Beneath his folding chair in the Nationals' clubhouse at Sunday's Major League Baseball All-Star Future Game, Padres outfield prospect Buddy Reed had a pair of blue and gold Black Panther Adidas cleats proudly on display. Beside him, Rockies infield prospect Brendan Rodgers had his pair hidden — Nike Huraches with a Fortnite theme, an homage to the popular video game that has swept the culture at large, with minor league baseball no different.
This generation of players values such expression, and they have an Orioles prospect to thank in part for the style with which they did it. Ryan Mountcastle and Alex Wells were the Orioles’ on-field representatives, but minor league pitcher Alex Katz and his company, KD Custom Kicks, were just as present.
"I'm a big sneakerhead, and I love art, so just just combines three of my passions," Katz said Sunday from West Virginia, where he and the Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds were playing. "To me, it's kind of like a little side hobby. It's not like a full-time job. It's a little side hobby, and I enjoy it.
“Baseball is my No. 1 passion. I'm trying to work my way up. That would have been awesome if I was in the Futures Game, but I know that most guys aren't, and that doesn't mean that I can't make it to the big leagues."
If not in person, Katz and the company he started with his friend, Anthony De Lucia, was certainly present all over Nationals Park on Sunday.
A 27th-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox who was traded to the Orioles last May for international signing bonus slots, Katz pitched for Israel in last spring's World Baseball Classic and decided to spice up the "basic, royal blue Nike high-top cleats" he had for the tournament with De Lucia. He bought some silver and gray paint online as a test run of sorts, they painted for a few hours, and it turned out well.
"I kind of joked around and said, 'Let's start our own customizing business,' " he said. "Being a professional baseball player, I have a lot of friends who I can get as clients. It kind of started small. I got a few of my friends to do it. We started an Instagram page, got some shout outs, and the rest is history. We've grown pretty quickly since then."
How quickly? Just a few weeks into the season, their Instagram account got a direct message from Rob Refsnyder, then of the New York Yankees.
"He asked us if we could customize some cleats for him and his friend," Aaron," Katz said. "We kind of figured out quickly that his friend is Aaron Judge. Within a couple weeks, we were making cleats for Rob Refsnyder and Aaron Judge. It definitely is a small community, and social media definitely helped with that also."
That's how, in barely over a year, they've customized shoes for around 150 minor leaguers and 17 major leaguers, including Danny Valencia's July 4 cleats last week. At the Futures Game, seven players — World team starter Jesus Luzardo, plus pitchers Yoan López, Jorge Guzman, and Lovegrove, along with Team USA pitcher Luis Ortiz, shortstop Brendan Rodgers, and outfielder Buddy Reed.
Many only learned recently that the company was within the game.
"I didn't actually know that Katz was a part of them until I talked to them and looked into it, and I realized I actually played against him," Lovegrove said. "They talked to me early in the year about doing a pair of cleats for spring training. I was actually just going to do a flash-art, tattoo cleats just for fun, but I didn't get around to it then."
Lovegrove's cleats for the Futures Game are the colors of the South African flag, with the Roman numerals XIX as a tribute to his mother and sister, and the Cape Town skyline with Table Mountain behind it.
"They turned out incredibly well," Lovegrove said.
Luzardo's cleats, made for the Texas League All-Star Game, honor his hometown of Parkland, Fla., and his native Venezuela. López's have a Cuban flag design.
"A lot of them are just trying to represent themselves, their hometown, their home country, and their family," Katz said. "I think those are two or three of the most important things. If you look at our work, you see a lot of different flags from different countries and a lot of different saying representing their families."
Reed said he told his agent he needed cool cleats for the Future's Game, and believes the Black Panther design certainly qualifies. He and Rodgers both spoke excitedly about the possibility that MLB was going to relax its uniform restrictions when it comes to cleats, which currently must be in team colors.
"It's huge, not only for the guys who are into fashion and expression, but it's really cool to be able to do that," Reed said. "Everybody's expressing themselves. Everybody's got their own sort of style, and it's cool to be able to bring that out and show MLB show the fans, show the world what we're about and how we play the game."
"Everyone's unique," Rodgers said. "Everyone has their own different styles, and I think it's cool to show what you like, what your style is, what you like to wear, what you like to do. I think a lot of guys are different. I see a lot of cool cleats, sleeves, all that stuff. It's cool to get to see all that."
Katz, too, is looking forward to seeing the level of expression grow. He might not opt for anything too flashy for himself, but believes it will only be good for the game to see more personality.
"I think baseball is trying to take that step forward," Katz said. "A lot of athletes are trying to speak out and create their own name, and I don't want to say have too much flair, but definitely try to change that. Baseball tends to be pretty traditional. I think guys are just trying to change it up a little bit."