Tom Tsuchiya

By John Erardi, Cincinnati People contributor

Photos and video by Madison Schmidt

Tom Tsuchiya is climbing the figurative ladder, producing what just might be the sculpture of a lifetime.

The Indian Hill High and University of Cincinnati graduate debuted spectacularly on the national stage last summer as the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s sculptor of plaques. He nailed the images of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza, drawing praise from both all-timers. Tsuchiya already had an enviable portfolio.

It began in 2000 with D’Artagnan outside Xavier’s Cintas Center, and rapidly escalated to the four statues in Crosley Plaza – Frank Robinson, Ted Kluszewski, Joe Nuxhall and Ernie Lombardi – a focal point at Great American Ball Park, and a backdrop of sorts for Tsuchiya’s revered Big Red Machine statues. 

As Joe Morgan told Johnny Bench, “yours is a statue; mine is a sculpture.” That good-natured zinger is a throwback to their playing days. Tsuchiya got a chuckle of Morgan’s characterization.

Tsuchiya also commemorated Tony Perez, whose sculpture was unveiled in August 2015 between Bench's and Morgan's.

Now comes the pièce de résistance.

Tsuchiya's headfirst depiction of Pete Rose – the sculptor’s most challenging work of art thus far -- is next up, set for unveiling and dedication June 17, located between Morgan’s race down the basepath and Perez’s famous swing in Game Seven of the 1975 World Series.

Tsuchiya wouldn’t volunteer the words, maybe because he felt he’d be overstepping his bounds as an artist, but I have no problem saying it: The Rose headfirst slide – a crystalline manifestation of zest and joy for the game, unbridled energy and unabashed hunger -- is our greatest symbol as a city and as a region; it is who we are or imagine ourselves to be.  Basically and simply, it’s why so many of us have forgiven Rose his transgressions off the field.

We go for the gusto, we give no quarter, we live life to the full. (I mean, seriously, who would be so enthusiastic about beginning of baseball season that they’d have an Opening Day parade for gosh sake?)

The work-in-progress is presently housed inside the sculptor’s Essex Avenue studio between Walnut Hills, Clifton and Over-the-Rhine – right about where I-71 and Reading Road meet. When“Cincinnati People” visited last week,  it was obvious Tsuchiya appeared to be well on the way to nailing another one: the launch of the signature move of Cincinnati’s most famous son.

“I want it to be something that the people of Cincinnati – all of Reds Country, actually – can be very proud of,” Tsuchiya said. “It’s not just for the Reds, not just for Pete Rose fans.”

In the 10-week ramp-up to the completion and unveiling of the Rose statue, I defy anybody to try to do a profile of Tsuchiya without focusing on the re-creation of the slide. It’s a tribute to Rose’s hold on the city that he can’t be separated from it, even though he no longer lives here.

I’d known only a sliver of the challenge Tsuchiya has faced in producing his latest work-of-art: I’d begun my sports writing career 31 years ago with a book titled “Pete Rose: 4,192,” about the Sedamsville Kid’s pursuit of Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record.

In the book, my take on the “look” of Charlie Hustle’sfamous headfirst slide is this: “… Arms extended, eyes open, helmet gone, hair flying back, body headed for a crashing finish, like a 747 hitting the runway without landing gear down.”

I didn’t know what I was trying to say at the time, but after seeing Tsuchiya’s depiction of the Rose slide, I do. Rose himself has said that his chest absorbed a lot of the force of the landing; otherwise, his elbows and forearms would have been a bloody, scabbed-up mess. His chest was the belly of the plane, a 747 hitting the runway without landing gear down.

“Pete was raw power, reckless power going headfirst into the bases,” Tsuchiya said. “On the radio he said would land on his chest, but that’s not what I’ve seen (on the film footage). I think what he was doing was (shifting and absorbing) the force of the impact to his chest. He’s a big man, stout. He and Johnny (Bench) were like tanks.”

It is also true that Rose didn’t always slide exactly the same way. Depending on where the throw was coming from and where it was being received, he would adjust accordingly. Tsuchiya pointed to a photo wall with two dozen Rose headfirst slides on it. Sometimes his legs are higher than other times; sometimes his right elbow hits the ground first; sometimes his left; often both.

