Mendez returns to Camden Yards to visit sculptures
Artist and Orioles fan leaves legacy with statues to honor Hall of Famers
One of the most endearing developments in baseball in recent years has been the erection of baseball statues at most of the ballparks in the Major Leagues. Philadelphians gather before games at Ashburn Alley, paying homage to Phillies Hall of Famers Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts and Mike Schmidt. In baseball history-rich Cincinnati, Reds fans meet in front of likenesses of team greats such as Ernie Lombardi and Joe Morgan, as do Pittsburghers in front of renderings of Honus Wagner and Willie Stargell.
For statues that coincided with a team's rebirth, however, none can match the six likenesses of Orioles Hall of Famers that were unveiled in 2012 during a season that saw the re-emergence of Baltimore as a contender after 15 years of irrelevance.
Late last month, a gaggle of fans were animatedly gathered behind the center-field fence at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, taking snaps in front of a sculpture of a determined Cal Ripken Jr., pursed lips and all, reaching out for a throw at second base. Unbeknownst to them, taking in the scene with quiet satisfaction was Toby Mendez, the sculptor of all the Orioles Hall of Famers at Camden Yards: Frank and Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, manager Earl Weaver, Eddie Murray and Ripken Jr.
Mendez, a youthful-looking man in his early 50s, has built an impressive career as the sculptor of major works in both the non-sports and sports worlds -- his likeness of Mahatma Gandhi stands in Suffolk County, N.Y., and his statue of the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall can be found at the Maryland statehouse in Annapolis.
Among Mendez's earlier baseball triumphs was a statue of Nolan Ryan tipping his cap to the fans that was commissioned by the Texas Rangers for Globe Life Park in Arlington, formerly known as The Ballpark in Arlington. The people in Ryan's hometown of Alvin, Texas, were so thrilled by Mendez's creation that they ordered a duplicate for themselves.
Mendez spent his first years in Asia, where his father was working for the American government -- you might recognize the name of Tony Mendez, the CIA official who wrote the book about the Iranian militants' takeover of the American embassy that became the Oscar-winning film "Argo."
When Toby was not quite a teenager, the family settled outside Frederick, Md., about an hour west of Baltimore, an area where Toby still lives. He grew up a Red Sox fan because his best friend, an ardent member of the Fenway faithful, took him to his first game, a Red Sox-Orioles matchup at old Memorial Stadium.
It is fascinating how what became Toby's two favorite teams, the Red Sox and the Orioles, have become linked in his work. In 2007, he was hired by Boston president and chief executive officer Larry Lucchino to sculpt statues of four Red Sox: Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams, who were immortalized by the late David Halberstam in his book "Teammates." Late last season, Mendez's sculpture of Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski was dedicated at Fenway Park.
Architect Janet Marie Smith, who was working at the time on the Fenway Park renovations, thought of Mendez when she returned to Baltimore to work on the 20th anniversary refurbishment of Camden Yards, in which she had been a major player. Mendez recalls that his first meeting with Orioles officials came the day after the end of the 2011 season, when the Orioles prevented the staggering Red Sox from making the playoffs on utility man Robert Andino's walk-off base hit.
The attention to detail in the six Baltimore sculptures is no accident.
"Owner Peter Angelos wanted to get everything just right," Mendez said. "Each one of the sculptures was vetted at least 12 times by people in the Orioles organization."
When Jim Palmer noted that his follow through was inaccurate in an early Mendez rendering, the sculptor decided to position Palmer entering the stretch.
"There's a little bit of fear in my face, so you got it right," Palmer quipped at the ceremony when his statue was unveiled.
Frank Robinson was the only sculpture focus that Mendez had not seen play or manage in person. He drew on a Life Magazine cover photo from 1966, the year Baltimore shocked the world with its sweep of the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Mendez also consulted a photo for his Yastrzemski work.
Feisty Earl Weaver was at first skeptical about the project, but he was won over by Mendez's obvious admiration for the team's excellence.
"He started to call me 'Tobe,' just like my father," Mendez said fondly. "Earl was so unfiltered, he was pretty amazing to be around."
As his statue neared completion, Earl inevitably started to make suggestions.
"How about more teeth in my face and less fat in my cheeks?" Weaver asked.
Fortunately, Earl lived to see all six statues unveiled -- he passed away early in 2013 while on a baseball cruise in the Caribbean.
Switch-hitter Eddie Murray, portrayed powerfully digging into the left-handed batter's box, became a particular favorite of Mendez. Like Weaver, Murray had also been skeptical about the project, but he soon became entranced by the whole process.
After the season, Mendez invited Murray, who grew up and still makes his home in Los Angeles, to the Hollywood opening of "Argo." Murray had never been to a film premiere, and he was wary. When told all he had to do was to wear a suit and eat popcorn, Murray said, "I can do that." At the after-party, Murray went up to actor John Goodman, who played Babe Ruth in a biopic.
"Can a real baseball player say hello to an actor who played one?" Murray said to an awed Goodman.
It remains to be seen whether the 2014 Orioles can recapture on the field the magic of the '12 season. But there is no doubt that Mendez's larger-than-life sculptures have cemented their place in the hearts and minds of Baltimore fans everywhere. And all baseball fans should pay a visit to them on a future trip to Camden Yards.
Lee Lowenfish is a contributor to MLB.com. He is the author of the award-winning biography, "Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.