Will Startup, a left-handed pitcher in the Detroit Tigers organization, has been practicing his craft since 2005. His approach has evolved along the way, the result of learning from his mistakes and continually tweaking his methods.
While the above paragraph could apply to Startup's professional career, it also describes his endeavors as an artist. Over the last 10 seasons, Startup has produced 125 (and counting) pieces of what could be literally described as "baseball art." Official game balls are his canvas, mechanical pencils and gel pens the tools of his trade. While on the mound, the Erie SeaWolves' southpaw is concerned with painting the corners. Off of it -- while on the road and in the clubhouse -- he just wants to paint.
I caught up with Startup, 30, during my recent visit to Erie's Jerry Uht Park. Incidentally, this was the first time I talked to him since he won 2008's Moniker Madness contest, in which he was bestowed with having the best name in Minor League Baseball. During our conversation, he talked about the impetus of his baseball artwork, its evolution and what he hopes to accomplish as the years progress.
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Startup, a native of Cartersville, Georgia, started drawing at a very young age. He was and remains an avid doodler, carrying a journal with him that is filled with colorful sketches and sneaker prototypes (he one day hopes to be able to design shoes). His grandfather, an accomplished artist, was his first inspiration, but it was his wife, Lauren, who motivated him to decorate baseballs.
"This all started because I got the game ball one night, for pitching," said Startup, reflecting on his debut 2005 season. "My parents were there, because [I was pitching] in Rome, Georgia, and I grew up in Cartersville. I tossed it to my parents, like 'Hey, here you go. You guys can have the game ball.' And my Mom goes, 'Uh, don't you think your fiancé would want this?' I say, 'Oh! You're right! You're right!' So she gave it back to me. My fiancé wasn't with me at the time, so I drew a note on there, kind of a stick figure, and wound up giving it to her. And then one of the next outings I had, I got a game ball again. So I made another one and then what I started doing was, every road trip, I would get a baseball and come up with a theme. Do the baseball and then give it to my wife.
"When it came to [ball No. 12], I ended up doing a full panel of the "Last Supper" with Jesus and his 12 disciples," he continued. "From there, when people would say, 'Hey, is there any way you could make me a ball?' I would say, 'Well, okay, what are your interests? What do you like? What are your hobbies?' It was almost like a collage. I would put their interests on a ball. You might have a silhouette of two dogs, or if they liked the Detroit Tigers, I'd put their logo on it."
Some of the unique designs created by Tigers Minor Leaguer Will Startup. (Courtesy Will Startup)
Startup has since painted balls for family, friends, teammates, front-office members, fans and visiting ballpark celebrities (wrestling superstar Sergeant Slaughter among them). During our conversation, he produced two recent examples: one was made as a thankyou to an Erie fan that bid for Startup's "Welcome Home Veterans" theme night camo jersey and then gifted it back to him. The other was made at the request of a SeaWolves bat boy, who was planning on giving it to his girlfriend.
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Startup generally begins with a mechanical pencil, lightly outlining the design he wishes to employ. Then he'll transition to a ballpoint pen, further strengthening the outline. This is followed by multiple layers of additional detail and color, using a gel pen.
"You put one layer on there and it's like a primer," he said. "And then the more layers you put the shinier it gets. It's like paint. It seals itself… You learn so much from mistakes. Sometimes, by messing up, I have to learn different techniques."
Here, he points to a series of small raised dots atop the ball that will soon be presented to the bat boy's girlfriend.
"Like right here you can see some texture on these dots. I probably discovered that by mistake and thought, 'Oh, that kind of works as a texture.' So, failure has been a huge teaching tool."
In addition to learning through his mistakes, Startup has re-enrolled in college after an 8 1/2-year absence. He is now taking classes at the Savannah School of Art and Design, receiving an education that should be invaluable to his future artistic endeavors.
"There's a lot of technique that I need to learn, whether it's shading or bringing out highlights. And, hopefully, the more I receive from my education, the better my art will become," said Startup, who recently completed his first piece of home plate artwork, featuring the Erie SeaWolves' logo. "So I'm excited to see how it progresses, and right now I'm happy with the product that I'm making. It's fun for me to do. I always have a sense of pride when I'm able to finish something and give it to somebody."
Those interested in Startup's artwork are encouraged to follow him on Twitter -- @will_startup -- where he shares his recent creations and urges interested parties to get in touch.
"After I got on Twitter and took pictures of my work, all of a sudden people were contacting me. I didn't know who they were. They just wanted a piece of art," he said. "I don't have a website where you can just click and order a ball. I do things through email, and it's still a little bit old fashioned, but I haven't become so in-demand that I can't keep up with the pace."
No matter where his pitching career takes him, or when it finally ends, Startup's artistic explorations will continue unabated.
"It's fun for me. It's therapeutic and I get to express myself and hopefully make someone else happy," he said. "That's something I don't see stopping for any reason."