Hands-on art gets a grip on athlete's inner self

Famed baseball star Sammy Sosa is standing in a conference room in a downtown hotel here, looking extremely dubious about placing his hand in a pan of hot wax.

Sculptor Raelee Frazier (in photos at right with Sosa) guides his right hand into the wax and asks, "Do you ever look at your hands and think they're special?"

Sosa says, "Yeah. They are special. That's why I hit all those home runs."

Ms. Frazier laughs and says, "No more dumb questions."

Sosa, whose 66 homers in 1998 are the second-most ever hit in one season (Mark McGwire is first with 70, also in '98), chuckles, "No, no, that's OK." What still seems to be not OK and possibly dumb in Sosa's mind is standing here with his hand in the 125-degree wax. It's warm but far from scalding.

Sosa clearly doesn't understand precisely what he has let himself in for.

What it is is art.

Frazier, who grew up in a rural Kansas oil camp where her father worked, and eventually ended up majoring in fine arts, says she is "a biographer in bronze."

And that is today's project. She will produce a bronze of Sosa's hand, making the famed V-shaped salute with his index and middle fingers that signals his affection to his mother. It's a sign seen by millions in the last two seasons as Sosa and McGwire battled for home-run supremacy.

Sosa agreed to the project primarily to help the Latin American Educational Foundation, which he is in town to speak to. The bronze-in-progress - to be completed by mid-March - was auctioned at the charity event for $5,400.

Bronze has been prized historically, with the first objects dating to 3000 BC, according to experts. It's among the strongest alloys and is resistant to corrosion. Yet, while it has a reputation for sturdiness, it also has one for elegance.

Frazier came to creating bronzes of athletes' hands quite by accident. She had been creating mannequins. Then her help was enlisted by an entrepreneur opening a Denver restaurant near the new baseball stadium, Coors Field. He wanted a display. Frazier suggested hands on a bat.

In search of hands to use, she contacted the Colorado Rockies and was put in touch with a former player and manager of the Cubs and Kansas City, Charlie Metro. Mr. Metro raises horses in the Denver area.

They got to talking. Frazier suggested making limited-edition bronzes of athletes' hands and selling them. Said Metro, "I'll call the players. You do the hands." Hitter's Hands was formed. Metro compiled a list of 33 star players, most Hall of Famers; to date, 26 of them have dipped their hands in wax. Most are holding a bat.

When they were in Florida doing the hands of Ted Williams, Metro asked the last hitter to bat over .400 (.406 in 1941) what's "the most important thing about hitting?" Said Williams, "Hands."

"Once you see your hands in bronze ...," says Frazier, her voice trailing off. While many artists have long thought that eyes are the window to a person's inner self, Frazier thinks not: "Hands are more expressive and so individualistic. With eyes, you have to have the rest of the face to make the eyes work."

In her Highland Studio, hands everywhere, Frazier muses about why most athletes eventually agree to the project: "It's a bit of an ego trip for them to see their hands in bronze. They have fairly good feelings about themselves, and they are positive about their contributions to sport. The athletes see the bronze hands, look at them for a while, then say, 'That's kind of cool.' ... The hands are a significant part of how the athletes made or make their living. And I think that for the retired players, it brings back the best times in their lives - when they were playing."

The first two players Metro got to go for the deal were veteran Pirates slugger and long-time broadcaster Ralph Kiner and Cubs great Billy Williams, both in 1993. Since then, the starry list has grown, including Ernie Banks, Johnny Bench, Al Kaline, Eddie Mathews, Pee Wee Reese, Brooks Robinson, Red Schoendienst, Duke Snider, and Andres Galaragga.

The one failure Frazier had came when she was doing the hands of former St. Louis superstar Stan Musial. Somehow, his hand was bent at the wrong angle when it was put into the wax. Being a meticulous person, Musial was gracious about another session. "Afterward," Frazier says, "he gave us a concert on his harmonica."

In these days of enormous money earned by baseball players on and off the field, these bronzes are far more about art than dollars. "I'm a three-dimensional historian," Frazier says. "I'm preserving memories." Deals vary slightly, but basically the player receives one set of bronze hands to do with what he wishes and $2,000 for each of the remaining 35 sets.

Once they are sold, no more. Frazier sells Williams's hands for $12,500 each. There are only 12 sets left. Not long ago, Frazier gave one set to the Smithsonian Institution, which requested them. The next-priciest baseball bronze hands belong to Musial and the irrepressible Cubs player Ernie Banks, both $10,000 each.

Something this special - and this costly - can take awhile to sell. "If I sell all of a player's hands over 10 years, that's great," Frazier says. Most are sold for $5,000.

Frazier quickly branched out into football and that produced her all-time winner - former Bronco quarterback John Elway. Two sets of his hands were sold at charity auctions for $40,000 each, a third for $25,000, two more for $15,500. All the others went for $12,500. Elway, who told Frazier that he always noticed the hands of other athletes, said of being waxed, "This is an out-of-body experience."

Another Frazier partner, Chris Tucker, pursues football players. Tucker is hoping Super Bowl quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner are warming to wax.

Tucker, Metro, and Frazier have been turned down, notably, by Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, and Steve Young. McGwire is a target, but Metro says, "His agent is tough." Muhammad Ali is possible. The late Joe DiMaggio agreed, but his agent demanded $1 million, which torpedoed that. Mickey Mantle agreed to do it "in 10 days or two weeks." He died in the interim.

"Anybody," Frazier says, "can do hands. I'm just fortunate to do the hands of somebody." In the future, she'd love to put the hands of Michael Jordan and Billie Jean King in wax. Beyond sports, her wish list includes test pilot Chuck Yeager, astronaut Neil Armstrong, and religious leaders Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II. She has done mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary.

Frazier says that hands in bronze are real, while "a painting is interpretation."

Watching Sosa with his hand in wax, Metro says, "I was a great outfielder, and I had a great arm. But I've looked at my hands a lot and thought, 'Why didn't these hands hit as well as they fielded and threw?' "

Metro, referring to the distance balls will travel at mile-high altitudes, tells Sosa, "If you played here, you'd hit 80 home runs a year." Sosa nods, but he's focused on Frazier, who is cutting off the plaster cast.

"I have never cut anybody," she says.

Says Sosa, "I don't want to be the first." He signs a few autographs. But he's still distracted. He keeps looking at his hand. Because it's soon to be in bronze, many others will be, too, forevermore.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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