When he'd completed his first sculpture – a four-foot-long jaguar – Blue Jays pitcher Blake McFarland wasn't sure what to do with it.
He'd been making art for several years. He had no formal training and still doesn't. He'd started off on a dare, offering to replace a painting he didn't like in his parents' house.
After early experiments with cheap materials, McFarland switched to surfboards. He'd grown up surfing the California coast. Every ocean-side restaurant he knew of had a decorative surfboard hanging somewhere.
New boards can cost upward of a thousand dollars. McFarland bought used ones online for 50 bucks a pop, cleaned them up and painted seascapes on them. Once he got good enough, he sold them on Craigslist for five or six hundred dollars a throw. It became a tidy side business.
Three years ago, he saw a picture of a tire sculpture and decided to give it a try. Again, no training or how-to guide. He just figured it out himself in his garage via trial and error (pro tip: bicycle tires are a lot easier to cut than steel-belted radials).
"Once [the jaguar] was done, I had no idea who to sell it to. Who's going to be searching the Internet for 'tire sculptures'? So I made fliers and I slipped them under the door of art galleries."
"I know nothing about the art world," McFarland says.
A San Jose gallery owned by former San Francisco 49er Vernon Davis called him back. Davis ended up buying the jaguar for himself.
It's a general rule that everyone in training camp has already made good money from baseball. Catcher Tony Sanchez, who's played in only a few dozen major-league games over five years and will almost certainly start the season in the minors, has his $2.5-million (U.S.) signing bonus to fall back on. Even most scrubs who make it this far were handed six-figure cheques when they entered the pro game.
McFarland, 28, is not that guy. He was undrafted out of college. When the Jays picked him up in 2011, he was given a shot and nothing else. He didn't have an agent until two years ago (a minor-league teammate introduced him to someone).
On Friday, representatives of Rawlings were in Dunedin, sizing Jays for custom gloves. Many players have deals with the equipment manufacturer. They'll get multiple options and be paid to be wear them.
McFarland was in high spirits after getting one new glove for free. Until very recently, he bought all his own equipment.
As such, the art isn't a lark. It's an off-season job. He'll get up early and do three hours of work on his pitching game. Then he's in a makeshift studio wrestling with polyurethane foam and rubber strips until nightfall. He also works in wine corks. His American flags in that material have a very Jasper Johns feel.
Though it's a necessity, McFarland believes the art feeds the sport and vice versa.
"When you're sculpting, drawing or painting, you're not thinking about anything but the task at hand. It's very similar to pitching. On the mound, you're not thinking about anything."
Not thinking about anything takes up a good deal of his time.
"When I was doing the shark" – an impressive rendering of a hammerhead – "I was on a time crunch. I did that working straight."
How long in all?
"Sixty hours. I did it in a week."
McFarland is one of those people they make feel-good movies about. A multisport athlete who fell into baseball when football didn't pan out. A guy completely overlooked by pro scouts. A guy just barely hanging on for large swaths of time.
When he did get his chance, he struggled mightily for two years in the Jays' system: "I thought I was on my way out."
One day in 2013, Jays adviser and pitching wise man Rick Langford wandered by while McFarland threw a spring bullpen.
McFarland is a strapping, "good body" type. The standout in his delivery is an unusually high arm angle, suited to pitches with hard sink. Langford took him aside and asked if he threw a splitter. He did not. Langford showed him a grip and wandered off. In his next appearance, McFarland recalls that he threw it four times. He got four swings and misses.
"How did my career turn around?" McFarland says. "Rick Langford. That's how."
On such simple encounters, baseball lives can turn.
By the end of last season, McFarland had advanced to triple-A Buffalo. The Jays have since added him to the 40-man roster – a vote of organizational confidence.
Given Toronto's current bullpen options, he is unlikely to make it out of spring with the Jays. But for perhaps the first time in McFarland's career, there is real hope of a major-league future.
His wife is attending medical school in the Caribbean. He spent two months there over the winter, surfing and drawing inspiration from the view. He keeps a sketchbook in his locker. He'll pull it out every now and then to pass the time. His teammates don't need to worry about ending up hanging in some aficionado's den.
"I'm terrible at people. I don't draw people."
As things often tend to do, both McFarland's obsessions are catching traction at the same time. A December profile by Yahoo's Jeff Passan goosed public interest in his sideline.
The shark was his first commission, bought by an interior decorator. He declines to say how much it sold for. He still has a remarkably kinetic life-size cougar available for $6,000-$8,000 (U.S.). Beyond the aesthetics, it may be useful "terrifying intruders," McFarland suggests.
Currently, it's mounted on a table in his parents' living room. It's up for purchase at his website, blakemcfarland.com.
"It's honestly my favourite piece," McFarland says. "We can talk about a discount."