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Sharp As Ever

Feb. 26, 1990
Feb. 26, 1990

Table of Contents
Feb. 26, 1990

Buster Douglas
Wayne Gretzky
Mark Macon
Andre Hastings
Atlanta Hawks
Carlton Fisk
Sons Of The Wind
Point After

Sharp As Ever

Compelled by a hard-edged New England work ethic, the White Sox' Carlton Fisk is, at the age of 42, still a cut or two above other catchers

The landscape inside Yeager's Fitness Center in suburban Chicago is a mountain range of muscle: deltoids bulging from tank tops, biceps straining against weights upon weights upon weights. In a far corner, White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk—his wrists bound with boxing wraps and a power belt strapped around his waist—edges up to a barbell and prepares to squat 315 pounds—weight more suited to a linebacker than a catcher. "Make your toughest your best," urges Phil Claussen, Fisk's longtime trainer. The 42-year-old Fisk grunts and begins his repetitions, down and up, down and up, his back as rigid as a piston. "The man's a dozen years older than the other hundred guys in here," says Claussen, "and he's out-lifting them all."

This is an article from the Feb. 26, 1990 issue Original Layout

After an hour and a half of free weights, Fisk and Claussen move to the machines and then on to abdominal exercises. When Fisk started working with Claussen, in October 1984, he showed up at Yeager's every day of the week but Sunday. Now Fisk has his own state-of-the-art gym at his house in Lockport, Ill., where he works out most days. But on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he still comes in to be tortured by Claussen.

A few years ago, Fisk brought his friend and former teammate on the Red Sox, Jerry Remy, out from Boston to work with Claussen. After his first day, Remy asked Fisk, "Why does anyone want to go through such humiliation?" After his second day, Remy flew home.

But Fisk is a devout disciple of the no-pain-no-gain doctrine. That Tuesday sweat session with Claussen lasted three grueling hours—and came just three days after Fisk had signed a $1.75 million contract for 1990 with the White Sox. After his workout, Fisk walked briskly out of Yeager's and climbed into his blue Ford Bronco for the ride home. He turned to his passenger and said, "The commitment to being the best you can be doesn't have an easy way out."

There is no compromise in Fisk, and he says such things not to impress but to explain, to provide some rationale for his unwavering drive. "I remember talking to Carl Yastrzemski," Fisk says. "Yaz had one of the greatest seasons ever [in 1967] after working out with a trainer who beat the hell out of him. I asked Yaz why he never went back to the guy again afterward, and his face was pained when he answered me: 'Too hard. I didn't want to go through it again.' That always stuck with me. Success has no shortcuts, only a high price of pain and humiliation. I may sound like some crusty old New Englander, but if you're going to do something, do it right, or don't do it at all."

Carlton Fisk is a crusty old New Englander, born 42 years ago in Bellows Falls, Vt., just across the Connecticut River from the hamlet of Charlestown, N.H., where he grew up. Forty-two isn't old at all if your job title is, say, vice-president for research and development. But for a professional baseball catcher, 42 is ancient. Until 1985, no one in major league history had ever caught 100 games in a season after the age of 36; Fisk did it that season and is still going strong (along with another undaunted geezer of a catcher, the Kansas City Royals' Bob Boone, who is also 42).

When he makes his first plate appearance in the 1990 season, Fisk, who had five at bats for the Red Sox in 1969, will become a four-decade major leaguer. But what is most remarkable about Fisk's longevity is that he once seemed a prime candidate for very early retirement. "The one knock on Carlton," says former White Sox manager Jim Fregosi, "was always that he was brittle, because of all his injuries."

The knock was well-founded. Fisk has come back from three career-threatening injuries. He had knee-reconstruction surgery after a home plate collision in 1974, a blown-out elbow limited him to catching 35 games in '79, and a strained stomach muscle sidelined him for the better part of two months in '84. In addition, Fisk missed the first month of the '74 season with a severe groin injury and has suffered two sets of cracked ribs, a separated shoulder, a broken arm and two broken hands.

