November 05, 2019

Words: Abel Garcia / Photography: Preston Dawson

Primtetime, The Kid, Barry; What did they all have in common as ballplayers? They all had Style. If you are not sure what we mean by this, allow us to take you through one of our most exciting interviews so far. We got a chance to sit down and talk to Steven Friend who is the founder and CEO of Steelo Sports and talk 90’s, Hip Hop, Baseball and how he turned a baseball filled life and passion into being the first black-owned glove brands used in Major League Baseball.

What were the big influences for you coming up?

Coming up, I was a big hip hop culture and fashion head. So it was natural for me to gravitate towards creative culture lifestyle activities. I was big into NYC hip hop, the source mag, and hit tons of hip hop concerts in middle school. As I got older and was playing baseball in the little league ranks and above, I really started identifying with some of the greatest players of the time like the Griffey, Bonds, Thomas, Bo Jackson, Prime Time (Deion Sanders), Sheffield, Ozzie Smith, Manny Ramirez, Dunston, Eric Davis…the list goes on. That’s when I really fell in love with the game. I thought it was the dopest thing to see black players wearing hats backward, in commercials, in magazines, and posters. Running up walls, laughing and smiling on the field. 

I remember as a kid collecting autographs after games at the players parking lots. I saw Shawon Dunston come out after a game with his kids, and he was just clean with it. Had a dope gold chain on and was bumping hip hop in his drop top Benz as he left the stadium. I was like wow…that’s hip hop at the highest level. That was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever seen.

You come as quite the creative individual. Did you have a lot of creative influence while growing up? 

Yea man. I’ve always been building and creating since I was a kid. My dad was pretty creative. Funny, my mom thought I was gonna be an architect because I built a model baseball stadium out of various craft materials after reading about another kid who did it in Sports Illustrated for Kids. I think he built Camden Yards or something. I didn’t have direct creative influence per se that was super available to me, but I sought it out from outside of my environment. My mom was an ESL teacher and pops wasn’t around much, but he was the cool dude you know. He was the one pulling up on the weekends bumping Luther Vandross or some other fly R&B music. He fenced for sport in college, loved jazz, was into photography, was in the military for a sec, and a bunch of other random things. So while brief, I would catch vibes from him when I could, and then would seek out things on my own. He planted some serious seeds for sure. I really started harnessing my own creativity thru music and hip hop fashion later on. That’s where it all started to really grow.

You played a high level of competitive baseball, what is that one takeaway from your experience?

I think the one major thing I learned is not excepting “no” for an answer. I had a long term goal of getting to MLB, and a shorter term goal of getting to professional baseball. I had a lot of people along my journey in high school and college who made some solid bold efforts to get in the way of those goals, but when I set my mind to something, I typically always get to that goal. So, of course, I got to pro ball, and I was willing to even sleep in my car at Dodgertown like Willy Mays Hays to get it along the way. Fast forward, I’m in MLB now via this glove brand. God works in amazing ways, and goals can still be reached in various formats and mediums. Sometimes the way you imagined isn’t the exact way it unfolds, but it still happens. The rest of the world’s “no” doesn’t have to be your “no”. Your “yes” is the only one that matters if willing to go thru some pain and patience to get it.

Now I carry that same baseball mentality about everything I do. When my mother told me I “could be anything I wanted to be,” I’m actually that kid that believed it to my core, so I’ve never really thought on any other wavelength. I don’t know how to.

You’re no stranger to the big talent baseball that comes out from a city like LA, so can you tell us how you made your persona and talent shine as a player and how are you transitioning that to Steelo Sports?  

Certainly. My path was strategic, and more so because it had to be. Growing up with a single mom, I had very little peer or adult assistance. So I got creative and smart with it. I watched and recorded video of MLB guys hitting and fielding. Had a ball or tennis ball in hand at all times. Wall throws. I got to MLB games before the gates opened so I could watch the players practice. (That’s where the gems are. That BP and ground ball action in MLB pregame is where you see the raw baseball talent come out with that flavor.)

I knew I had to be 10 times better than my peers and competition just to get any consideration, so I had to smarten up. That was the only way it worked back before all these travel ball teams and catered showcases came about unless you had coaches backing you. As a black player on the amateur level and college level in the 90’s and early 2000’s, you were up against ALL odds. Even your coaches didn’t want to see you succeed. You get the labels we are all familiar with. Attitude issues, lazy, etc, anything to distract from the fact that you kill everything as the only guy that looks like you on the field. So I got a baseball book…I think it was called “breaking into the big leagues.” Mom got it for me. Changed my life. It was everything that scouts looked for and was almost like a blueprint of how to mold yourself into what pro scouts wanted. from scouting evaluation scales to everything. I started going to summer MLB tryout camps as a high school player every year just to be out there with top older talent and scouts. I got a baseball almanac with addresses and sent out letters of interest to about 50 colleges every summer to express my interest in playing college baseball. Where I come from no one helps you out, so I had to get it on my own. Coupled with being 6’3″ and 205 lbs in my prime college years, it wasn’t hard to stand out along with being one of a few black players along with every stop. But you still had to back it up. Fast forward to pro ball I did the same thing after scholarships to D1s.

