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Interview with pitcher Blake McFarland, Part Two

Talented artist shares his vision off the mound

(Part One of Blake McFarland’s interview with Clinton Riddle is here)

Clinton Riddle: One thing I wanted to ask you about 2016. Your stats really jumped from 2015 to 2017, and I wanted to ask you about that. When 2016 came around, what happened? Your contract had expired or you were released, I don’t see which it was. They re-signed to a few days later. This was back in August of that year. But what happened to the rest of the year?

Blake McFarland: I was injured the whole year. I got put on 40-man roster, one of the highlights of my career, being able to go into Spring Training in 2016 with, you know, really high hopes for finally making the big club. Um, it wasn’t until probably three games into Spring Training...and again, my shoulder didn’t feel terrible. It just felt a little bit different.

But it wasn’t like it was enough to take me out of the game, but the next day I could not pick up a baseball, and I knew something was wrong. So, from there I tried to rehab for a month. Still had the same pain, and I went and saw three or four different doctors. I did get a cortisone shot after another month of rehabbing. So now we’re two months into the season, and I went to see another doctor and get another opinion. He said surgery. So I ended up getting surgery.

CR: And they started you off that year on the DL. So I’m assuming it was a decision they made during ST, but they just floated you somewhere else until they had to make a roster decision.

BM: I ended up having surgery, went through that whole rehab thing, that year. And what happened in August was that they needed a spot on the 40-man. You know, take a guy off to put a guy on. But that was kind of my whole year, just rehabbing the shoulder.

CR: What was your return like? Did you have to make any sort of adjustments, after that? Did you notice any change in your velocity? Was it a bumpy road for you getting back on the field, or did it happen pretty smoothly?

BM: It was honestly a very, very bumpy road, and a very tough time, and my shoulder really wasn’t cooperating. So I went the whole off season 2016, 2017, rehabbing, except for the two months I spent in Florida for ST. but I was still rehabbing when ST came around. And I can’t say anything but the best about the Blue Jays’ trainers, and obviously Nikki helping me to get to know the trainers. Jose helped me like crazy every day. But, you know, it didn’t come around...

Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

(pauses) I’m sorry. I’m speaking a little ahead of myself. It did feel better once ST started in 2017. It never felt the same as it previously had, but it was good enough to pitch. So I ended up rehabbing until a month after the team started playing, and I ended up really hurting my shoulder after seven innings, and I was back on the DL, more cortisone, and I actually did PRP, which is plasma-rich, platelets.

I’d tried everything. We rehabbed like crazy and it never came around. And still to this day, I really can’t throw very well.

CR: You’re at a crossroads at this point. You’re having to make some tough decisions.

BM: Yes, yes.

CR: When you finally reached that point, you said, “I’m satisfied with this, with what I’ve done. I’ve made my mark”, and you came into professional baseball and your ERA had just plummeted throughout the seasons. All the peripherals were where they were supposed to be, and it seemed everything looked great. You’re learning all the time on the mound. You’re getting more comfortable and more confident, and getting to that point where you’re proud of your work. Especially as a shorter reliever, you get to that point where you have that cocky confidence, you know? That swagger where you’re just comfortable with knowing what you can do, and what you’re able to do is more than enough for what you have to accomplish.

And then 2018 rolls around. When did you decide that you were ready to call it a career, and was it something that you struggled with a mentally?

BM: Any player will tell you that it’s tough to be rehabbing for a long period of time, especially during the season when all your teammates are playing. It’s very mentally draining. And you know, I went into this off-season still trying to continue to play. And when I started throwing again, it just was not coming around, and so I played catch all the way til December and it was kind of hard when I thought, “this thing isn’t going to come around. It’s been two and a half years now.”

And I’ve done everything I could. I’m happy with the effort I’ve put into this. I’ve done absolutely everything I could possibly do. But at the same time, I knew I had a bright future in my other passion, which was art. So I knew that baseball was over for me, but this just gives me a chance to work on my other passion, and do it full-time. So that’s kind of how I came to terms with being done with baseball.