Breakable? Yes. Disposable? No. Despite all the games he has missed because of injury, Fisk still has caught more games (1,928) than anyone in American League history and ranks second in games caught among all major leaguers, behind Boone (2,185). If he hits 13 home runs this season, he will break Johnny Bench's major league record for a catcher (327). How likely is that? Well, last season, despite missing 44 games with a broken hand, he hit 13.

"It isn't just his longevity that makes Fisk great," says White Sox manager Jeff Torborg, a former catcher. "He's still the best in the league right now." Last season Fisk led all major league catchers in RBIs with 68 and was second in batting average (.293). Since he turned 40, Fisk has hit 32 homers; the combined total of every other catcher who ever played past the age of 40 is 23. In 1989 he was second among American League catchers in fielding percentage (.993), but perhaps more telling is the fact that in the past two years the earned run average of White Sox pitchers has been 0.90 lower with Fisk catching than with anyone else behind the plate. No other regular catcher in the majors has made better than a 0.51 run difference in his staff's ERA over that period.

For his purposes, Fisk keeps a closer eye on other numbers. At the conclusion of his workout at Yeager's, he weighed in at 233, 17 pounds heavier than the day the 1989 season ended. "Since I started this program, people see me in spring training and say I've gained weight over the winter," Fisk says. "Too often, physical condition is equated with weight. I'm best between 225 and 238. This work has strengthened my legs so that it's actually easier for me to catch today than it was 10 years ago."

Three or four nights a week during the season, even after catching a game, Fisk will go into the clubhouse weight room to pump iron, often until 1 or 2 a.m. "I think this physical commitment has maintained my focus and ability to concentrate," says Fisk. "Baseball requires mental strength. The season has a lot of give-in days. The commitment overcomes that.

"I started with Phil in 1984, the first of the five years in a row that the White Sox thought I was washed up. I guess I was driven by all the references to my age. I was constantly reminded how old I was, and how they wanted to use a younger catcher and 'extend my career' by putting me in leftfield or first base or DH. I took exception—damned right I did. Why should you be evaluated by age instead of performance if you're doing your job? I can compete with and beat people half my age. My perception is changing, though. Now it's no-one-has-done-that-before, and now my age is a compliment."

Fisk's isn't the only perception that has changed. Says Chicago chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, "When we signed Carlton in 1981, Roland Hemond [then the G.M.] told us, 'Fisk has only three years left, but we'll have to pay him for five.' Here we are, and Carlton is going into his 10th year with the White Sox. We did this new contract because we want him to be a cornerstone of the franchise when we move into our new ballpark next year. Now we're checking the commissioner's office to see if the rules allow an active player to draw Social Security."

It takes 45 minutes to drive from Yeager's gym to Fisk's house in the town of Lockport, 35 miles southwest of Comiskey Park, out in flat cornfield country. Carlton and his wife, Linda, picked out this house in 1981. "We wanted to be as far out in the country as possible," he says. "We tend to stick to ourselves, and we're country people."

It is past seven in the evening when Fisk gets home from his workout. He peers into the glassed-in, solariumlike room at the rear of the house. At one end are racks of weights, a couple of mats and lifting benches; on one bench, Fisk's 18-year-old son, Casey, is lifting. On the days Fisk doesn't go in to see Claussen, he and Casey work out together. This afternoon, Casey has nearly finished his own workout. "How'd you do?" Casey asks his father.

"Squatted 315," Carlton replies.

Casey puts the barbell on the rack and strides across the mat to his father. The son, smiling, raises his palm and slaps a high five on his dad.

"His weight has gone from 172 to 190 in 10 weeks," says Carlton as Casey gets back to his workout. "His program's been great for me. He's my partner. He's also my best friend."

"And he's mine," says Casey.

At the other end of this large room is a long table. Hanging over it are several metal-shaded lamps, and beneath them, in the warm glow, are hundreds of plants blooming with flowers. "My pride and joy," Fisk says, indicating row after row of brilliant orchids, some 40 varieties of them. He begins checking which plants might be dry, which need pruning, which need special attention.

