- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - In early March, Tom Tsuchiya will point his orange 2011 Honda Element east and drive about five hours from Cincinnati bearing precious cargo.

Once he arrives at the sprawling Brookline facility on West Liberty Avenue that houses the Matthews International Bronze Division, the 43-year-old sculptor will hand over a pair of clay images he designed and created in about six weeks. This will set in motion a process, the results of which are images cast in bronze and plaques unveiled on the grounds of Clark Athletic Center in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 25 when Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza become the newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In their speeches they will laugh, maybe cry, reminisce and thank loved ones and other appropriate people. They also will lay their eyes, for the first time, on the work of Tsuchiya (pronounced Soo-cheeya) and the Matthews team, which produced the lasting likenesses and, in a sense, immortality.

“It would definitely be a big moment and a special moment for me,” said Tsuchiya, who is creating the Hall of Fame images for the first time. “With these guys, it will be a complete surprise. It’s hard to know what I’ll feel like because everything I’ve done at this point, it’s never been a surprise to the subject. But I’m confident it will look good.”

Matthews has made the plaques since about 1983. Tsuchiya, the son of Japanese immigrants, is a rookie. For most of the last 20 years, the job went to Pittsburgh native Mindy Ellis, who helped create 76 plaques.

Ellis, who lives in Bethel Park, is unable to produce the finely detailed, bas-relief images measuring about 4 inches by 3 inches. She had surgery on her right hand and elbow three weeks ago to help relieve carpal tunnel and cubital tunnel syndromes. She will have surgery on her left arm next month.

“As an artist, those are your main tools,” she said. “I’ve done art my whole life and worked very hard with my hands.”

Although most of the public was unfamiliar with Ellis, the art and baseball communities hold her work in high regard. With final approval on every image and exacting standards, the Hall is especially demanding.

“When you think that a plaque starts as a ball of clay, and through her vision and skill Mindy is able to turn it into a very good likeness of a player, it’s uncanny how accurate she is,” Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said. “It’s not a photograph. It’s a piece of art.”

Ellis “brought a great eye for detail,” said Josh Rooney, Matthews’ sales and marketing director for sports and entertainment. “She brought a consistency. She recognizes when she puts a line on a face how that will be viewed on a wall.”

A lifelong Reds fan, Tsuchiya designed the seven sculptures of the club’s all-time greats situated outside Great American Ball Park. He is working on an eighth, the big one, Pete Rose. Tsuchiya got to know Rooney through such work and projects he did for Matthews (including a likeness of pitcher Jamie Moyer for his Mariners Hall of Fame plaque). Rooney, the son of former Penguins president Tom Rooney and nephew of Steelers patriarch Art Rooney Sr., said he saw Tsuchiya as a “potential heir apparent,” calling him “a natural fit.”

Tsuchiya said he is especially thrilled to create the Griffey plaque. Even though Junior will go into the Hall wearing a Mariners cap, he grew up in Cincinnati while his father played for the Reds and later spent nine seasons there.

The Hall of Fame selects the photographs as a guide for the sculptors, but, like Ellis, Tsuchiya, who uses computer modeling during the early stages, can add his own interpretations. For example, he said he will try to incorporate Griffey’s love of the game into the likeness.

“You want to capture the player’s personality,” he said. “A little bit of their soul.”

The transformation from clay to bronze happens at the Matthews facility, which manufactures countless plaques, memorials and statues, among other items. Plant manager Greg Geer said he is “so proud of the fact” his company makes the Hall of Fame plaque, noting how that enhanced his visit to Cooperstown with his father.

“Baseball connects generations in my family,” he said.

Geer is a Tigers fan from Toledo, Ohio. Production manager Bernie Kuhn, on the other hand, is a Pittsburgh native and lifelong Pirates fan. He said it “definitely was a big deal” when Bill Mazeroski in 2001 became the most recent Pirate to be inducted.

“Anything Pittsburgh-related we take to heart,” said Geer, citing another Matthews-produced work, the Franco Harris Immaculate Reception plaque displayed near Heinz Field. A copy is kept on the premises.

When Tsuchiya arrives with the clay images of Piazza and Griffey, he will meet with sculpting coordinator Jason Herniak to go over the likeness as it conforms to the Hall’s specifications. Herniak also provides Hall of Fame inductees reduced-scale replicas of their plaques. He showed the models from last year’s class in unfinished form. Among the four was Braves pitcher John Smoltz.

“That one bugged me,” Herniak admitted. “When I was in high school, who was beating the Pirates all the time? John Smoltz.”

In the foundry, the clay sculptures are buried face up in sand that will be cured and hardened to form the molds. Molten bronze, 2,150 degrees, emerges from the furnace via a pouring crane into a crucible and is poured into flasks containing the molds, its orange glow turning an ominous greenish-yellow.

After the plaques harden and are removed, Tsuchiya and Doug Wood, a tooler and finishing specialist - the equivalent of a closer - go over all dimensions of the plaque before it is marked ready for Cooperstown. Wood ticked off the final tasks - square it up, get the sides even, make sure it sits flat, drill holes for mounting, go over all letters and emblems, ensure correct punctuation and spelling, sandblast and paint and highlight to get just the right shadings.

Wood, who has a dry, sardonic air about him and a long beard, was asked if he looks forward to the time of year when he helps make the plaques.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’re the only ones that do it.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. Reach him at [email protected] or via [email protected]_Trib.

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com


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