In the early summer of 1983, aged seven, I entered my parents’ bedroom holding a baseball card I’d just plucked from a pack purchased at the store down the street for the princely sum of a dime and a quarter. I was a ruthless gatherer of coins totaling that figure, or, better yet, seventy cents, or a dollar five — for some reason, there was no tax on baseball cards in my memory — so that I might acquire multiple packs. You could chase me away for twenty minutes with the loose change jangling in your pocket. I was also an ever-eager volunteer to acquire the peanut butter or milk we may have been in need of — for my standard thirty-five cent errand-fee, of course.
But there wasn’t any collecting experience to compare with how I was struck through my core upon seeing this particular baseball card. I’d seen hundreds — or however many baseball cards a boy who is mad about baseball sees, though none had impacted me like this slab of cardboard. The card showed a catcher for the Chicago White Sox standing in front of home plate. An important play was clearly unfolding, preserved forevermore in this priceless paper amber, though much of the drama was offstage, because we don’t see it, with the photographer’s focus being this sole player, for such is how baseball cards typically work. We beheld this catcher, standing upright, not in his familiar crouch, minus his mask, his helmet on backwards, of course, in the way of the men who play the coolest position there has ever been, an honorific I decided upon in that exact moment.
He’s taking charge, calling out instructions — which even in the cardboard context seem so important — to his teammates. Perhaps as to where to throw the ball, whether it’s second or third base, given that they likely have their back to the infield. He is the receiving beacon who perceives all. Or maybe he’s calling for the ball to come to him, to stamp out a would-be rally on a thrilling play at the plate and preserve victory in the bottom of the ninth. This catcher’s gray uniform — with a giant number 72 emblazoned on his left thigh in the chunky manner of those less-than-subtle 1980s uniforms — tells us his team is on the road. There’s an inset photo at the bottom right of the card, a headshot in circular frame of the catcher in a more relaxed setting, a genial pose. He smiles easily, winningly, and appears to be photographed mid-laugh. Nothing will keep him down, dull his heroic, knowing, laconic humor. His batting helmet faces forward this time, his bat resting against his right shoulder, his hair long but not unkempt. He looked to me like a man one would both approach and be in awe of. Someone you’d ask your dad if you could say hello to if you both were near him, hoping he would impart to you a line or two about the verities he had discovered and now embodied, after squatting so well, so MVP-ishly, in the dust ancient and eternal.
My mother was making the bed. I halted her by holding the card aloft, like I was Jack Webb on Dragnet, and it was high time for real answers.
“Do you know this player?” I asked, trying not to sound rude but likely failing. I was excited.
I’m not sure why I thought that my mother definitely would know about this man, but I did.
She laughed. “Sure,” she said, full of confidence. “That’s Carlton Fisk.”
Her tone was in a style suggesting that everyone knew Carlton Fisk — how could you not? When I think of how cool my mother is, and how unlike most moms, I think of a memory like this exchange, which I’m certain she doesn’t remember. I asked about a lot of things. If my parents couldn’t give me answers, they’d point me in a direction where I could locate them myself. It’s a great gift to give somebody.
My mom told me that not only did Carlton Fisk used to play for our Boston Red Sox, he hailed from New England himself, which was not a place from which you expected professional ballplayers to originate. Florida, yes, and Texas and California, but the spring could be cold and bite-y where we lived, the nip of autumn came on early, and as for playing ball in January, that was only going to be street hockey in the road in front of your house, pulling the net aside when another blasted car came along.
Immediately it registered to me that this great man — which is how I already thought of Carlton Fisk — had once featured regularly on the TV in my own house — for my dad would always have the Red Sox game on, and it’s not like that stopped when they got me — before whatever set of circumstances had sent him to the Middle West, and somehow I had been unaware, and missed out on so much. And yet I knew and had consistent viewing access to current Red Sox players like Mark Clear, Dave Stapleton, and Gary Allenson? These fellows could not compare. Alas, Poor Yorick, said Hamlet; alas, the Red Sox’ light-hitting shortstop Glenn Hoffman, said nearly-eight-year-old me.