"They're so delicate," says Fisk as he clips and pokes, looking much more like a surgeon at work than a 230-pound catcher with an unorthodox hobby. "A lot of nights during the season, by the time I've finished my lifting and driven home from the park, it's 2 a.m. Everyone's asleep, and I want to unwind for an hour or two, so I come out here. Orchids take meticulous care. The attention they require would drive most people crazy, but that relaxes me. And the beauty of the flower itself awes me."

He is clearly less in awe of his own accomplishments: Memorabilia of his four-decade career have been limited to one small wall of his den. There's the cast from his 1974 knee operation, signed by his Red Sox teammates. There's a photo of Fisk being consoled by former Boston owner Tom Yawkey after the Red Sox were eliminated from the pennant race in '72, the season Fisk was Rookie of the Year. And there's one bat, a Rick Burleson model, the bat he used to hit the home run.

No need to ask which home run. No matter what else Fisk does in his illustrious career, he will always be remembered most for his 12th-inning, 12:33 a.m., leftfield-foul-pole-skimming blast off the Cincinnati Reds' Pat Darcy that won the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. On Fisk's wall is a frame-by-frame sequence of the home run, given to him by NBC. To almost any baseball fan it is a hugely familiar series of images—because almost any baseball fan has seen the tape replay many dozens of times. "I guess I've only seen that home run five or six times," Fisk says. "I'm never around when they show it on TV." Or more correctly, as Linda points out, Carlton doesn't watch TV.

The memorabilia wall has a distinctly Boston flavor. Despite Fisk's nine seasons with Chicago, if you were to ask 100 fans across the country to associate him with a team, probably 90 would say the Red Sox. As Fisk sits on the couch beneath his framed memories, he is asked: If and when you are inducted into the Hall of Fame, which cap will you have engraved on your plaque?

"It would have to be the White Sox,' " he answers quickly. "Barring catastrophe, I will have played more games for Chicago [entering this season he has played just 15 fewer games with the White Sox than the Red Sox]. And this is where my kids grew up." He shakes his head. "That would have sounded crazy to me five years ago," he says. "For the first three years here, every time I'd pass a mirror in my White Sox uniform, I'd think, What's wrong with that picture? For years, being a New Englander and being on the Red Sox were so entwined. But I haven't been a Red Sox player for 10 years. I'll always be a New Englander—who plays for the White Sox.

"There's only one problem with the plaque—which one of the seven White Sox hats they've tried in the last 10 years should I choose?"

A current model White Sox cap hangs on the coatrack inside the back door of Cecil and Leona Fisk's house in Charlestown, N.H. But on a table in the dining room is a book titled Fisk of Fenway Park, and on the front door there is still a small Red Sox sticker.

Cecil and Leona have lived in the white 19th-century house on Elm Street since 1941. They bought it from Cecil's uncle and raised six children there. Across Elm Street is the house where Cecil was born and where the Fisks' third-oldest son, Cedric, 41, now lives with his wife.

Charlestown, a town of 4,300, hasn't changed a lot since the Fisk kids were growing up in the 1950s. Oh, there are now a couple of video stores, and the old high school—where Carlton's class of '65 had 42 members—is now the junior high, but that's about it.

When Carlton—or Pudge as he was nicknamed—was growing up, the traditional Yankee qualities of self-reliance were much in evidence in the Fisk household. When the milk bill for six kids grew too steep, in 1952, Cecil bought a cow. Every year Cecil took his three weeks of vacation from the Jones & Lamson Machine Company to coincide with haying season, so he could hay his field. Says Cecil, "In these parts, survival meant hard work." Says Carlton, "My parents provided for six kids very well on $6,000 a year.

