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The National Baseball Hall of Fame will induct several new members

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Sunday, in Cooperstown, N.Y., the National Baseball Hall of Fame will enshrine seven new members - Bud Fowler, Buck O'Neil, Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat and a more recent star, David Ortiz. Each will be honored with a bronze plaque that will hang in perpetuity in Cooperstown. And the unveiling of these plaques on Sunday - it is a big moment for the players, their families and also one other person - the artist who made the plaques. Keith O'Brien has the story.

KEITH O'BRIEN, BYLINE: There comes a point every spring when Tom Tsuchiya travels everywhere with a small wooden box. It has a gold handle, a latch that locks and a sticker on the side that says, National Baseball Hall of Fame. But it's the contents that really matter.

TOM TSUCHIYA: All of the plaques that I work on - I keep them in this box. I don't let them out of my sight (laughter).

O'BRIEN: Part of it is the secrecy of the project. Only Tsuchiya and a tiny team at the Hall of Fame see the plaques before the induction ceremony. But mostly, Tsuchiya just doesn't want to lose his work. Each one could take 50 hours to make because he's sculpting the faces of the players on them. He needs to capture how they smiled or scowled. He needs to do it in a space that's roughly 5 inches wide by 7 inches tall. It needs to be evocative and perfect. And he's on deadline.

TSUCHIYA: 'Cause the date for the induction doesn't change. That doesn't move (laughter), so - and then I don't want to let anyone down, of course.

O'BRIEN: The work happens here...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SQUEAKING)

O'BRIEN: ...Behind a large door, inside an old textile mill in Cincinnati. This is Tsuchiya's studio, and it's cluttered with old sculptures. He's a full-time artist, and he's done all sorts of work over the years. He's built statues of long-forgotten civil rights leaders, and he'll be the first to admit he doesn't know what it's like to be a baseball hero, like slugger David Ortiz was during the Boston Red Sox's epic playoff run in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BUCK: Ortiz into deep right field, back is Sheffield - we'll see you later tonight.

(CHEERING)

O'BRIEN: But Tsuchiya, the son of Japanese immigrants, is a baseball fan. Born and raised in Cincinnati, he grew up rooting for the Reds. Twenty years ago, the Reds began hiring him to create sculptures outside the stadium depicting their local heroes, like Johnny Bench and Pete Rose. And because of that work, Matthews International, the company that produces the plaques for the Hall of Fame, discovered Tsuchiya and offered him the job of plaque-maker in 2016.

TSUCHIYA: It's like - it wasn't even, like, a dream come true because I didn't think it was even something attainable, you know? I always knew - you know, you knew, as a kid, you know, someone's making those Hall of Fame plaques, but I never imagined that - one day, that I'll be making them.

O'BRIEN: Of course, it isn't easy.

JON SHESTAKOFSKY: There is a little bit of pressure involved.

O'BRIEN: Jon Shestakofsky at the National Baseball Hall of Fame is one of the few people who guide Tsuchiya along the way.

SHESTAKOFSKY: You know, when you think about a bronze plaque that will hang on the walls of the plaque gallery of the Hall of Fame - probably the most sacred space in our entire sport - it needs to stand the test of time.

O'BRIEN: To get it right, they begin working as soon as the new inductees are announced. The Hall of Fame sends Tsuchiya photos of each player so he can study their features. Tsuchiya sketches the first designs on his computer, and then he does them to scale in clay, heating up the material so he can work it between his fingers and with his tools.

TSUCHIYA: Take the good old heat gun...

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAT GUN BLOWING)

O'BRIEN: Once Tsuchiya has something he likes, he sends photos and videos of his clay models to Cooperstown, and Shestakofsky and others offer feedback.

TSUCHIYA: And I told them - like, when I first started, I said, be as ruthless and brutal as possible. Even little - tiny, little things that don't look right, you know, let me know. And I can definitely say with full confidence that - you know, that with this team effort, the plaques turn out great.

O'BRIEN: In June every year, the clay becomes bronze. The stage is set for the big weekend in Cooperstown, and Tsuchiya finds a spot in the crowd. He likes to hear what fans think when they see the faces of their heroes in bronze. And whenever possible, he enjoys meeting the players. But in many ways, he already knows them. Tom Tsuchiya brought them to life in clay.

For NPR News, I'm Keith O'Brien. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Keith O'Brien