Meet the artist who's on the cusp of being a major league pitcher

Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist
Blake McFarland with his award-winning full-sized cougar. (Courtesty of Blake McFarland)
Blake McFarland with his award-winning full-sized cougar. (Courtesty of Blake McFarland)

All of it started because of an ugly painting. Blake McFarland was going to junior college, living at his parents’ house in San Jose, and every day he walked by the rendering of a koi fish he thought particularly awful. McFarland told his mom, Terryl, he could do better, even though he never had painted.

“I kind of just wanted to see what it was like,” McFarland said, and that inherent blend of curiosity and competition happens to have served him well beyond the acrylic-on-canvas ocean scene he created and sold to one of Terryl’s friends for $50. It guided McFarland from football to baseball, from painting to prize-winning art made of recycled tires and, he hopes, from the depths of the minor leagues to Toronto, where he could find himself this season after one of the unlikeliest ascents in recent years.

These days, McFarland whiles away his charmed life on St. Maarten, where he swims in the Atlantic Ocean and catches fish with a spear gun and counts down the days until Feb. 21, when pitchers and catchers are due to report to Toronto Blue Jays spring training in Dunedin, Fla. After five years in the organization, the Blue Jays placed the 27-year-old McFarland on their 40-man roster in November, gilding his path to the major leagues where as a rookie he almost assuredly would capture the title of baseball’s truest Renaissance Man.

While plenty of ballplayers fish and enough surf, none understands the vagaries of procuring tires or wine-bottle corks by the hundred or used surfboards to re-appropriate. This has been McFarland’s life in the offseason, a duality he balanced until his wife, Jessica, enrolled in the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine this winter and gave him a good reason to spend it in St. Maarten, where the school is located. Without his artwork, McFarland finds it easier to focus on baseball, which is perhaps the right maneuver with the major leagues so close.

Three years ago, McFarland figured the possibility of making it was nil. He was the perpetual underdog. Jim Harbaugh recruited McFarland, a 6-foot-5 tight end, to play at the University of San Diego like his brother, Jason. McFarland preferred baseball but didn’t throw hard enough to warrant interest from Division I college baseball teams, so he spent his freshman year playing football at a junior college. He transferred to a juco in Santa Barbara, switched back to baseball and wound up at San Jose State for his final two years of college.

In the 2011 draft following McFarland’s senior season, teams selected 1,530 players. He was not one of them. A scout named Randy Kramer called McFarland after the draft ended and said the Blue Jays wanted to sign him. He didn’t get a penny for the privilege. “Zero. Nothing,” McFarland said. “There’s guys in the locker room next to me with all these bonuses. Here I am, sitting with a plane ticket.”

It was an opportunity, and that’s all McFarland ever needed. In the offseason after the 2011 and ’12 seasons, his interest in art grew enough that he would buy old surfboards, refinish them, paint ocean scenes on them and sell them. McFarland liked working with recycled materials because making something out of nothing spoke to him.

McFarland is on the Jays' 40-man roster. (Courtesy of Blake McFarland)
McFarland is on the Jays' 40-man roster. (Courtesy of Blake McFarland)

While McFarland’s fastball had ticked up into the low 90s, it was no great shakes for a right-hander, and his lack of a second pitch seemed destined to torpedo his career. In spring 2013, Rick Langford, the Blue Jays’ pitcher whisperer, saw McFarland’s over-the-top delivery – think Josh Collmenter, hammer-throwing type – and his giant hands and wondered if he’d ever tried throwing a split-finger fastball.

“I’m thinking I’m getting released,” McFarland said. “And he comes to me at the beginning of spring training and completely changes my life.”

He threw the splitter five times in a bullpen session before a simulated game. Langford told him to try it in the game. He struck out two hitters with the splitter. And that’s how a 25-year-old in A-ball becomes a fringe prospect.

In the offseason after recording 18 saves, McFarland found artistic inspiration to match that of baseball. He saw a picture of a giant horse made of car tires and told Jessica he wanted to try something like that. Working with used ones from tire shops taught him a good lesson. “I learned the hard way,” McFarland said, “you can’t cut through steel-reinforced tires.” A reciprocating saw didn’t work. Neither did a soldering iron to burn through them. McFarland tried motorcycle tires. Same problem.

Then it hit him: bike tires. They were abundant because it cost money to recycle them and he would do bike shops a favor by taking used ones off their hands. They were thin enough to cut with poultry shears. And they wrapped perfectly around the polyurethane taxidermy forms McFarland wanted to use as a base. He had chalked out a muscle structure of a jaguar, wrapped the tires, used wood screws to hold the rubber in place and watched a brilliant, unique piece of art come together.

After the 2014 season, McFarland spent nearly a month working on the full-sized cougar that won first place at a Pacific Art League competition in Palo Alto, Calif. The piece, McFarland notes for those who have slacked on holiday shopping, remains for sale. “I realized after a couple years that art is really difficult to sell and make a living off doing it is tough,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I used to think it could be a way to live if I didn’t play baseball.”

Good thing he’s got baseball. McFarland spent most of 2015 at Double-A, where he struck out 62 and walked six in 47 innings. He held his own enough in Triple-A during the last month of the season to convince the Blue Jays to use a 40-man spot on him instead of exposing him to the Rule 5 draft, where they feared he might be taken.

On Nov. 18, McFarland received a text message from Randy Kramer, the scout who signed him.

“Congratulations,” it read. He didn’t understand. He was in St. Maarten. About 10 minutes later, McFarland’s grandfather, John Oldham, the longtime baseball coach at Santa Clara University, called to ask why he hadn’t been picking up his phone. The Blue Jays were calling to tell him he’d been added to the 40-man. He wasn’t the odd one out of 1,530 anymore. He was among the 1,200 on major league rosters.

McFarland turned on his phone’s international plan to listen to congratulatory voicemails left by the Blue Jays. Rare is the soon-to-be-28-year-old who cracks the 40-man for the first time, though, to be fair, McFarland isn’t exactly one who follows the ballplayer script.

For now, he bides his time with Jessica, who will be in the Caribbean for two years before coming back to the United States for her residency. And he thinks about less-ambitious art projects like the signs made of thousands of used wine corks. And he dreams of adding a slider/cutter hybrid pitch to the fastball-and-splitter combination that placed him on the cusp of joining the American League East champions.

“This,” McFarland said, “is what I’ve been working for.”

And he’s almost there, so close, one good spring away from standing atop the mound at Rogers Centre. Blake McFarland’s motivation hasn’t changed, either. Like with that first painting, he just wants to see what it’s like.