For a boy in summer, whose saddest days occur when he gets a bevy of doubles — the cards he already had — in a pack he scrounged thirty-five cents for — this is akin to the tragic. I think that’s one of the reasons we lament the loss of our youth as we do; or, put another way, why we must fight to retain youth’s clear-eyed, ever-present wonder. I was also grateful to my mother that afternoon. I’m not saying I offered to help her make the bed, though I probably wouldn’t have been much use with that anyway. But it was on that summer day, in my parents’ bedroom, that Carlton Fisk became my guy for the rest of a life that I may not yet be halfway through.
1983 was a great year to be a Carlton Fisk fan, and fall in love with what it means to be a catcher. Fisk was having a career resurgence. He’d left the Red Sox following the 1980 campaign, after Red Sox management failed to send him a contract postmarked by the proper date — the deadline — in these matters. This meant that Fisk became a free agent through office inefficiency and neglect, or passive aggressive ambivalence. No one was positive. Feeling scorned by the team for which he’d grown up rooting, where he was a hero of a region — for reasons we’ll plumb momentarily — he headed west, reversing the number 27 he wore with the BoSox to number 72 with the ChiSox. I liked learning that — it struck me as such a New England thing to do, a real Colonial attitude, and later as downright Hawthorne-esque. A flip of the “don’t tread on me” bird.
From his visage and body language, you could tell that Fisk was a no-nonsense backstop. He was tall, muscular, thin, and he moved with a leonine regality. Here was an elegant throwback, but to what I wasn’t sure. Courtly manners? The stone walls put up by eighteenth century farmers that one could still find in the woods behind our house? Or the ways of the Old West and the gunfighter code, as manifested in the kelp-colored, rounded hills of New England that I also loved so much?
We used to visit the Old Man in the Mountain, up in New Hampshire where Fisk was from, which was an outcrop of rock that looked like a face peering out from the Whites, with a weather eye literally made of stone, until the elements finally caused the man to give up his granitic ghost and come crashing down in a heap of rubble in 2003. His near-unmalleable profile made me think of this catcher whose rookie card I had obtained in a card shop on a family vacation to what I regarded as this magical spot, with amusement parks such as Story Land and Santa’s Village. I remember the dealer at the card shop looking down with my dad and me at the Fisk rookie in the display case, and commenting on its $16 price tag: “That’s the expensive one,” he said. And not to depict this wide-eyed iteration of boyhood Colin as an ungrateful kid, but I found myself thinking, “That’s it? It’s Carlton Fisk’s rookie card!”
If pinecones were dollars, that card — to me — would have been worth every last one of them that was stashed, hanging, or had fallen in those Berkshire hills.
Which is to say, I took immediately to this ballplayer. Who he was, what he signified, how I came to see myself in the light cast by both of those ideas; how I saw the game, and how I envisioned the concept of what it means to be a catcher.
Fisk was in his age-35 season in 1983. This means that he ought to have been close to done. Time to hang up those spikes. No one in any sport gets beat up like a catcher. There are all of the tipped balls, ricocheting off the body; the bruises, cuts, welts; so many portions of skin turning to shades of purple; the wear on the knees from squatting; and this was an era of baseball with violent collisions at home plate, the catcher putting his body between a runner and a potential run, as Queequeg put but a harpoon between himself and a rogue whale.
Fisk had first appeared for two games with the Red Sox in 1969. There was another handful in 1971, but it wasn’t until 1972 that he had his official rookie year. 1972 was a strike-shortened season, and this was still the age of the pitcher, which had continued on from its high-water mark of 1968. Offensive totals were deflated, but right from his first proper year, Fisk had a season for the pantheon by a catcher. Put it this way: his OPS+ was 162. OPS+ is one of those highly technical stats if you’re a non-baseball stat nut, but what it means is that an OPS+ of 100 would make you an average offensive baseball player. 162 is tantamount to saying that you were 62% better than average. In 1939, Ted Williams, arguably the finest hitter who ever lived, had himself a rookie season for the ages. The level of rookie season you’d expect from the greatest hitter who ever lived. His OPS+ that year? 160. As Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto would have said, “Holy cow.”
