Carlton Fisk piling up career records for slugging, endurance. White Sox star's 293 HRs as catcher topped only by Bench, Berra
The moment is enshrined in the memories of almost every baseball fan old enough to vote. Even those too young to have seen it firsthand have probably caught one of the endless television replays: No. 27 on the Boston Red Sox jumping up and down between home plate and first base, waving his game-winning home run out of Fenway Park and into baseball history. The image of Carlton Fisk's heroics in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series has endured for more than a decade - and so has Fisk himself, although now he stars for the Chicago White Sox. At 40, he is still one of the game's premier catchers and is headed toward a likely berth in baseball's Hall of Fame.
Among Fisk's most impressive credentials are his 293 home runs as a catcher, a feat surpassed only by legends Yogi Berra, whose 313 set the American League record and Johnny Bench, the all-time major league leader with 325.
More important to Fisk is his longevity at one of the most grueling positions in sports. He has caught almost 1,800 games, and stands sixth on the all-time list.
``I'm not into counting every home run I hit,'' he says. ``My personal goal is to get my body out there every day as healthy as possible. And that's not easy.''
In fact, Fisk has just returned after a 2-month stretch on the disabled list recovering from a fractured hand sustained when he was hit by a foul ball. Such injuries are occupational hazards in his line of work, which also involves frequent collisions at home plate along with the wear and tear of absorbing 90 m.p.h. fastballs plus those unpredictable foul tips.
Catchers do a lot more than endure physical hardship, though. They call pitches, align fielders, and call defensive plays. Fisk's task is additionally difficult this year because he is handling a starting staff that includes two rookies and has an average age of 25.
``You're responsible, you're in charge, and you don't have any time to regroup,'' he says. ``It wears you down day after day.''
Fisk has played occasionally at first base, third base, and the outfield, but the overwhelming majority of his career has been spent at catcher. And despite the difficulties and pressures of the position, Fisk prefers even now to stay behind home plate.
``It's the only place I know how to play with the experience I have in this game,'' he says.
At 6 ft. 2 in. and 225 pounds, Fisk certainly looks the role. Long gone is the spare fat of childhood that spawned his nickname, ``Pudge,'' and his solidity has made both a good target for White Sox pitchers and a fearsome obstacle for enemy base runners trying to score.
Even so, Fisk has had to fight for his territory in recent years. After producing 39 homers and 107 RBIs in 1985, he was relegated to the Chicago outfield and had to prevail upon management to restore his catcher's gear.
``It's hard to be an All-Star one year, and an `average-minus' player the next year,'' he grumbles, referring to the temporary switch.
Fisk faced a similar ordeal last year when the White Sox moved him to designated hitter and installed rookie Ron Karkovice as their starting catcher, but that experiment ended when Karkovice failed to hit enough to keep the job.
As for Fisk, even at this stage of his career he complements his defensive skill with a big bat. He finished last year with 23 home runs, more than any 39-year-old catcher had ever hit, as well as 71 RBIs.
He was off to a hot start this year, too, ranking among the league leaders with eight homers in the first month of the season. And he took up where he left off on his return, clubbing a double and a two-run homer last Thursday night in his first game since May 10.
Fisk has also been a party to two celebrated free-agency cases. Recently, he was liberated from the White Sox after a ruling that major league teams had restricted the movement of free agents before the 1986 season, the last time Fisk had peddled his wares. After unsuccessfully seeking a longer contract elsewhere, Fisk decided to stay put.
A far more consequential bout with free agency occurred in 1981, when the Red Sox, with whom Fisk had played his first 10 years, violated a technicality in his contract. The situation went well beyond the technical, however, as Boston refused to negotiate the new long-term, high-paying contract that Fisk had requested.
``They made the decision for me in the way they treated me,'' Pudge recalls. ``But it was still a tough decision to make. I grew up in New Hampshire, and the only organization I knew was the Red Sox. I fully expected to play out my career there, but they didn't view it the same way.''
There were other reminders that changing Sox was not going to be easy. Besides having to relocate his family to the Chicago area, Fisk found his old No. 27 taken when he joined his new team. So he chose No. 72, a fitting emblem of how his life had turned topsy-turvy.
Fisk has made his tenure with the White Sox a productive one nevertheless. In addition to building his individual statistics, he was instrumental in Chicago's march to the 1983 division title, when he generated 26 home runs, 86 RBIs, and a .289 batting average.
Did that title compare to winning the 1975 pennant with the Red Sox? ``They were like apples and oranges,'' Fisk responds. ``Both tasted good.''
No one figured that he would ever come so far, admits Fisk, who remembers his first visit as a Red Sox rookie to Yankee Stadium. ``When I saw Mantle, Ruth, and Gehrig enshrined, I was wondering why I was there,'' he recalls. ``A small-town boy from New Hampshire has a hard time of it.''
``I worked hard to continue to play,'' he goes on to say. ``I've persevered and endured and sacrificed. A lot of things you sacrifice, you never get back. Hopefully, I made the right sacrifices.''
As for his future, Fisk is not looking beyond baseball. ``When you play this game, you have to be of a singular mind and purpose,'' he says. ``When it's over, I'll try to find something that can interest, consume, and challenge me as this game has.''
Of course, one bonus Fisk will always have in retirement will be that moment in the '75 Series, widely regarded as one of the best postseason contests in baseball history.
``It's not very often that a person has a moment like that in his lifetime. I was in the right place at the right time and produced the right results,'' Fisk reflects. ``I can't forget it and don't want to, just as baseball doesn't want to.''