STEUBENVILLE - Zack D'Ulisse always has loved baseball.
From the Little League fields at Belleview Park to playing baseball at Catholic Central High School and then helping to organize a club team at the University of Akron, the 24-year old D'Ulisse always has wanted to be involved in the game.
He even interned with the Akron Racers, a professional women's softball team in Akron.
PERSONAL T-SHIRTS — Zack D’Ulisse of Steubenville and owner of Center Field Smoke Designs shows off three of the T-shirts he has designed for Pittsburgh Pirates baseball players, including T-shirts for Jordy Mercer, Jason Grilli and Tony Sanchez. -- Dave Gossett
D'Ulisse couldn't attend today's home opener in Pittsburgh against the Chicago Cubs but he does plan on being at PNC Stadium on Sunday when the Pirates host the St. Louis Cardinals.
"I realized at Akron University I wasn't going to be a professional ball player but I still wanted to be close to the game in some fashion. I started college with a major in communications and thought maybe I could be a sports writer or baseball broadcaster. And then later I switched to a graphics design major and started thinking about designing T-shirts for ball players," related D'Ulisse.
From that love of the game and fascination with art design came Center Field Smoke Designs that has seen D'Ulisse live his dream and create T-shirts for the professional ball players he has watched on television and visits to baseball parks.
"I guess my interest in graphic design started in art class at Catholic Central. I always took art class a little more seriously. And I have always been an entrepreneur. I was always involved in creating T-shirts while I have been at the University of Akron. During my freshman year I put out 300 T-shirts and sold them on campus. Social media was my main marketing tool with that. I tried to watch what was the hot topic and then create a T-shirt and walk around selling them on campus," the animated D'Ulisse explained.
That all changed in August 2012 when D'Ulisse sat down in his room to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates and A.J. Burnett square off against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Hanley Ramirez.
"Burnett and Ramirez had been jawing at each other throughout the game and when Burnett struck out Ramirez, the talk got even more intense. Finally Burnett told Ramirez to sit down with an expletive included. My friends and I were watching the game on the MLB network and and one of them told me I should make a T-shirt from Burnett's words to Ramirez," said D'Ulisse.
"I created the T-shirt design and put it on a spreadsheet website. I started tweeting a photo of the T-shirt and marketing it a little bit and somehow A.J. Burnett's wife saw the photo and contacted me about buying the T-shirt for her husband. That's when the sales blew up and I started making a little money. A.J. bought several T-shirts for himself, his family and friends. I really owe my success in making the T-shirts for ball players to A.J. Burnett and his wife Karen. They made this all possible," said D'Ulisse.
"And when the Pirates made the playoffs last season I was watching MLB network and there was A.J. Burnett wearing one of my T-shirts spraying champagne in the clubhouse. That made me feel so proud," D'Ulisse said.
"It has been great ever since. I probably create a new T-shirt every week. Since A.J. went to the Phillies I have been working on a new design for him because he still wants to wear my T-shirts. I have also made personal T-shirts for Jason Grilli, Jordy Mercer and Tony Sanchez of the Pirates, as well as members of the Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox. Tony Sanchez is always promoting my centerfieldsmoke.com Website. And we talk on a regular basis. He is a great guy," according to D'Ulisse.
"Tony told me that when he made the show I better have a T-shirt for him. So when he came up to the majors I created a T-shirt highlighting his catcher's mask. He bought 32 T-shirts to give to people. Tony has been one of my supporters," commented D'Ulisse.
His relationship with the Pittsburgh Pirates continued last year when D'Ulisse and his girlfriend were invited onto the field at PNC Park to meet several of his T-shirt customers.
"I was at Jamboree in the Hills last year and had my iPad turned off. I turned it back on when I came home and there was an e-mail from the Italian-American Baseball Association who wanted to use my Jason Grilli T-shirt in their display. They set up a meeting with Jason Grilli and I received a field pass during batting practice before a game. And there I am with my girlfriend on the ball field," laughed D'Ulisse.
"I was standing in front of the Pirates dugout when A.J. walked by and yelled out, 'Hey there's D'Ulisse.' He ran into the clubhouse and brought back a couple of wristbands he wears and gave them to me. All of the Pirates are really fun to talk to and be around and, of course, I loved watching them last year when they were on their playoff run. I still love baseball and it is fun to be around the game," noted D'Ulisse.
"And it is especially cool to be walking around the ball park and see someone wearing one of my T-shirts. I want to run up and ask them how they got the shirt," he laughed.
"I also do a few designs for the Browns and the Steelers. But my main focus now is baseball. And the sales will pick up once the season really gets under way," D'Ulisse said.
But with graduation from college set for May, D'Ulisse now is looking for a job while continuing his T-shirt design business on the side.
"I would love to have the financial backing to open my own shop. That would require a significant investment. Right now I design the T-shirts and then send the design to a company that prints and ships the T-shirts. I do the design and sales. But I would really like to handle everything myself. I hope to find a job that will allow me to continue the T-shirts. And the best job I could hope for is one with the Pirates. My love of baseball is continuing and I hope to stay close to the game," stressed D'Ulisse.
"I hope to find a job in Pittsburgh to be close to my girlfriend, to be able to go to the ball games and where I can still work on my T-shirts," said D'Ulisse.
(Gossett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)