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."
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.