Stars of David, Mensch on a Bench feature on Team Israel’s custom cleats for WBC
Stadium Custom Cleats, a company owned by Alex Katz, a pitcher for Israel at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, is livening up the shoes worn at the World Baseball Classic
AP — When Joc Pederson takes the field for Israel in the World Baseball Classic, he’ll be wearing bright silver cleats with blue Stars of David inside each Nike swoosh.
Edwin Díaz commissioned two different designs to wear for Puerto Rico: blue with a bronze trumpet across the Adidas stripes, and red with white and blue trumpets, a reference to the closer’s intro music.
Flashy footwear is the work of Stadium Custom Cleats, a company owned by Alex Katz, a pitcher for Israel at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and at this year’s WBC.
“You can express yourself more,” Pederson said. “It’s pretty boring when it’s just plain Jane black-and-white shoes. I like to spice my shoes up a little bit, add some extra flair.”
When Israel plays its Group D opener against Nicaragua at Miami on Sunday, Katz’s cleats will feature the Mensch on a Bench mascot of Israel’s team, the Western Wall, Haifa. The 28-year-old left-hander’s shoes even have multicolor reflective soles.
Others with the spiffy shoes include Daniel Bard of the US, Didi Gregorius and Jurickson Profar of the Netherlands, and Robinson Canó of the Dominican Republic. In all, Katz’s company supplied 42 pairs of cleats to 36 players.
A 27th-round pick by the Chicago White Sox in the 2015 amateur draft, Katz came up with the idea in 2016 when he was at Class A Kannapolis and was chastised by a minor league coordinator.
“The White Sox were kind of old school at the time,” Katz said. “I had black Nike cleats. The only thing white on them was a little bit on the toe and the Nike swoosh. And he said, `Hey Alex, like you have to Sharpie it out.′ So they were very strict.”
Peter Kurz, general manager of Israel’s national team, had reached out to Katz when the pitcher played for St. John’s from 2013-15, and Katz was part of Israel’s pitching staff during WBC qualifying in 2016. He used blue Nike spikes with some camouflage.
“They really didn’t get dirty from the qualifiers, so I reused them for the main tournament, cleaned them up a little bit and just painted them. And the rest is history,” Katz said. “It wasn’t really big at the time. It was more of a popular in sneaker culture rather than cleat culture.”
Through 2018, Major League Baseball’s collectively bargained shoe standards were more akin to a military dress code. At least 51% of a cleat’s exterior had to be the team’s designated primary shoe color and the rule mandated “color must be evenly distributed.” Teams determined the design and players were forced to wear shoes “compatible with their club’s design and color scheme.” The rule stated “excessive and distracting flaps and laces on shoes, particularly those on pitchers, are not permitted.”
Starting in 2019, players were permitted to wear any combination of black, gray, white along with uniform hues or any additional team-designated shades. A player’s initials were allowed for the first time, Color restrictions were lifted in 2020, and noncommercial writings, illustrations and messages were allowed as long as they didn’t include offensive language. Teams retained a right of approval and the shoes had to be from an approved supplier.
Sometimes players have been, well, tripped up by the rules.
Pitcher Trevor Bauer, then with Cincinnati, was threatened with discipline by MLB when he planned in 2020 to wear cleats with “Free Joe Kelly” after the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher was suspended for eight games. When Seattle’s Dee Strange-Gordon had “In-N-Out Burger” on his cleats that same year, players were reminded commercial messages were prohibited.
Katz started a company called KD Custom Kicks in 2017. He split with his partner in 2017 and founded the new firm in 2019. He has 43 people working for the firm, including 30 artists, while trying to reach the big leagues as a pitcher. Katz was with the Chicago Cubs’ Double-A Tennessee Smokies in 2021 and spent last season with Staten Island in the independent Atlantic League.
His company charges $300 to $600 per pair, and the biggest expenses are shipping and shoelaces. A player works with a designer, and the shoe model a player chooses is sent to one of the artists. They use Jacquard Airbrush Color, which is available in 57 colors and can be mixed to create even more.
Andrew Urrutia, a 22-year-old from Seattle who is a student at the University of Washington, reached out to the Mariners on Instagram offering design work when MLB held “Players Weekend” events from 2017-19 allowing unique getups. He works for Katz’s company and averages 5-to-10 hours per pair — he needed 16 for the pair worn by Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic for his 2021 big league debut.
Urrutia’s favorite was a pair he painted for Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom in September 2020 that included the No. 41 of Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, who had died the previous month. The cleats, designed by Ari Solomon, were later auctioned for $8,010 by MLB.com and the money given to charity.
“A lot of our cleats are special event cleats,” Urrutia said. “It might just be worn on Mother’s Day or Jackie Robinson Day.”
Katz said the company produced close to 3,000 pairs last year.
“To me the best ideas are things that just come naturally, that just randomly show up,” he said.