He gets up from his chair in a hotel restaurant with an exaggerated slowness. Carlton Fisk is doing an impression of himself. He remains bent in half as he walks the length of one table, then another table and another. Imaginary aches and pains run through his body. He resembles the Tin Man on his way to Oz, looking for a good can of 3-In-One oil.
"You sit in the bullpen until the seventh inning," Fisk says in his big voice. "Then the call comes to warm up a pitcher. You get up and...whoa."
May 30, 1993
He is trying to explain his new life in curious exile. Bullpen catcher. Bullpen catcher? He is 45 years old, with 22 years in major league baseball, headed for the Hall of Fame, but after all that time he doesn't know what to do anymore. He sits and he sits and he waits and he waits, and then he drags his stiff body out to warm up young pitchers for action he seldom joins. How is he supposed to handle this? He doesn't know when to eat or when to sleep or when to stretch to make himself loose. The patterns of a lifetime have been disrupted. How do you prepare if you are preparing to do virtually nothing?
Bullpen catcher. He is trapped in the midst of a self-fulfilling prophecy: The less he plays, the worse he plays. He can feel his skills leaving him through disuse. How can he maintain any rhythm behind the plate if he is never behind the plate? How can he be ready for live pitching if he never sees live pitching? He is captive to the powerlessness of his new position. Bullpen catcher.
"I always thought I would wear out," he says. "But now it looks as if they want me to rust out."
Fisk straightens to his full height, which is 6'2". His posture is perfect, shoulders back. There has always been a John L. Sullivan sort of elegance to him, and it has not left. He walks back to the table as if he owned not only the hotel but also the entire national chain. Bullpen catcher?
"One of the things that has always been right about this game is that if you played a long time, on the way out you had valet parking," he says. "You're not supposed to wind up in Remote Lot F with the transporter bus. That's where I am.
"It's not right," he says. "It's just not right."
He is 45 years old, headed to the Hall of Fame, but also going nowhere. He is a famous bouncing tin can tied to the first-place charge of the Chicago White Sox. He is not happy.
"I don't want any ceremony when I set the record," Fisk says. "I don't want anything. I don't want to be showered with accolades and all of that. I don't want the big kiss, some shallow attempt at reconciliation. I don't want things to be that cynical, everything written off by saying, 'Let's smooth it over.' Because it's not smoothed over."
The news is that sometime in the next few weeks he will catch in his 2,226th game (he was 10 games short at week's end), breaking the major league record for most games played as a catcher, set three years ago by Bob Boone. It is not the grandest of Fisk's records—he already is the alltime home run leader among catchers (with 372), already is the alltime home run leader for all players in a White Sox uniform (214), already is the alltime leader for home runs hit after a 40th birthday (72)—but it probably says more about him than any of the rest. Endurance has been his greatest gift, the ability to light the effects of age and injury on both body and mind.
"It's a record that's not going to be broken for a long while," Fisk says. "Maybe it will never be broken. There's nobody close who's playing today. You say that maybe a young guy like Ivan Rodriguez in Texas could do it; but he has to play for 20 more years and already he's having back problems. Injuries are the thing. I figured it out one time, that I've lost 4½ to five years to injuries. If you add in those games and then the spring training games, the Windy City Classics against the Cubs and the simulated games at nine o'clock in the morning when some pitcher needed a workout...you have a lot more games than are on the record."
The fact that he has played so long amazes Fisk as much as it amazes everyone else. He is 11 months younger than Texas Ranger pitcher Nolan Ryan but four years older than the next-oldest position player. Where has the time gone? When Fisk moved from the Boston Red Sox to the White Sox in 1981 at the age of 33, he rented out the house he owned in New Hampshire, figuring the tenants would be house sitters until his family's return in four or five years. The house sitters are in their 13th year at the house. His kids—two daughters and a son—are grown.
"I've played so long, I was around the first time for bell-bottoms and long hair," Fisk says. "Now they're coming back. I saw a girl in Toronto the other day. She had black bell-bottoms and those shoes with the two-inch soles. Looked awful. Just awful. And the hair...you see the sideburns now in the clubhouse. The mustaches. That's the way it started the first time. Pretty soon it was long hair everywhere. Didn't it look ridiculous? Afros. Do you remember Afros? Only two men in the history of the world were meant to wear Afros—Dr. J and Oscar Gamble....
"I was stretching before a game early this year in Boston," he says. "I see this guy with all-gray hair, and glasses. I didn't know who he was. I figured he was some old-timer, some sportswriter around Fenway Park who I just didn't remember. Then he came over and started talking to me. It was Bill Lee. I hadn't seen him for three or four years. He had long hair and a beard then. Now it was short and gray. Bill Lee...."
One season has blended into another. Fisk started working with weights after a severe knee injury almost ended his career in 1974, and he kept going. He added personal trainer Phil Claussen to his regimen in 1984 and became enthused with pushing the limits of how long a player could play this most difficult position at the highest level of the game. The limits seemed to bend with each further push. Until now.
