MESA, Ariz. — Outfielder Aaron Cunningham opened a suitcase in the clubhouse one morning this spring to reveal more than 100 pairs of specially designed athletic socks in Cubs colors with the Chicago skyline.
Within a few days, he was nearly sold out, and teammates were seen at the end of long practice days kicking back in the clubhouse with their feet propped up, wearing the new socks.
“Baseball doesn’t last forever,” said Cunningham, 27, who has spent parts of five seasons with the Athletics, Padres and Indians. “Might as well get some experience doing other stuff.”
Cunningham, originally a sixth-round draft pick of the White Sox, doesn’t plan to leave his summer job anytime soon. But the kid who always has been drawn to business suddenly has found himself close to the ground floor of a possible second career — by accident.
In fact, the marketing director for the Strideline sock company is like that guy on the hair-growth commercials: He’s also a customer.
Cunningham found a pair of the Seattle version of the socks at a store there when he went home for the holidays once. He called the small company to try to buy more.
What he found was a fast-growing company founded by two guys who still are students at the University of Washington. They’d spent their high school graduation money to pursue this strange sock idea, and it quickly took off, with department stores such as Nordstrom signing on.
“I told them I could help and give them to ballplayers,” said Cunningham, who sets up sock shop during the offseason a day at a time at tournaments in Arizona, where he lives, routinely selling out.
“The best part is, all those players have no clue I play ball,” he said.
It’s grown into a multimillion-dollar business for the founders, and Cunningham is quick to point out his marketing element is only a small part of that growth, though he’s become its most public figure.
“I have the opportunity right now to be around a lot of successful people,” he said, “and after my career’s over — say I’m 35, and I’m done — all the connections I’ve made, I have the opportunity to make something else great happen other than baseball.”
For now, his focus is on what he can do for the Cubs, whether out of camp or as someone to fill a need from Class AAA Iowa at some point this season.
“There’s opportunity,” said Cunningham, who signed as a minor-league free agent. “They didn’t have the year they wanted to last year, so they’re trying to find some guys, maybe find some lightning in a bottle. A lot of us have experience. Just one of us has to stand out.”