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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: July 19, 2024 9:45 pm PDT
BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

Luis Valbeuna wasn’t the best player on the Los Angeles Angels during the two seasons he spent in Anaheim. He was able to hit the occasional homer, though, and his spirit on and off the field made him a fan favorite, particularly for Jose Ceja.

So, when Valbuena was killed by bandits in Venezuela following a Winter League game in 2018, Ceja was devastated. He doesn’t live far from Angels Stadium and has been a fixture at games for years, getting to know the players while gathering autographs. Valbuena was one of his favorites.

It was that tragic incident, however, that led Ceja down his current path. The 38-year-old father of two, who has dabbled in art for much of his life, turned to what he knew best – drawing and baseball – as a way to deal with the shock of Valbuena’s death.

“I picked up a ball as a coping mechanism and started drawing on it,” Ceja said. “I drew Luis Valbuena. I drew the team logos of all the teams he played for. I follow the Angels religiously and he was, at the time, the life of the team. In the dugout, he always kept the guys loose. The guy was always smiling and I gravitated toward that. I liked them more than the quiet guys.

“I showed it [the ball] to my family and friends. I also posted it on Facebook and Instagram. Everyone told me it looked good and things just took off from there.”

Ceja has taken that tragedy and turned his grief over the death of one of his favorite players into the beginnings of what appears to be a remarkable career. The idea of drawing on baseballs isn’t new; but Ceja’s ability to bring his subject matter to life on a ball in such a simple but effective manner has made him one of the genres hottest new artists. He estimates he has created “100 baseballs give or take” since that Valbuena ball, earning a reputation that’s begun to spread nationally in addition to earning him a gig with Fanatics, the sports memorabilia and merchandise giant.

He charged $120 for a ball at first but the price of his work has more than doubled since he began. A Ceja ball can now go for as much as $350 depending on the complexity of the picture and length of time it takes him to create the subject matter. His creations for Fanatics and on the secondary market sell for considerably more. Ceja’s work can be found on his Instagram page – TheBaseballArtist.

Nick Adenhart ball: via Instagram @TheBaseballArtist

“I’d like to say that every single ball I have done is on Instagram,” Ceja said. “If I’m doing one sketch of just one player, it takes four to five hours. I draw it first in pencil and once that’s done I go in with a pen. Everything is done freehand. Some customized pieces I do more than one drawing so it takes a little longer, maybe four to eight hours.

“I use a ballpoint pen and there is a reason why I stick with blue. I was in the hobby of collecting autographs and my roommate was close friends with a guy in the memorabilia business. The reason why I use blue I got from him. The blue lasts the longest. People ask for other colors but I can’t guarantee how long it will last. I stick with blue so it will match with most autographs. And I do spray it with a clear coat just to be safe.”

Very often Ceja will receive a ball that’s already been autographed and is asked to work around the signature. Conversely, when he creates on a clean ball, he leaves the sweet spot untouched in case the customer would like to get the piece autographed in the future.

Ceja will also create a ball for a player as a gift simply in an effort to get some social media exposure. He estimates that he has gifted balls to half the Angels. Since becoming close with some of the players he often gets invited to games, with the team providing him with passes to watch batting practice with his daughters.

Chili Davis (left) with Jose Ceja: via Instagram @TheBaseballArtist

“I haven’t gotten [Shohei] Ohtani yet but that’s the goal,” he said. “I did one for [Mike] Trout of his son. I had one of the Angels who I am close to hand it to him personally. He said Trout liked it but he [Trout] never got back to me. I’m hoping this summer I can get in there and get Ohtani’s attention. One of my goals is, for example, if a player hits his 400th homer to come to me with the ball he hit as the homer and ask me to draw on it. That would be like a dream.”

Ceja recently completed a ball depicting one of his childhood heroes – Frank Thomas. It features Thomas in three different poses and he has had it signed. Ceja was playing in Little League when he first became aware of Thomas. The team on which he played was the White Sox so he began watching them on television whenever he could. Thomas appealed to him.

“He was big, I’m kind of big so I gravitated toward him,” said Ceja, who played baseball through a season of junior college before hanging up his spikes. “He was strong and hit line drives for homers and that’s the type of player I was. I hit line drives and if it got out, it got out.”

While Ceja is becoming more and more known for his work depicting baseball players, he’s looking to branch out. He said he doesn’t limit himself to ballplayers; and that he can draw anyone on a ball, whether it’s a celebrity or a comic book character. Ceja is a big comic fan and would like to do a ball depicting the characters in Marvel and DC movies while getting the actors who played them to sign the ball. A perfect example would be Hugh Jackman signing a ball on which Ceja drew Wolverine.

Frank Thomas ball: via Instagram @TheBaseballArtist

“That’s where I’d like to get out and be known not just by baseball fans,” he said. “I have a passion for baseball, but you can put anything on a ball. There has been work that I have of people who have passed away and these balls mean more to me because of the sentimental value. I’m honored to do stuff like that.”

What Ceja won’t do is draw on other items like basketballs, footballs, or helmets.

“If I did it on those things it would require a lot less detail and I get a lot of compliments on my detail. That detail would probably go away if I did it on another ball.”

Ceja currently works security at LaQuinta High School, for whom he also coaches baseball. His artwork has gotten him thinking, though, that maybe he can go back to school and get his degree so he can teach art or become a physical education teacher in addition to coaching baseball and drawing. He is also considering becoming a police officer.

“I thought I was done for my age but they need police officers around here so that might be an option,” Ceja said.

Whatever he winds up doing, one thing is certain. Ceja’s talent, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail seem to have set him apart from many others in what has become a crowded collecting market.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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