No one talked about OPS+ back then, if it even existed as a statistical commodity. I didn’t exist in this world when Fisk was having his colossal rookie campaign. But I read about it in that summer of 1983. I read how he was eighth in the American League in batting average, sixth in doubles, first in triples, seventh in home runs. How he won a Gold Glove as the best fielding catcher in the AL and how this rookie finished third in MVP voting. I was, I daresay, proud of Fisk.
The batting average dipped in 1973, but Fisk crushed homers and was again near the top of the leader board. He was hurt for much of 1974 and 1975, and it looked to Red Sox fans at the time that Fisk was simply one of those outstanding talents who wouldn’t have a long career. The 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds is still what most casual fans know Fisk for, on account that he’s responsible for the best known visual in the history of the game. I was born in September of that year. As the World Series unfurled, I marked time between stops in this life, living in a foster home in New Bedford. This will sound weird, but it has always mattered to me that I was alive when Carlton Fisk hit the twelfth-inning blast in Game Six — a baseball game that comes close to being a work of art — to give all of New England hope that a World Series title, last seen in these parts in 1918, might become a reality. You will not be able to convince me that my foster mother did not have the game on, and that I saw and that I dreamed as I did so.
In a way — the less consequential way — the hope didn’t last. The Sox lost the next night, which is not a minor footnote—the juggernaut Reds took the title, after all — but is also not the takeaway. That would be the image of Fisk dancing as he alternately lopes and crow-steps towards first base, with the ball he has just driven — a rising line drive — beginning to hook as it travels above the left field line towards Fenway’s Green Monster outfield wall. He raises his arms above his head — you must allow me the present tense, because this will always be a present tense moment for me — imploring the prospective game-winner to remain fair. He pushes, he pushes again, with those beseeching limbs, and when the ball strikes the yellow pole likewise beckoning in the Boston night, he leaps in triumph.
If the New England soul — the spirit of what it means not just to be from these parts, but of them — could be encapsulated in what others humans might look to and say, “Oh, yes, I get it,” it would be the Fisk dance. It is to fall in New England what the verse of John Keats is to that same season in the original England. One enjoys a nice gourd, but when the clip plays on TV, all of the good ghosts you have ever known gather and watch with you, before resuming activities. Don’t sleep on autumn, says the Game Six Fisk home run: the true connoisseur of the season understands that as the surrounding world scales itself back, it is imperative that one do what one must to continue, to move forward, to all but inspire the hibernating spring, and the renewal she will bring, before she brings it. Harvest on the outside, yes; sow and reap, reap and sow, on the inside, as the world shoots you its reminders of our finite time, but not finite possibilities.
I cannot tell you how many times in neighborhood backyards that I launched a batted tennis ball high above the tree line some 120 feet away, putting the windows of a neighbor’s house in danger, then raising my arms, pushing the air aside as I hopped, the jumping boy-frog of the South Shore. It was not a steamy August mid-day on these occasions, with the foreknowledge that soon we’d be dropping our bats and mitts and cannonballing into a buddy’s pool. It was forever the New England autumn when you saw your breath, smelled the decaying leaf matter, the ambrosia of this place that could wage and win an olfactory battle with any Christmas tree or wreath anyone else from anywhere else cared to put forward as challenger.
People rightly talk of the elements as snow, wind, rain. There was no hocus-pocus in the Fisk home run. But will is an element as well, as the man in me, and the man I became, understood. Or it can be, depending upon the depth and commitment of yours. Had the ball flowed foul, Fisk would have fought on, returning to the batter’s box, expecting himself to do what he just nearly had. That’s not merely baseball. That’s how you want to live.
