BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI
Ian Strong’s career arc seems to be very much like that of a minor league baseball player. Perhaps that’s why the Washington State-based artist understands and appreciates ballplayers at the lower levels a bit more than most.
Strong, 28, doesn’t live too far from Everett, WA, so he makes frequent trips to watch the AquaSox, Seattle’s High-A affiliate. He’s gotten to know many of the players as they’ve gone through Everett on their way to Double-A Arkansas, Triple-A Tacoma and, ultimately, Seattle and has seen what their journey is like. It’s a sojourn that, in many ways, mirrors his.
While comparing an artist to a professional athlete might seem to be a bit of a stretch, there are similarities between Strong and his baseball counterparts.
Both are working toward gaining recognition, fighting to get to the top of their field. Strong has made a name for himself as a hot young card artist in the Pacific Northwest much like the players at Everett have laid their own foundations.
The thoughtfulness with which Strong approaches his work and the support he lends the players – and in some cases gets back – has helped him gain the respect of the players and a following among fans.
“I ultimately just want to keep growing what I have been building because I really enjoy collaborating with the players and giving professional athletes a piece of their careers that a lot of these guys missed out on. I was talking to a pitcher recently and he told me that he’s had one card made of him in his six years with the Mariners. Six years as a pro seems like enough time for people in the area to know who you are.
“Everett isn’t that far from Seattle so you’re not that far from the big leagues. I watch the minor leagues and I enjoy the process. Whatever I end up doing, I’d like to be involved in the minor leagues because there is a lot of good baseball there and a lot of people that fans are not watching. I like being part of these guys’ careers so I’ll give some a card now and there’s a chance that two or three years from now he’s debuting somewhere. Baseball is their life.”
Baseball is also one of the focal points of Strong’s life. However, he was also heavily invested in lacrosse, playing for many years, including collegiately at Transylvania University [in Kentucky, not eastern Europe] and The New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, New Jersey. An ACL injury, though, contributed to the end of his playing days.
Transylvania is a Division III school while NJIT is a Division I program. He moved from Kentucky to Jersey when the opportunity to play for a Division I program presented itself, but Strong tore his ACL in between seasons and spent most of his one year at NJIT rehabbing. That process opened his eyes.
“I just didn’t have a strong desire to come back to the sport,” Strong said. “Everything leading to this [card art] took a couple of years to figure out. I wasn’t a fan of coaching and eventually I took a step back. Playing always came with a ton of pressure, coaching came with a ton of pressure and I just wanted to be able to appreciate sport and watch the games, root for a team and not feel like it was the end of the world if the Mariners lost. It was a different way of enjoying sports; it was new to me and I had a new appreciation after being on this [the playing] side of it.”
Strong said that baseball has always been a big part of his family’s life and it was during the Covid-19 quarantine that he became reintroduced to the sport. He spent time watching the Mariners with his family, relearning about the game, finding a greater appreciation for it while figuring out how he could combine his artistic talents with his love of the game.
“Over three years, I’ve taken both [art and baseball] seriously and they have grown together in that for me,” Strong said.
Part of that growth included attending a host of AquaSox games with his wife, Lexi Jane, to whom he introduced the game. Strong shared his childhood hobby of getting a player’s autograph with her and things began to take off.
“It turned into these are the players I appreciate,” Strong said. “There is a hole there that I can fill a little bit, take something with them from their pro ball experience. I try to do some cards for visiting players as well. I like following minor league ball and do watch prospects when choosing opposing players. Here is my step out as a scout. I’ll find a fun guy to watch, but it’s mostly Everett.
“Being able to talk to the guys consistently before the game is nice. I am really thrilled that the guys liked the cards. A couple of guys have reached out and I have made cards for players for anniversaries and birthdays. I’ve worked with other players for designs and ideas. I like being able to provide something for these players who sacrifice a lot at the minor league level.”
Strong creates his cards using Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator and then takes the file to the local UPS store where he prints his work. He has made nearly 250 cards and will sell custom cards for as much as $150. Mostly, though, he just creates them and gives them away to the players. He still hasn’t fully committed to selling his work, largely because he believes he should have a player’s permission to do so, especially if the two have collaborated on a piece.
His company is called Insomnia Customs, named for the fact that he often has trouble sleeping and works deep into the night. His work can be found on his Instagram page Insomnia.Customs.
Strong added that because he was playing lacrosse collegiately when the movement to recognize the use of an NCAA player’s likeness and pay them for it began, he is more cognizant of taking advantage of someone.
“I’m really conscious of young people being a part of things and having their face or likeness on something,” he said.
Relief pitchers are his favorite subject matter largely because they are the ones often overlooked, particularly in minor league ball. Strong said it takes time to search for photos that will work and that finding photographers who stay at a game past the fourth or fifth inning is difficult.
“Often they [relievers] get screwed because photographers go for the first four innings of a game and then check out,” Strong said. “That makes it a challenge to find pictures. I don’t have my own print setup yet. I get my prints and put the laminating foil on them. I am approximating what bigger companies do when they make their cards but I live in the woods so this is a tiny little home version for now.
“The response has been great. The guys are very appreciative of the cards. They said they were talking about them in the locker room and that’s nice to hear. I’ve met so many great guys at Everett and they have showed me there is a real place for this.”
Strong would ultimately like to work with the AquaSox but because the franchise has licensing deals with other companies that might be difficult; he would also love to create cards for other Seattle and Washington-based teams. Strong is also a big basketball fan and is hopeful that someday the NBA will return the SuperSonics to Seattle.
“Ultimately I just want to keep growing and adding on to what I have been building,” Strong said.
That includes continuing to chronicle the lives and careers of the minor league ballplayers in the Pacific Northwest.