CR: Yeah. So obviously you’ve got another passion in your life. It seems uncommon to me to find a player who won’t tell me that baseball defines them as a person, at least to some degree, and it seems so many of them don’t have something else to fall back on. And I mean something about which they are just as passionate, something that would make it a lot easier for them to let go of the game when that time comes.

BM: My family influenced my career. So I told them what I was doing. But I can’t thank the Blue Jays enough, not only for the opportunity, but for taking a chance on a non-drafted free agent and giving me seven full years. So that’s pretty cool.

CR: So let’s jump ahead a bit. Let’s talk about that first sculpture.

You had mentioned you had two or three days in order to complete these sculptures, and I know it has to be an incredible amount of work, but let’s go back to the first one. Tell me about how that came about.

BM: So I have websites for these. This was three years ago. You know, I get random emails all the time. People just saying, “hey, how much for drawing?” You got to give the time of day to all of them because you don’t know who’s actually serious. So I ended up getting a email from a marketing company, who brought the idea to me that their client was the Cotton Bowl. “Can you make the mascots out of tires?” At first, I didn’t think this was the real deal. So you know, I was just like, “Oh yeah, sure.”

CR: Kind of odd to hear somebody ask you to do something like that, out of the blue, right? Did part of you say, “OK, who is this? Who puts you up to this?”

BM: Well, I asked, “Are you sure? Like, this is the real deal?” He actually asked me to do this. And you know, sure enough, they wanted it, and I told him I could do it, and so I got all the details.

So now we’re talking working on these sculptures pretty much every day for two months leading up to the Bowl. Now, we had a lot of things in place before I started actually building (the sculptures). And the time frame is by far the hardest part of all; for that first year, I think I had 17 or 18 days.

CR: Oh my goodness.

BM: Yeah (laughs), and that’s because the teams are actually picked on December 3rd. So at that point, I don’t know who’s in it. The hard thing was that two years ago, I want to say, there were eight different potential teams to make it.

So what I had to do is sketch different mascots in different positions and then I had to send it to Goodyear (the sponsor) and the schools, and they would all have to approve the design. So there was a lot of work that went into it even before they were built. Once the NCAA Committee selects the teams, then it’s immediately “go time”. And that was very hectic.

But, you know, we got it done. I had to hire some help for the first time, but we got it done within their time frame.

CR: I’ve watched a little bit of the process. I felt like using tires was a very innovative choice, as a medium. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before. Is it difficult to work with? We’re talking vulcanized rubber and maybe some steel-belted radials?

BM: You know, it’s very hard to work with, but when I first started, I did this little sculpture over two months. Some of them are reinforced to a degree, and they’re also really, really thick. So from there, I went to the bicycle tires, and that is what I use for all my sculptures besides the really good ones. I actually do have car tires in those, as well.

But all my other sculptures are just bicycle tires, and the process is just a matter of cutting those tires a certain way. I actually have to cut them all by hand, and it’s very time consuming. That’s probably one of the most time-consuming parts of the whole process, cutting all these tires.

CR: I’m looking at “Tommy Trojan”, now. I’ve worked in health care pretty much all my life, in one way or another, and I’m pretty familiar with anatomy slides and things of that nature. And I noticed the contours here and the textures, and they’re very suggestive of a musculoskeletal system. As if I’m looking at it on an anatomy slide. Did you reference slides such as those when you sketched these designs, initially?

BM: The crazy thing is, when I first started, I didn’t really think of muscle structure at all, but it wasn’t until probably my second or third sculpture that I realized that the tires really depict muscles very well, and for almost almost every sculpture I do now I have a picture of the anatomy, whether it’s animal, human, whatever it is. I get as detailed as I can to get every single muscle in there.

Obviously, you’re not going to get every single muscle in there, but the major ones certainly.

CR: It definitely shows that you were looking at anatomical illustrations. I was also looking at the torso sculpture you did, and that detail was certainly evident in the Trojans sculpture. Do you have to heat-treat some of these? For example, for the feathers on the eagle sculpture or the feathers on the Trojan’s helmet? Do you have to use a handheld blow torch for some of these to get them to bend the way you want them, to give it more of a natural look? Or is that just part of the look after the rubber has been cut, that it just sort of curls in a certain way and you arrange it accordingly?

