Kirkland native Andrew Urrutia realized he was on to something when his Lake Washington High School baseball teammates raved about the cleats he’d custom-designed for himself.
The pitcher would strip his cleats of paint and decals, then repaint them with personalized, colorful designs. Word spread to other schools, where baseball, football and soccer athletes asked him to design their footwear; enough for Urrutia, then 16, to launch a company, TrainKicks, that played off his “A-Train” baseball nickname.
Last summer, 18 years old and an incoming University of Washington freshman, he offered through Instagram to design footwear for several Mariners. Domingo Santana, Brandon Brennan and Matt Magill accepted, leading a New York-based company, Stadium Custom Kicks, to hire TrainKicks as a subcontractor to design for the game’s bigger names and other professional athletes.
“I’ve worked with over 50 active players at this point,” said Urrutia, now 19. He’s designing cleats for former Mariners star Felix Hernandez and other major-leaguers such as Chris Archer, Adam Jones, Edwin Encarnacion and Craig Kimbrell. “It just keeps growing and growing.”
Urrutia planned to meet more players at spring training in Arizona this spring, but the coronavirus pandemic shelved that. So he fills orders from his University District apartment between teleconferenced classes at UW’s Foster School of Business.
He’ll use acetone on shoes to remove the finisher that protects their paint, then a knife to carve off unwanted decals. From there he airbrushes designs using stencils and a special Angelus acrylic paint for shoes that stretches with foot movement.
Major League Baseball has rules about redesign; mandating team colors be respected and limiting additional features that distract. So Urrutia works around those, more businessman than artist.
“I was never that kid who was always doodling in class,” Uruttia said. “I was never really into art, ever. But I knew there was a good way to apply art on to these cleats.”
He’s currently designing for longtime major league catcher Rene Rivera, now with the New York Mets; Kansas City Chiefs backup quarterback Shea Patterson; and Welsh rugby player Steffan Evans. This weekend he’ll ship finished cleats to former Baltimore Orioles star Jones, a former Mariners prospect who is in Japan playing.
And there’s Hernandez, now with the Atlanta Braves. He just placed four orders through Stadium Custom Kicks that Urrutia’s company is tasked with filling. The order involves two pairs of Air Jordan 1 baseball cleats and two pairs of sneakers Hernandez wants similarly designed so his footwear looks the same heading to the ballpark, or standing on the mound.
Though Urrutia hasn’t spoken with Hernandez, who dealt with the New York company on details, designing his cleats is “very surreal.” He credits King Felix with inspiring his transition to pitching and watched the final inning of Hernandez’s 2012 perfect game before every high-school outing.
Just last September, a Seattle Times photographer captured Urrutia snapping a selfie with Hernandez, who’d headed toward King’s Court fans at T-Mobile Park after his final Mariners start. “I jokingly mentioned to my friends that Felix was placing an order and we laughed,” Urrutia said. “Little did we know what the future held.”
His business had begun to take off only the previous month, when Hernandez’s teammate, Santana, met Urrutia outside his apartment to discuss the Instagram offer. Santana paid TrainKicks $150 for a flag of his native Dominican Republic and his grandfather’s depiction on his cleats.
Soon after, cleats designed for Magill were posted on an MLB Instagram account — catching the eye of Stadium Custom Kicks founder Alex Katz, 25 and a Class AA pitcher for the Kansas City Royals.
Katz started his business in 2017 after the Chicago White Sox drafted him out of St. John’s University. As Katz grew clients through baseball, he contracted work out to a handful of shoe artists nationwide while he played.
Urrutia’s company is now one of those. He’ll deal with athletes directly, or, as in Hernandez’s case, fill orders placed through Katz.
“He would always tell me that the one player he wants to work with is Felix, so once that order came in, I knew right away that’s a project for him,” Katz said.
Katz said Urrutia was a perfect fit.
“I could tell right away just by looking at his (Instagram) page that he played baseball in high school, was a huge baseball fan and does quality work,” he said.
Lake Washington won the state 3A championship game in 2018, with starting pitcher Jonathan Vizcarra and then-closer Urrutia wearing customized TrainKicks cleats.
“That right there was the best moment of my life,” Urrutia said.
By last summer, though, it was still the biggest TrainKicks highlight. Urrutia contemplated folding the company.
But he’d won some local scholastic business competitions, and one of the judges — Passport Unlimited CEO Roger Blier, 62 and a former Lake Washington ballplayer — became a mentor and urged Urrutia to push on.
“His product is so different and unique,” Blier said. “He definitely had a differentiator there, and I think it’s something that could just grow. Not just across the country but around the world.”
After chatting with Blier, Urrutia “rolled the dice one last time” with his Instagram appeal to Mariners players. Having generated $12,000 in revenues since, he’s dropped his own baseball career and spends 30 hours a week taking his business as far as the game’s top pros allow.
“When I really want to do something and get an end result, I’m willing to work as hard as it takes to get it.”