PITTSBURGH -- Pirates right-hander Joe Musgrove played a part in designing his footwear for his final start of the season. He wanted something covered in bone imagery, representing a nonprofit organization close to his heart. Since he pitches for Pittsburgh, he needed to have some black and gold.
The finished product, Musgrove said with a smile, “turned out way better than I was expecting.”
Those cleats, created by Stadium Custom Kicks and signed by Musgrove, were available on MLB Auctions earlier this month and wound up going for $510. The proceeds were split between Be The Match, a global leader in bone marrow transplantation that also connects patients with their donors, and More Than Baseball, a nonprofit organization that supports Minor League players during and after their careers.
Several other Major League players took similar action this year. Alex Katz, the founder of Stadium Custom Kicks, said more than 25 players signed up to take part in that process this season. He hopes it’s only the beginning of a new system that allows Major Leaguers to help Minor Leaguers.
The cat cleats Tony Gonsolin wore in the World Series? The spikes with the Devil Rays color scheme that Willy Adames slid on during the Fall Classic? The shoes sported by Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez, featuring the face of Roberto Clemente and the flag of Puerto Rico? They were all designed by Stadium Custom Kicks, and More Than Baseball put them all up for auction through MLB to benefit Minor League players.
The bidding for Dexter Fowler’s spikes honoring the late Lou Brock finished at $1,510. Aaron Hicks sported Negro Leagues 100th Anniversary Jordan 1 custom cleats, and the proceeds from that auction were split between More Than Baseball and The Players Alliance. A pair of orange and blue cleats bearing the likeness of the late Tom Seaver, worn by Mets ace Jacob deGrom in a start and signed afterward, went for more than $8,000 on MLB Auctions.
“The most important thing is that we’re raising funds for the charities. We are definitely going to grow upon this next year,” Katz said. “The players love it. They’re giving back … and for Jacob deGrom just wearing the cleats, $8,000 goes a long way and can help a lot of people.”
More Than Baseball has supported more than 2,000 Minor Leaguers on their path to the Majors through fundraising efforts like this and individual donations, like Adam Wainwright’s $250,000 pledge to benefit Cardinals Minor Leaguers while the season was suspended. Fittingly enough for an initiative that’s helped prospects who were left without games to play this year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Katz created his company while he was in the Minors.
Katz, a 26-year-old left-handed pitcher in the Royals' system, decided to design customized cleats to show off some of his personality when he played for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. The inspired idea turned into a small business that’s grown over the years, as the company now employs 14 artists around the country, and it’s expanded greatly since MLB decided in November 2018 to permit more colorful cleats.
Katz estimated they’ve worked with more than 230 Major Leaguers since 2017, with Players' Weekend -- and all the freedom of expression that comes with those distinct uniforms -- a particularly busy time. While big leaguers bought up cleats, Katz and colleague Evan Mendoza, an infielder in the Cardinals' system, understood the need to support Minor Leaguers.
So Stadium Custom Kicks collaborated with More Than Baseball on a special design, and anybody who donated to the nonprofit would be entered to win a pair. That concept soon led them to another plan: creating custom cleats with a special cause behind each one, having players sign them after wearing them, then auctioning them off for charity. They all feature More Than Baseball’s logo on the back.
“They do some great work. They help players after their careers are over with transitioning into the real world -- job coaching, financial coaching, just a well-rounded charity that helps ballplayers,” Katz said. “There’s so many more Minor Leaguers than Major Leaguers, and everybody’s in a different situation. … They’re trying to make the lives of Minor Leaguers better and help out and just give back to guys in need, working hand in hand with Major League Baseball.”
Players can push all the proceeds to More Than Baseball, designate a charity of their choice or split the funds between the two, like Musgrove did. Which brings us back to those bone-themed cleats Musgrove wore while shutting down the Indians at Progressive Field on Sept. 26.
Musgrove isn’t typically one for flashy shoes, but he ordered some Pittsburgh-themed cleats for this season after mutual friend Alon Leichman -- a pitching coach in the Mariners system who served as the bullpen coach for Team Israel in the 2017 WBC -- told him about Katz and his company. Musgrove loved them. So when he heard about Katz’s partnership with More Than Baseball, Musgrove couldn’t pass up the opportunity to order more. This time, they’d come with a personal touch.
“I think it’s really cool when the player has some sort of contribution to the design, because it makes it more personal,” Katz said. “He’s been great to work with, and he has a really great cause.”
Musgrove had only recently become an ambassador for Be The Match, an organization operated by the National Marrow Donor Program that manages the largest bone marrow and stem cell registry in the world, while working to provide cures for patients with blood and marrow cancers and other diseases. He had a personal connection through Dominic Johnson, his godfather and pitching coach since he was 14 years old, whose daughter was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, the most common type of bone cancer.
“I wasn’t educated much on that myself at the time, but they made it really clear to me how important it is to broaden their donor base, getting different ethnicities and people from different backgrounds,” Musgrove said. “When you look to do those bone marrow transplants and the stem cell transplants, there’s a lot of things that have to line up for you to be able to match with somebody. A lot of the times it depends on your race and ethnicity … so it’s really important that they have a big database or a big group of people to pull from when somebody’s in need of a transplant.”
Musgrove has met with Be The Match about potential ways to raise awareness down the road, encouraging people to sign up and serve as potential donors, and the link to the organization’s website sits atop his Instagram profile. Working with Katz on a pair of custom cleats served multiple purposes:
1) He could bring attention to the cause, raise money for the organization and help out Minor Leaguers, all at the same time. He had help on that front from Stadium Custom Kicks artist Mike Reynolds, a clubhouse staffer for the Cubs’ Myrtle Beach affiliate, who took Musgrove’s ideas and featured them in his design.
“I told [Katz] what they were and what they were all about, so I asked if he could incorporate some bones on there or something that would relate to the bone marrow transplants and what they do,” Musgrove said. “The design they did was really, really cool, man.”
2) They looked good, and Musgrove clearly felt good wearing them. That night in Cleveland, he finished his injury-interrupted season by pitching seven scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts.
“They were hard to give away after that,” he said, laughing.
Well, not really. Like the other big leaguers who partnered with Stadium Custom Kicks this season, Musgrove gave them away for a good cause.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter @adamdberry.