. I mean, did you do any sketching, before then? Any serious drawing, or something similar to that?

BM: Oh yeah, absolutely. Growing up, I was on the guy that was always drawing something. In fact, I’m actually drawing something right now. Like scribbling I did, in school. On my downtime, or maybe when I was bored in class, I would always draw. I still have, you know, five or six full notebooks with artwork on each page from when I was young, and you know, sketching was a big part of my childhood. I guess along with that is I was always making things when I was really young, and my dad is really kind of a handyman. He does pretty much everything. I’m lucky enough to grow up with a garage full of hundreds of different tools that I got to play around with, and to work with a lot of sketching and a lot of making random things.

CR: What’s the visualization process like for someone with natural artistic talent? Do you sometimes struggle with visualizing what you want to create? Are you ever overly-critical of your own work?

BM: Honestly, I have to work at my art. I have to work out things (before I create something). I need to use a reference picture for my drawing. Let’s say I need to draw a dog, and I find a photo in which I liked a certain facial feature, or something of that nature. It’s things like that I have to go off. But when you’re talking about just drawing a scene or a landscape, I could do that off the top of my head. But when it actually requires small details and intricate positioning of things, I actually have to use references and I’ve got to put work into it.

(In Part Two of this interview, Blake discusses how he has progressed, artistically, and the opportunities that his talent has afforded him. We will also talk about how it led him to creating centerpieces for the 2016 and 2017 Cotton Bowl Classic, and how this exposure took his artwork to new heights.)