How can he push when there is nothing to push? There are whispers that he can't throw out people at second anymore, and he's hitting only .167 in 30 at bats, but how can he change minds and numbers if he doesn't have a chance to play? "There's definitely something wrong here," says Chicago pitcher Jack McDowell. "He's definitely getting the short end of the stick."
"I was all right at the end of spring training this year," Fisk says. "I was all right in the first few weeks of the season. I was playing almost every other day. I had a home run in the first game I played. I had five hits in the first five games I played. Since then...I just haven't played much. I've had about three at bats in the last two weeks. How do you do that? How do you stay sharp? Every game you go in, you just feel out of rhythm, out of sync. I don't say I'm the player I was. I can't play seven days in a row anymore, but I also can't play one game in two weeks, either."
The emergence of Ron Karkovice as a solid starter a year ago, when Fisk was troubled with foot problems and was limited to 62 games, has meant an obvious cut in Fisk's playing time. Karkovice is a good defensive catcher and an improved bat. He also has a 29-year-old body. Fair enough. What bothers Fisk are the murkier aspects of his situation.
He returned to the White Sox this year after a rancorous off-season. A free agent, he was left off Chicago's 40-man roster so the club could protect younger players in the National League expansion draft. Fisk was offered a $500,000 minor league contract from White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf with guarantees that he would be on the major league team. The offer was a 50% pay cut, and the very idea of it was a personal insult, to Fisk's thinking. The winter was filled with angry words on both sides, with Fisk finally accepting a $650,000 minor league contract along with the guarantee of promotion.
"I've gotten letters from people saying, 'What are you whining about? You're still getting great money,' " Fisk says. "Well, that's beside the point. There are ways you do things in this game and ways you don't. You can say this is just business, but——you, it's not business. It's me. This is not Coca-Cola or Budget Rent-A-Car or Miller Beer. That's me you're talking about. I've taken this game personally for a long, long time. You say I can't do this, can't do that, that's personal."
The relationship with Reinsdorf has not improved, which is why Fisk does not want any ceremonies on the day the record is broken and why he does not want to do public relations work for the team. His relationship with White Sox manager Gene Lamont is not much better. Lamont says it is "fine," but Fisk says Lamont thinks it is fine "because we never talk. He never says a word to me, and I haven't swamped the boat lately."
There is speculation that once Fisk sets the record, he will be released. On April 23 the White Sox signed Mike LaValliere, the stout former Pittsburgh Pirate catcher, and sent him to their Sarasota, Fla., farm team to lose weight and get into shape. He is an obvious candidate to join the club in the future.
"I've thought up three scenarios, assuming the number-one catcher doesn't get hurt," Fisk says. "First, I break the record and they give me my release. Second, I break the record and they approach me about a trade. Third, I break the record and they bring up LaValliere—quote, because we need a lefthanded bat, end quote—and we go with three catchers and even my bullpen time is diminished."
All of the possibilities seem crazy to Fisk. Shouldn't this be a time of joy, of reflection on his accomplishments? Don't his accomplishments count for anything? Doesn't he at least have experience that he could share with young players? He feels as if he is an outcast in a place where he spent his best time. He is so bitter that, he says, when his plaque is being engraved for the Hall of Fame, he doesn't want to be pictured in a White Sox hat, and he also doesn't want to be pictured in a Red Sox hat. Is there any rule against being pictured "as a civilian with a Nike swoosh across the front of my hat?" he asks.
"I don't know where I am right now," Fisk says. "The whole situation just fractures my self-image. My wife wants me to forget about it, to retire at the end of the year and come home. I don't know. I haven't ruled out trying to play another year somewhere. I'd like to be in a situation where I really could find out if I still can play."
He remembers the first time he was ever called to play catcher, this hard-hat position of his. It was a fluke. He was a freshman in high school in Charlestown, N.H., and he began the season as a third baseman. His older brother, Calvin, was the team's catcher. A high pop was hit along the third base line. The two brothers converged and then collided. Carlton's elbow struck Calvin in the face, knocking out a few teeth and bloodying his nose. By the time the next game arrived, Calvin's face was so swollen it wouldn't fit inside the catcher's mask. He moved to third. Carlton moved behind the plate.
Who would have thought a collision in a New Hampshire field would be the start of a career like this? Who would have thought he would play all these games? Who would have thought it would end like this?
"One of the nice things this year was a sign in Seattle," Fisk says. "The first night we played out there, the sign was stretched along the facade in rightfield, maybe two feet high, 20 feet long. It said PUDGE DESERVES BETTER. It disappeared in about the sixth inning, and I thought maybe someone in management in Chicago had been watching and ordered it taken down. But the next two days it was back, hung in centerfield."
Reporters asked Fisk about the sign after the first night. He told them that he liked the sentiment very much. Then he told them how it had been pretty scary for an old man coming from the bullpen to hang a sign that high on the facade, and he laughed. He said the laugh did not mean he was happy.
Oh, no. Not at all.