BM: Surprisingly, a lot of the time, I actually don’t heat-treat any of the tires, at all. What you’ll get, especially on these recycled tires, is a bunch of different sorts of turns and curls, but you can work with them. All those curves are actually natural curves, and every tire is going to have a little bit different of a curve, and you can actually put the tire on on almost an angle when you cut it to get these curves in the cut pieces.

CR: Tell me about this cougar. When did you do the Cougar?

BM: It was 2014. Still one of my favorite pieces that I’ve done. I really love that.

CR: There’s a lot of detail to this one, especially on the facial expression of the cougar. It’s very detailed, there’s very fine detail on this, especially in the hair on the tail and right down the back. I think that was a fantastic piece.

Something else I wanted to ask you about, off-subject. Part of the reason that I enjoy doing the interviews that I do is that baseball players are represented as baseball players 99 percent of the time, but they are human beings, first and foremost, 100% of the time. And they each have a unique mind and heart, their own wishes, desires, joys, whathaveyou.

Oh! I haven’t touched on the wine cork art. What brought that about? Was it just sort of something that popped into your head, one day?

BM: I was just looking at new ways, new mediums to work in, and we’re in Napa wine country, of course. So I actually started this when I was in the Arizona Fall, and I did my first one there. What we did, it was me and my roommate John Barry, and we ended up driving through the wine valleys. We didn’t know where to get all these corks that we could use. So we ended up driving to restaurants, some higher-end restaurants to find them.

So we’re playing in Arizona Fall League, and every night we would be driving all around Phoenix, hitting up these restaurants and collecting wine corks (laughs). It’s actually kind of funny, but I mean, Eric and John actually helped me on three or four of those and that’s kind of how that started. But I haven’t done one of those in years, so it’s kind of on the back burner, right now.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Austin Bibbins-Dirx, who played with the Rangers for twelve seasons. He actually bought that one, and his wife actually bought that piece. So they have that now.

CR: I’ve tracked his career for some time, now. I mean he’s, he’s been in the game for a long time. He just made his major league debut last year.

I wanted to touch on all of these mediums that you use. Tell me about the surfboard. Was that a unique piece, the sketch on the surfboard? I love it, and I wanted to ask about that.

BM: That one’s acrylic paint. That was a commissioned piece. I sold it to someone from Santa Cruz, a big surf town. They had moved to Nebraska. It was 2011, 2012 in the off-season. I started painting on surfboards because with Santa Cruz up the road, lots of wide surfboards around.

I completely refinished them and then I would paint on them and then sell them for triple or quadruple the amount of money I put into it. And I figured out, “hey, I could make a good amount of money, doing these!” So at this point we’ve done probably six or seven surfboards.

I have a big project, coming up now. I’ve been working on another tire sculpture. I made this base for it and it didn’t look right, so I had to completely scrap it. And now I’m like back at square one trying to figure out this base. And I also have, and I know it sounds weird, but I have a massive seven-foot octopus that I’m working on, again with tires as the medium.

The idea came from a friend of mine. He’s like, “hey man, you should do an octopus.” I think the tires would really depict the suction cups and the skin well. And I’m also working on something that I’ve never done before, something I’m pretty excited about.

I’m basically going to make a sculpture, a hand, and I’m going to use a certain type of paint. I’ve not experimented with paint in this way, yet, but I’m basically going to drip it over this entire sculpture so it kind of runs down it. It’s going to be full color. It’s going to be dripping down this pedal, with the hand in the center and top of the pedestal. Have you ever heard of ArtPrize?

CR: I don’t think so, no.

BM: ArtPrize is the biggest art contest in the world, and it’s held in Michigan every year. I’m working on a new tire sculpture for the contest that’s very special to me. This one has a special meaning to it, for me, and I’m very excited about it.

CR: Certainly keep us posted about that! And I thank you for taking the time to speak with me about your career and your artwork, as well!

BM: I gotta say that this has been the most in-depth interview I’ve done, so far.

CR: Thank you very much for that!

BM: You did your research, for sure.