As a player, I was in that trending crop of large shortstops. I also had locks and braids for a minute in college, still had my hip hop persona and everything like I did before. I and my roommate in juco both had locks, so you know we were clean up the middle at SS and 2B. I’ve just carried that into business. I’ve never really changed. I don’t believe in NOT being myself. I still rocked the Cuban link in my corporate sports career after baseball, just to make a point along the way. Now with Steelo, I own it 100%, so I can do it my way through a different lens, the way that I know, which is with hip hop flavor and creative culture vibes. The response has been a blessing. Most of the minority ball players in pro ball that see what we are doing are all a part of this global hip hop community now anyways. So we get love man. It’s organic and natural. Just like how we used to do freestyle ground ball sessions and behind the back, thru the legs tricks, etc, we got some flavor and tricks for this business of baseball now. So it’s exciting, to say the least.

Let’s talk 90’s baseball, which players made an impact on you as a player that made you somewhat immolate them? 

That’s a really tough question lol. For me, it was probably Bonds, Thomas, Griffey, and Ozzie Smith prior to high school. I mean these dudes were absolute beasts and had the flavor, the endorsement deals, posters, and everything. Bonds had this cross earring that he rocked that I thought was just the flyest thing ever. I actually have a similar earring I rock occasionally when I’m on that vibe. So when you see me with it, you know I’m on that Bonds business lol.

As I got older I really started honing my craft and emulating guys that had both similar body types and who were shortstops. So that was, of course, the rookies Jeter, Arod, a little Royce Clayton, Barry Larkin, Manny Ramirez, and Edgar Renteria. I copped the same ultra tan glove he had with Marlins and used that model from high school thru pro ball. I would watch videos of Arod and Ramirez for hours in slow motion. Any Indians game or Mariners game that was on TV I recorded and analyzed every at-bat and ground ball out. I’m a visual learner so I can see something and then replicate that movement. I did that for hours and years until it was muscle memory.

Now that you reflect on that era of baseball, are you taking anything from that and incorporating it into Steelo? 

Yes. Everything that Steelo represents is from that flavor and style from that 80’s and 90’s vibe. Not even because it has been trendy of late to go retro, but because that’s me. That’s my influence, and that’s what baseball needs right now. So it’s using that energy from those times, and re-purposing it for a modern day through a slightly different lens. Steelo is about authentic style, energy, and creativity. I mean the term is literally taken from hip hop culture. You hear the term in Nas’, Biggie, and Method Man’s albums. It’s embedded in the culture. 

Across Social Media, your profile is quite unique, do you feel like you present yourself as a creative individual? 

To be honest, I’ve always kinda hid behind the scenes. I mean in high school some of my peers and friends didn’t even know I played baseball till like senior year. I never wanted to be a jock. I’ve always had a double life with baseball and hip hop. It just wasn’t me. Steelo is the full circle blend of both, so I guess in a way I may present as a creative individual, but outside of a business position title, I just feel authentic to self. When I’m on my Bonds vibe or hip hop vibe I’ll “appear” more creative, but I also have a very binary and simple vibe that some people see and others don’t. I’m only now just starting to embrace even talking about myself or presenting myself in any kind of way. I tend to just move in silence and let my work speak for itself.

Where do you get your influence from and how do you define your style? 

As an adult, I now get my influence from a few things and places. I listen to God and what he has for me, so I work to stay in tune to that as best I can. That keeps me authentic to self. Outside of that, I pay attention to a close friend of mine who I just love to see winning in and around the game of baseball and popular culture. I poke around in fashion design and watch what Virgil Abloh is doing. Kanye. My best friend Anthony has supported and helped his brother Jerry Lorenzo grow his Fear of God brand to global status as we all see it now, so I gotta stay tuned and support Anthony blend that with his work with the MLB Urban Youth Academies and furthering the dialog and movement he’s working on to the top. I pop in on Hypebeast occasionally to see what kids are doing these days, complex, etc. But I don’t overdo it. I like to have blinders on so I can just go towards whatever vision I have without too much influence from others. There’s a lot of distractions out there if you let them in. It’s really easy to end up just doing what others do that way.

Style. I’m simple man. I like simple things. I think less is more when it comes to my personal style. I’m typically denim, tee, and or hoody guy with a dope pair of sneakers on. I like hats. I like watches. The occasional Cuban link. I used to do footwear and fashion design when I was running an up and coming streetwear brand, so that stuff comes out occasionally. But I like to be comfortable man. I’m not too into myself, to be honest. I probably make more of an effort to NOT standout than to be seen. Unless I got that Bonds earring in. lol. But seriously, I’ve never changed.