"We didn't get allowances," he continues. "My parents believed that you shouldn't get paid for doing the things around the house that had to be done. I still can't comprehend it today when kids get red Camaros for their 16th birthdays. For what? For nothing. If we wanted money, we worked." Among Pudge's many jobs as a kid was a paper route. "We used to have to lay that paper between the storm door and the front door no matter how hard it snowed," he says. "Last fall the kid who delivers our paper [in Lockport] tossed it at the end of the driveway. The next morning I was waiting for him. I told him, 'Do it right, or don't deliver it again.' "

All of Carlton's brothers—Calvin, Cedric and Conrad—were good athletes, as were his sisters, June and Janet. Despite all the talent, praise was hard to come by. "Compliments from my father were few and far between," says Carlton. "It was a motivating factor for all of us just to receive some sign of approval. He had a hard view of sports. He wouldn't tolerate people who didn't bust their butts, no matter if it was just a pickup game."

Carlton's sport was basketball. He was big, but most of all he could sky. Anyone who saw Fisk play basketball before his 1974 knee operation knows that he could play the game way above the basket. With Pudge the star, Charlestown High won a state title in '63. In one state tournament game he scored 40 points and had 36 rebounds. Cecil was there to watch, and when Carlton came up to him after the game, Cecil said only this: "You missed four free throws."

Pudge went to the University of New Hampshire on a basketball scholarship and in 1965-66 led the Wildcat freshmen to their best record ever (15-1). "But I was playing guys 6'8" and I knew there was no place for a 6'2" power forward," he says.

Fortunately, he was a baseball standout as well, as a catcher, shortstop and pitcher. But the Red Sox' veteran scout Jack Burns looked at Fisk's hands, his arm and his strength and thought of him only as a catcher. Fisk, whom Boston drafted in the first round in 1967, reminded Burns of two great catchers, Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett—both New Englanders.

In the 1960s, the Red Sox were dubbed the Olde Towne Team; they were considered the collective team of all those white-spired burgs along the banks of the Connecticut, the Winooski and the Housatonic. Fisk, the athletic hero from a little New Hampshire town, seemed destined to play for the Red Sox; and to all the men and boys in all those towns, Fisk was one of them.

And he played heroically: Fisk was an All-Star seven of his nine full seasons with the Red Sox. But Boston only flirted with world championship glory in those years, continuing a franchise tradition of unfulfilled promise, and all was not sweet for the New England boy on the Olde Towne Team. It has been said that New Englanders believe in their inalienable right not to be happy, and often Fisk wasn't. The worst season was 1976. After cracking two ribs in a collision in May with New York's Lou Piniella, Fisk hit poorly for more than two months. For the first time, he was booed by the Fenway faithful. One night in a game in Minnesota, he blew up when he thought manager Darrell Johnson was second-guessing his pitch selections. "Then you call the pitches," Fisk yelled, and fired his helmet at his manager.

That night Fisk sat at Duffs, a favored Minneapolis hangout, trying to drown his sorrows. Two flirtatious girls sat down with him and began to talk. Within five minutes, Fisk, ever the upright New Englander, had spread pictures of his children all over the table. "Funny what clears your head sometimes," he said, walking back to the hotel.

But his relationship with the Boston front office gradually deteriorated. In 1978, he cracked his ribs diving into the stands for a pop fly ("I never lost the offensive re-bounder in me," he says), then hurt his elbow and played the last six weeks in pain. The next spring, he could barely throw. Concurrently, the Red Sox refused to renegotiate his contract (after doing so for Jim Rice). Owner and general manager Haywood Sullivan said, "I think Fisk's contract is hurting him more than his elbow." The next day Fisk kicked open the door to Sullivan's office and demanded a public apology.

That was the beginning of the end. In December 1980, the Red Sox blew a contract deadline with Fisk, and he landed with Chicago as a free agent in the spring. As fate would have it, the visitors on Opening Day '81 at Fenway Park were the White Sox. With the Red Sox leading 2-0 in the eighth inning, who should step up and belt a three-run homer? The scorned catcher from New England. In his nine years with Chicago, Fisk has hit .323 with 26 homers against the Red Sox, providing Boston fans with a consistent reminder of management's betrayal. "The Fisk episode was the worst moment for Red Sox fans since the team sold Babe Ruth," said South Hadley, Mass., native Bart Giamatti in 1986.

