Being unveiled outside Fenway Park on Sunday is a statue of Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, by sculptor Antonio Tobias “Toby” Mendez. The bronze likeness depicts Yaz tipping his hat prior to his last big league at-bat, on Oct. 2, 1983. Mendez, 49, who lives in Maryland, is already known locally for his Fenway statuary of Sox teammates Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio. Other subjects of his include Thurgood Marshall and Mohandas Gandhi; sports legends Nolan Ryan, Don Shula, Brooks Robinson, and Cal Ripken Jr.; and Worcester native Major Taylor, champion bicycle racer and pioneering African-American sports star.
Impressive as Mendez’s portfolio is, his family story is even more compelling. His father, Antonio Joseph “Tony” Mendez, is an accomplished oil painter whose exploits as a CIA operative became the basis for the Oscar-winning film “Argo.” Played onscreen by Ben Affleck, the elder Mendez starred in the 1980 real-life Iranian rescue operation that no screenwriter could have invented.
We caught up with Mendez, who will be in Boston for Sunday's unveiling, by phone.
Q. First, what’s the connection between you and the Red Sox?
A. My childhood was mostly spent overseas, so baseball wasn’t something I followed. When I was 13, though, I made friends with a Sox fan. We’d go to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore to watch them play. Through my work on the Thurgood Marshall memorial, I later got introduced to Janet Marie Smith, the architect who worked on Fenway Park. When the Sox were seeking sculptors for “The Teammates” [statues], they asked me to apply.
Q. So you saw Yaz play?
A. I did.
Q. Did you pick the hat-tipping pose, or did the team?
A. I proposed three different poses, weighing heavily toward that one because I knew Yaz liked it. It really came down to, how do you pay tribute to the man? That seemed the most fitting, because it shows him giving back to the fans.
Q. You had to complete this quickly, correct?
A. Yes. I only had four to five months. In May, I showed renderings to the Red Sox and Boston Art Commission. In June, I did a 2-foot version for review, then went to full-scale clay, which was later cast in bronze. Usually a project like this takes 8-12 months.
Q. Has Yaz seen the finished statue?
A. I shared images of the model with his agent. So he has an idea of it, anyway.
Q. Why the interest in sports figures?
A. Sports art gives a sculptor the chance to show action and power. If you think about classical sculpture, a lot of it depicts sports like discus throwing. To me, it’s a way to revisit that genre as a contemporary subject, expanding the spectrum of what I’ve done for figures like Gandhi. My statues are really more about the character of the person than the sport itself.
Q. You were originally commissioned to do the Bill Russell statue on City Hall Plaza. What happened?
A. I was under contract, but it was coinciding with my completing (six) Orioles sculptures last baseball season, about one a month. I really wanted to do Russell, because his civil rights legacy is very important to me. However, there was a sense of urgency to get it done, and I owed it to the Orioles to finish what I was doing. They deserved a sculptor who could focus on the Russell project and found a very capable one in Ann Hirsch.
Q. Any other sports immortals you’d love to sculpt?
A. Absolutely. Jackie Robinson deserves a monument, and I’d love to be considered for that. Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, civil rights figures like that. These athletes were heroic both on the field and off. The true heroes of our time.
Q. What influence has your father exerted on you?
A. He’s always defined himself as an artist first and a spy second. I grew up in a household where he was always painting. My mom, who’s no longer alive, was a professional decorator and very creative as well. And my stepmom, who also worked for the CIA, is a photographer. So I always had this creative element around me.
Q. Did you know much about his CIA work?
A. Yeah. He started letting me know when I was about 10. It was a family secret we all kept until the day he retired. In terms of Argo, though, I didn’t know he was going into Iran. He thought about telling us but realized it might shake his confidence. We kept it a secret until 1997. But we knew he was going in and out of danger all the time.
Q. What impact has the movie had on your career?
A. It’s definitely had an impact on my dad’s career. In terms of mine, no effect that I know of. I didn’t tell the Orioles about “Argo” or talk about it last summer. In fact, most of my clients weren’t aware [of the connection] until they saw the movie.
Q. We must ask. If the Orioles and Sox meet in the playoffs, whom do you root for?
A. (Laughs) That’s tough. I guess you have to dance with the one who brought you — but they both did. How about, anybody but the Yankees?
Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.