The best way I've ever heard Pete Rose's iconic headfirst slide described was by his protégé, Barry Larkin, who told me, "That's not a slide; it's a launch -- it's Superman."

It takes one to know one: As a boy, Larkin had to be stitched up after he launched himself from the stairs at his family’s home in Silverton, thinking he was Superman.

Tsuchiya was always cognizant that the sculpture had to have a “wow” factor to it, because Rose was a “wow” player, a showman, always out to give fans their money’s worth. The weight alone of the entire statue has a “wow” factor: 1,200 pounds.

If Bench’s is a statue and Morgan’s is sculpture, somebody’s going to have to come up with a new word for Rose’s, because it’s one-of-a-kind combination of aviation technology and state-of-the-art materials, all with a cantilever design. That precise mix has never been done before in a public monument – for good reason: safety.

A cantilever is a projecting beam or member supported at only one end. Gravity, weight, angle, balance, stress and materials all enter into ensuring that the cantilever design function safely.

“Oh, and those materials can’t cost five gazillion dollars,” Tsuchiya said. “We have to be able to afford to do it.”

The statue is designed to withstand an earthquake, endure longer than the stadium it fronts and hold a Prince Fielder at his heaviest atop each Rose heel – simultaneously.

Let’s face it: We all know people who are going to climb atop ol’ Peter Edward and strike some crazy poses.

“I had a whole team of engineers I was working with – three engineers from GE Aviation and my main structural engineer, who put a ton of time into it; that’s when I knew it would be safe,” Tsuchiya said.

There’s way more science and backstory to this sculpture than I intend to get into here, but suffice to say GE Aviation, based right here in Evendale, played a major role.

Among the people Tsuchiya credits by name are Tom Wallace and Brent Tholke. Wallace -- who contributed “tons” of hours on the project, said Tsuchiya -- is chief consulting engineer of systems at GE Aviation; Tholke (by way of Rose’s West High and huge Big Red Machine fan) is senior technical leader of materials at GE Aviation.

Tsuchiya also credits in general his mentors for their inspiration and example: the late sculptor Richard J. Miller and noted portrait painter Carin Hebenstreit, a consultant on many of his major works, including Rose.

“I’ve been thinking about using a cantilever for a sculpture for about 10 years, but it wasn’t until 2013 that I applied the thinking (to the Rose statue),” Tsuchiya said. “I’d even begun thinking of working with GE engineers -– of bringing them onto the project – and it just happened that I met Brent Tholke at the All-Star Fan Fest in 2015” and it all began to come together.

There’s a strong sense of body-in-motion and power to the Rose statue, even though it is obviously stationary. Some of the techniques Tsuchiya used to convey movement were things a human body in motion wouldn’t or couldn’t do – an outward-turned upper foot, for example.

“One of the things I that made this so enjoyable was getting people involved from all over Reds Country,” said the sculptor. “People who grew up in Indiana, south of Columbus, Northern Kentucky, following the Big Red Machine, are involved in the fabrication of this. I got the Rosie Reds who helped put clay on it, the Boys Hope-Girls Hope kids who put the primer on the foam. The foundry is in Indianapolis, the western edge of Reds Country.”

As Tsuchiya noted, the work-in-progress is “on schedule, but not ahead of schedule.”

For a project this anticipated – with a date set so solidly in stone -- Tsuchiya dares not miss his deadline, because then he’d have to enter the witness-protection program, and we’d never hear from him again.

“There’ll be 50,000 people down there and if there’s no Pete (statue), I’ll be in Mexico somewhere,” said Tsuchiya, managing a grin. 

Given the number of eyes -- some likely national -- that figure to be on this work,  it certainly doesn’t hurt that the team in town to play the Reds that weekend is the Los Angeles Dodgers, with one of biggest media markets in the country.

Tsuchiya noted that he’s visited other places in the country and the world and that he’s heard it personally and from friends who are travelers, whether it be to New Zealand or Argentina.

“It’s happened more than once,” Tsuchiya said. “A person from those far-flung places who’s old enough to remember the 1970s asks the traveler where he or she is from. The traveler thinks, ‘Oh, no way they’ll have heard of Cincinnati.’ But when (the traveler) says ‘Cincinnati,’ the response is ‘Pete Rose!’

“It’s crazy! They don’t’ know anything about Cincinnati, but they’ll know ‘Pete Rose.’ ”