The front-office folks in Chicago haven't always embraced Fisk either. "I've spent years trying to disprove management's contention that I'm washed up," he says. In 1983, Fisk led the White Sox to an American League West title and finished third in the MVP balloting, but in '84 he suffered the stomach strain. "I thought I was dying by the end of the season," says Fisk. In '85, he came back to hit 37 homers and was a free agent. "Oddly, no one was interested," says Fisk. (Hello, Collusion I.)

In October 1985, Ken (Hawk) Harrelson took over as White Sox general manager. "Right after the season, Hawk called and asked me, 'Can you play third base?' " says Fisk. "I told him 'No, not at this point in my career.' " Harrelson first tried to trade Fisk and then announced that Fisk was his leftfielder, to make room for catcher Joel Skinner.

"It's the New Englander in me that says, 'No one is going to tell me what's good for me or what I can't do,' " Fisk says. "That's like my father. You may be right, but until he says so, you're not. It was demeaning. I thought I'd earned something, and that job was being given to someone else. And that crap went on for two years."

It wasn't until June 1987 that Fisk regained his regular catching job. Since then he has been the most productive catcher in the game. And this year, for the first time in his career, he will be the highest-paid player on his team.

He will also, of course, be the oldest, and the age gap between him and his young teammates has drawbacks. "It's more mental than physical," Fisk says. "I'm surprised how few want to talk baseball. Greg Hibbard and Donn Pall are the only players who ever ask questions. The clubhouse seems very immature at times; before games, you don't see preparation, just guys on the phone or watching TV. And after the game, it takes 15 minutes for most of the place to clear out. With the ban on beer in the clubhouse, I realize that no one wants to hang around. But nobody ever wants to just relax and talk the game. A lot of times, a half hour after the game I'm the only player left."

Fisk has never developed close friends among his White Sox teammates. "I think because the family is such a self-sufficient entity to me, I've never had a lot of what I consider close friends," says Fisk. "Baseball makes a lot of friendly associations, but it's too uncertain, too transient for friendships."

Assuming that someday Fisk will retire, will the call of New England lure him back? "I think a lot about moving there when I retire, but why? I like the Midwest better than the Boston area because people are more considerate of your privacy; in Boston people all want a piece of you—not as a person but as a Red Sox player. Besides, going back to the past isn't the future." Last summer, when there were rumors that the Red Sox might try to reacquire Carlton, Cecil told him, "As much as we want you back around here, I hope it doesn't happen now. You can only lose."

There's no question that home for Fisk's three children is Chicago, where they have spent a decade growing up and carrying on two family traditions: athletic accomplishment and names that start with C. Carlyn, 19, is a sophomore and an all-conference volleyball player at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Casey is a senior and an honor student at Lockport High and has already received college scholarship offers for his services as a first baseman. Courtney, 14, is an eighth-grader who plays volleyball, basketball, Softball—and throws the discus.

Cecil, 76, follows the progress of his grandchildren with a warmth and enthusiasm he wishes he could have brought to his own kids' growing up. "I thought what I was doing was constructive," he says. "Maybe it wasn't."

But lest Cecil come down too hard on himself or despair of the value of his stern New England methods, he might do well to ask this latest generation of Fisks for an evaluation. Casey recently was honored in his English class for a group of poems he wrote. One, titled Dreams, begins:

Dreams are what you make them
It all depends on you
If you really want it bad enough
Desire can make them true.

And continues:

You can dream about most anything
But dreams won't get it done
When you bust your butt and dreams come true
Is when you'll have your fun.

PHOTORONALD C.

 

MODRAPHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe home run in '75 was Fisk's most memorable feat for the Red Sox and Yawkey (above, right).PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER[See caption above.]PHOTOJONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT USAIn his 18th season, Fisk will finally be the highest-paid player on his team.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWorking with his orchids late after night games helps Fisk to relax, which, in turn, helps keep his career in bloom.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe Fisks get A's for athletics, mostly C's for names: (clockwise from top) Casey, Carlton, Linda, Courtney and Carlyn.