'Shoe Guy' goes global: Katz's custom cleats hit Classic

March 10th, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Team Israel left-hander Alex Katz expresses himself as a baseball player on the mound with his arm. When he’s not pitching, he expresses his creative talents through the cleats worn by players throughout baseball (and beyond).

Katz is the founder of Stadium Custom Kicks, a custom footwear company whose design work can be seen on the feet of more than 1,000 celebrities and athletes across all sports.

“I always thought it could be something small,” said Katz, who tossed a scoreless inning in Thursday's exhibition game against the Nationals. “Something that maybe we do a few pairs a month and I’d enjoy it and it’d be fun and it’d help pay the bills a little bit. But obviously that turned into something way bigger than I ever expected, and it’s been a blast, especially being able to keep playing and run a business at the same time.”

Katz, 28, became a self-described "sneakerhead" after he was selected by the White Sox in the 27th round of the 2015 MLB Draft, buying and selling sneakers on eBay during the offseason. When he was invited to play for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, he wanted his footwear to pop.

“I knew it was the biggest stage I’d ever pitch on at that point,” said Katz, who was playing in High-A at that time. “I had a pair of royal blue cleats already from the qualifiers in Brooklyn. I thought it would be cool to spice them up a little bit.”

Aside from taking mandatory art classes in school growing up, Katz had pursued business at St. John’s University. He watched online videos to learn how to paint sneakers, purchased paint and developed a design.

“For my first pair, I thought they were the coolest thing ever. Now looking back on it, they weren’t that great,” he said with a smile.

Team Israel pitcher Andrew Gross sporting some of Katz's cleats. (Photo via Team Israel)

Katz shared photos on social media and they got reposted by What Pros Wear, a footwear account that has nearly 200,000 Instagram followers. From that repost came a direct message from Yankees utility man Rob Refsnyder in the spring of 2017, asking if he and his friend “Aaron” could send in sneakers to be customized.

“His friend was Aaron Judge,” Katz said. “I think we did those pairs for free because we basically agreed that the first player of every professional sport, we’ll do it free just to break into the industry. … During the All-Star break of 2017, I came home for three days and hand-delivered them to Yankee Stadium.”

That was just the beginning. In Major League Baseball alone, individual players have ordered 20 to 30 pairs of sneakers from Katz in a single season. This year, Fernando Tatis Jr. is anticipated to order more than 50 customized cleats with different artwork for every series the Padres play.

Alex Katz and some of his cleats.

With this booming interest, Stadium Custom Kicks has grown to a team of 30 artists Katz describes as “second-to-none,” including a tattoo artist who specializes in portraits. They have become familiar faces around Major League ballparks as they meet with players to come up with design concepts -- which head designer Ari Solomon did on Thursday at the Nationals' Spring Training complex -- and deliver them once completed.

“I think it’s a great tool to help us push our brand, push our message and help show who we are as people, because sometimes the fans, they just see us as a player,” said Nationals first baseman Dominic Smith, who has ordered multiple shoes. “This is a different avenue for them to get to know us, what we like to do, maybe our interests and hobbies, and things that are important to us.”

In the WBC, where this idea began, Katz estimates more than 40 players will be wearing Stadium Custom Kicks cleats. The global competition provides a unique opportunity for athletes to demonstrate the pride for their country through artwork, from individualized color palettes to design elements.

Katz will be one of them, too. His WBC cleats include an intricately drawn picture of the Western Wall.

“The key to designing a great World Baseball Classic cleat is to, I’d say, fully encapsulate the spirit of the team and of the country,” said lead artist Andrew Urriata. “It’s going to be up to the player, but what do they want to represent their country? They already have their country’s name across their chest; what more can they do on the cleat to show that they have pride for their country?”

As a baseball player who also is the founder of a custom footwear design company, Katz likes keeping the two worlds separate. He most recently competed on the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate in 2021, followed by independent ball in ‘22 and winter ball in Puerto Rico, but most players who are not his teammates “have no idea that I play; they know me as ‘The Shoe Guy.’” Those paths will intertwine when Team Israel opens WBC action this weekend in Pool D at loanDepot park in Miami.

“I think in the World Baseball Classic, it might be the first time that I’ll get to pitch against someone wearing the cleats that we made,” Katz said. “I know [Rafael] Devers is going to be wearing a pair. He’s a left-handed hitter, so there’s a good chance I’d pitch against him. Maybe that’d be a little extra motivation to get him out.”