Steelo is a brand that cuts through many cultures, does Music play a part in it?

Music to me is everything. When I was young I used to order these DJ catalogs as a kid. Never DJ’d, but did later dabble in music production when the digital tools came out. Music is probably one of the only expressive mediums today that can move mountains of people. It touches people on such an emotional level with immediacy. But I’m selective these days. When working on Steelo I typically have hip-hop music or lounge house playing to catch a vibe. I listen to a lot of classical music or jazz as well when I need to calm my mind. 

Where do you get your creative inspiration from? 

I usually get a feeling, or see something in passing, or hear something and I harness that energy into something visually or tangibly when it comes to gloves and other projects I’m working on. It’s not easy to “be creative.” For me, it just happens. As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to understand the triggers and environments that spark my creativity. So I try to pay attention to things and people that excite my emotional side. That gets me going and can keep me in an extended creative state. I’ve got a physical and mental catalog of all the things Steelo is about to be doing. So I just keep making deposits. It’ll be fun to watch them materialize as this thing grows.

Can you describe Steelo in 5 words? 

The Dopest Movement In Baseball.

The #1 glove made by Pro Players, care to dig deeper into this? 

This is pretty straight forward. I’m not Wilson, I’m not Rawlings or any other of the various brands out there that are big corporations. Steelo was created and made by myself, and input from other pro players, and is what I believe to be the #1 glove on the market. We’ve all put our hand into some of these other brands, but Steelo is a whole other experience. it stands for something vs. just being another “thing.” I never started modeling and crafting my gloves based on American glove companies. I honestly barely pay attention to any American brands. I actually ditched them all once I hit high school because the performance quality wasn’t there. I only learned from the best brands overseas in Asia. That’s what I used as a player, so that’s what I know. I’ve only ever worn the best gloves in the world, so it was important to create from that angle for Steelo. Most people don’t even know that the Asian glove market is by far the best and most advanced in the world when it comes to craftsmanship. Its all about perfection over there from a cultural mentality. The easiest route is to make gloves with synthetic materials and spin them off as better products. We all know who those brands are. Most consumers don’t even know this is a bottom line business trick to lower operational costs and to make more money off consumers by keeping retail prices high. I don’t do that. I’m about performance and quality. And I can do it without cutting corners on materials. 

Could you briefly walk us through the Steelo sports timeline?

Sure. This was a thought in my mind since 2013. Made the first samples in winter 2016 after doing a ton of research. Soft launched in 2017 to start testing the product. Signed athletes to deals in 2018 and became the 1st black-owned glove brand used in MLB. Now in 2019 going into 2020, I’ve got some even doper things coming into fruition soon. I’m really excited about what’s coming. I’m about to come out of left field with it…or maybe even the parking lot lol.

Hip-hop and fashion are starting to connect to baseball, and we are part of the reason but can you also tell us how Steelo is also playing a key influence with this?

One of the big goals of Steelo is to bring more minorities to the game of baseball. To garner interest. To give minorities representation on a product level, business level, and marketing level within the game of baseball, so that it’s relevant to them. With that comes to fashion, creative culture, and hip-hop. So we will be blending all of this on a business level and on a marketing level. The goal is to get more dialog happening so that baseball as a sport starts embracing underprivileged perspectives and communities the same way that the NBA and NFL have. A lot of people have always said that kids play other sports like football and basketball, and are leaving the sport of baseball. But I think that there is also a marketing and socioeconomic component that is also inhibiting this integration. Baseball is one of the coolest sports in America If minority players get opportunities to play and show that. People forget there was an entire major negro league. That’s a whole league of flavor. Latin countries got full leagues to this day of flavor. So I have a duty to correct that to the best of my ability, and in the most authentic way, I know how. Through hip-hop culture and through supporting the communities that are underserved and that have been blocked from the game.

Let’s go ahead in time for a bit, tell us where do you see Steelo sports in 2021. 

Great question. I see MLB level representation. I see community representation. I see a full circle evolution of how legacy brands and companies in the game control market share. I see the same evolution of streetwear and pop culture brands pushing out legacy brands who are no longer relevant nor authentic. I see more players with purpose, supporting brands with a purpose. I see hip hop becoming an undeniable force that inevitably will break down the walls in MLB. We’ve already seen small attempts at this commercialized poorly. But its a start. I see growth man. Lots of it.

Where can everyone keep up with you to learn more? (Website, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc)

They can hit the website at steelosports.com and on the gram @steelosports or @stevenfriend.

Last Cut: Any last words?   

Yea man. Dream big and hustle hard. Everything is attainable.


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