A healthy Fisk had another canonical season in 1977, was nearly as strong the next year in one of the classic pennant races, with Red Sox manager Don Zimmer scarcely giving his catcher a day off all season long, in an attempt to first repel, then catch, the New York Yankees. Fisk had become a rare commodity: a catcher who got healthier as he aged. Still, time is time — in theory. Fisk’s first two years with the White Sox were nondescript, though he had a penchant for punishing his old team, as with a game-winning home run to cap his first contest back at Fenway. The 1983 season began miserably for Fisk. This was around the time I’d asked my mom about that card. I started hitting the box scores hard in the mornings, needing to see how Fisk did the night before. His stats were anemic. If only I had found a way to watch him when I was three!
But then he was inserted in the two-hole of the order — strange spot though it was for a catcher — and the moribund Fisk, and the moribund White Sox, went on a crazy tear that lasted until the end of the season. They’re one of the best teams never to win it all, and a lot of other years, they might have. One must understand that I am as committed to the Red Sox as is possible. That’s like saying I’m committed to Cape Cod and the Atlantic Ocean, or early New England village greens, as much as possible. These things are parts of me. I was born on Cape Cod. I discovered the Beatles on Cape Cod. I wrote a book in which Cape Cod itself is a central character.
My attachment to the Red Sox is not dissimilar. I pulled for Fisk’s squad that year, though. He finished third in the MVP voting, his fourth top ten finish overall. He hit a lot of home runs in not a lot of at-bats the following season, but he wasn’t close to the same player. That was okay, I figured — he’d given me a real-time thrill ride of a season, and he could always be my favorite ballplayer. I wouldn’t need to replace him after he retired. There’d be people to tell tell me about his days with the Red Sox, too, and I’d make no shortage of inquiries regarding their firsthand memories. Little did I know that many of these games would be available on computers to watch whenever you wished, just like you head down into the basement on rainy afternoons and see how far you were able to get in Oregon Trail. If I’ve worked hard enough on a given day, I’ll give myself a treat and watch an old Fisk game at night now. I try to forget the outcome if I know it, and just watch like this is the first time the game has happened.
I took up the catcher cause, and talked my Little League coach into letting me squat in the dirt behind the dish. I’m a lefty, and lefties are not catchers. It’s just how baseball works. You might be the smoothest fielder ever, but if you’re not a righty, you can’t be a shortstop. Sorry, son. My normal positions were pitcher and first base, and at the latter I could pick the hell out of the ball. Any short hop, I was sure to snag. I must have campaigned hard, because the coach finally let me catch. He was doleful, I remember.
“I love to watch you field at first base,” he said. “So smooth. But if it’s that important to you…”
It was. I had adopted Fisk’s mannerisms. The way he’d adjust his chest protector with the flat palm of his throwing hand, as if he were tending to an inch in the middle of his pectorals. Or the way he bent down and picked up his helmet like he was palming a basketball — which is still how I handle the Red Sox caps I wear — before pulling his mask back over the top and returning to action.
Catcher, in my mind, was the most human position in all of the sports, or least the sports I loved. Everyone else on the diamond had this different perspective. They stood straight up. But the catcher got down into the guts of the game each time he took his crouch. He had the necessary mettle. He took the blows, too, for the catcher is a player of sacrificial generosity, who gives of his body while leading with his brain. Back then he positioned the fielders. He barked orders on cut-off plays. He managed the psyche of the pitcher, coaxed the best stuff out of his stuff, the term all pitchers use for how their pitches work or don’t. “I didn’t have my best stuff, but Carlton called a great game.” I liked that we had the same initials. Sometimes you just know a guy is your guy. Relationships can be that way, be they the kind that lead to marriage, or decades of friendship. The catcher position was a friend. The catcher himself was as loyal as any player could be to his team’s cause. He proved it. He lived it. Pitch after pitch after pitch, down there in the dust.
I have been an admirer of many other catchers: Lance Parrish, Benito Santiago, Thurman Munson, Matt Nokes, Ted Simmons, Bill Freehan, Gary Carter, Bob Boone, Mickey Cochrane. I love knowing that slugging first baseman Jimmie Foxx was sometimes a catcher, and is depicted as one on another favorite baseball card of mine. Some are before my time, and I’ve learned everything I can about them. I root for a catcher more readily than any other player. My pull to Fisk, though, has never lessened, and if anything, has become stronger, but not for reasons of nostalgia. I’m not a nostalgia buff — I’m a move-forward person, which is how the best catchers are.
