Baron Batch loves a lot of things. His Wikipedia page isn’t one of them.
“Someone needs to tell them that I’m not a free agent,” he says. “Tell them to change that. I’m not a former, only-football player. Hold up! Tell them what I’m doing!”
Since walking away from football a year ago, Batch has aggressively carved out niches as an artist, entrepreneur, writer, speaker, photographer, videographer and personality. In a town which has twice cried Renaissance only to see one come during a time when the rest of the country faltered, Batch is Pittsburgh’s resident polymath.
A native of west Texas, Batch came to Pittsburgh in 2011 when the Steelers took him with the 232nd overall pick in that year’s NFL draft. The day before the team’s first preseason game, Batch tore his ACL in practice and wound up on injured reserve.
With more free time on his hands than most people would know what to do with and an apartment of nothing but empty walls, he took up painting.
“I was creative as a kid and kind of fell away from it,” he says. “I knew I could have something better than Ikea art, and I feel like I could just make that. That’s a hobby. It’s something I can do on my own, and I thought I might enjoy it.”
He’s been rolling with it ever since. He worked out of a basement and later the attic of his house.
He also kept making salsa, something he and a friend started doing while in college at Texas Tech. As Batch tells it, even in the sweltering heat of Lubbock, he couldn’t find the right mix of vegetables and spices he was looking for, so it only made sense that he start to make his own. Now, his Angry Man Salsa sells out on the Internet within days of each batch becoming available.
He also kept writing, another college pursuit. As a running back at Tech, Batch approached the Avalanche-Journal, Lubbock’s local newspaper, about penning a weekly column, thinking he should have some broader experience should football not work out. He wrote that column through April of this year, and has maintained a blog on his website, where he writes about everything from making art to essays on epistemology, existence and introspection.
Earlier this year, he leased the space in Homestead which was most recently home to Smoke Barbecue Taqueria, the celebrated Pittsburgh taco joint in the process of relocating to Lawrenceville. For Batch, it’s more than just a workspace. In addition to serving as the hub for his art, the space—called Studio A.M.—serves as a kind of modern-day version of the classical French salon; a space where creatives can convene, work and collaborate, but only if they’re willing to make an appointment on Twitter and, more importantly, hustle.
“The hustle is what matters,” he says.
Hustle is at the center of everything Batch does. It’s where passion, dedication, creativity and strategy mix with blood, sweat and tears. It’s how Batch turns ideas into reality and products into profits. It’s the inspiration for Studio A.M.’s motto, “Up late, up early.”
It’s how he’s shown and sold his art in cities across the country, how he’s created a salsa so good that folks in West Texas pay to import it from Pittsburgh and how he and business partner John Malecki have made something of a cottage industry out of building customized furniture and cornhole sets.
And it’s what constantly drives Batch toward honing his crafts.
“He’ll stand here and bang out 40 paintings in a month. It’s just unheard of,” says Malecki, the native Pittsburgher and former pro offensive lineman whose Wikipedia page says he’s still an active member of the Steelers. “And then he’ll look back four months from then and say, ‘Man, was I lazy. I could have worked better and faster and more efficiently.’ The world perceives laziness as the amount of what you’re producing, but he just doesn’t see it that way.”
For Batch, the inclination to create is inexorably linked with the drive to compete. A lot of kids who are competitive love creating, he says, but many are dissuaded from it because it doesn’t jive with the way team sports, such as football, teach competition.
“The mentality is that you’re taught to compete, but you don’t know what competition really is. There is no other form of competition that is more important than someone being able to compete with themselves,” he says. “They should teach competition like this: if you team up with your smartest friends and come up with your best ideas, you can be the first person to do something that changes the world. That’s how you compete. You survive off of your ideas.”
Buried not too deeply underneath all this is the not-so-subtle irony that Batch came to Pittsburgh to do something which for the last 40 years has been the only thing keeping Pittsburgh on a lot of people’s maps: he came to play football.
But the things which have kept him here are all qualities prominent in the city’s substantial rebirth—a collaborative spirit, a penchant for innovative enterprise and the same mad work ethic which drove the city to greatness in the first place, but with a decidedly more democratized bend.
In this way, Batch is ideally emblematic of Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh’s the frontier of a new era,” he says. “You can see it here. When you go around other parts of the country, it’s not like this. There are people here willing to hustle.”
While he hasn’t thrown a grand opening party for Studio A.M., it’s up and running in full throttle. Batch is working on partnering with different local chefs to cook dinners in the studio’s kitchen, allowing people to eat and mingle while he paints.
An investor just granted him access to a pair of large Lawrenceville warehouses, one vacant and the other filled with knick-knacks ranging from antique furniture to pieces of old movie sets.
The latter will provide him with access to materials for his art, while he plans to use the former to mount installation pieces and shows. While he no longer considers himself a free agent by the NFL’s standards, there’s little doubt as to his status as one in life’s grander scheme.
“You can do whatever you want, as long as you hustle. You can just do good business and make anything and use that to feed yourself,” he says.
“Tonight, we’re going to pick up a piano and I’m going to paint a piano. Tomorrow will be different.”