Fisk adopted a weightlifting regimen before the 1985, at thirty-seven-years-old. If a catcher is still in the league then, typically he’s a back-up, and fortunate to have the gig. Players didn’t lift weight that much back then — the thinking being that it’d mess up your swing. Didn’t mess up Fisk’s — he hit a career best 37 home runs, placing him second in the AL. He led the league at the All-Star break, and I was rooting so hard for him to finish first. I once would have said that that was the last of Fisk’s momentous years, but I am less inclined to think that now. He kept playing, until 1993. The numbers didn’t wow you, but that’s also because back then people looked at batting average, home runs, RBI — the longstanding traditional stats — instead of OPS+, say, a key metric of modern analytics, where Fisk was this beast. In 1988, at forty, he had an OPS+ of 155. At the time, favoring the traditional numbers, I wasn’t smart enough to see how truly excellent he remained, and as a catcher at that. No player, in the history of baseball, has been better deeper into his forties than Carlton Fisk. He’s to baseball, in this manner, as Tom Brady — who used to be a catcher — is to football. I know — these numbers and accolades aren’t nearly as sexy as Brady’s, but you can’t deny Fisk’s achievement. He destroyed the expectations of those who quite reasonably would have thought, in the mid-1970s, that he wasn’t in line for a long career. And if we count the two games he played in 1969 — and we do, because they happened, and one may read the box scores on baseball-reference — he played in parts of four decades. Want to put it another way? He started the year the Beatles released Abbey Road, and his career ended the year Radiohead’s first record came out.
Fisk made it into the Hall of Fame with his second turn on the ballot. There wasn’t any doubt. But to me, he will always be more than a Hall of Famer, or the author of baseball’s signature visual, or the player that “even” my mom knew, which isn’t a knock on my mom, who was and can still be pretty cool with these things. He was someone who embodied doing what was necessary in order to rise, to see his world the way it needed to be seen. A seeker of sightlines, a waver of balls that fly above foul lines. A highly athletic version of an element, with a quick release to second, and big-time power to left, especially if you threw him a fastball at the knees. (Better to keep the ball up on Fisk.) New Englanders say he was one of us. I think that’s true, in terms of root values, what the best is that a New England person, or place, or player, can stand for. You want to be yourself, but I also considered myself a version of him. He struck me as someone who did things the right way, without grumbling, without cutting corners, the baseball answer to the late eighteenth century Concord famer who kissed his wife goodbye on an April morning, and walked across town to the river, to do whatever needed doing, same as he would the next day, if he remained alive.
I met him once, sort of. It was in 1984, at Fenway. I went down to the Red Sox dugout, where Fisk stood, presumably visiting with the few former teammates that still remained from his Boston tenure. Kids were asking him for his autograph, including me. I was next in line, though it was more like a throng, when Fisk said, “I need to go in there,” turning and pointing to the wall out in centerfield. I had no clue that you could go in there. He was clear, if not exactly apologetic: duty called. My dad told me it was probably to warm up a pitcher. I don’t know — he could have been going into the bowels of the earth, like that was how Dante would have entered hell in the 1980s, via an opening under the Fenway seats.
The other kids fell back, or squawked at Red Sox slugger Jim Rice, trying to get his attention, while I watched Fisk walk across the diamond, the outfield, the same pace the entire way, taking his catcher’s mitt from beneath his arm and putting it on his left hand. A door in the wall did indeed open, and in Fisk went, to do whatever he had to do. I wondered if he fought an urge — because he had the perfect view as he crossed the Fenway greensward — to look at the foul pole in left, where his home run stayed true on that autumn night when I am certain I had a good spot in front of my foster mother’s TV. “Nah,” I thought. For a guy like Fisk — a catcher like Fisk — once is always enough.•