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Baseball has an occupational disease, ranking somewhere between athlete's foot and bone chips in the elbow, known as the Affluent Athlete syndrome. Ask any Boston fan. Obviously the Affluent Athlete syndrome afflicts other ballplayers on other teams, other athletes in other sports, but with the Red Sox it seems a destiny. Red Sox players come and go. The A. A. syndrome remains. Red Sox managers are hired to cure it, and fired partly because they can't.
The symptoms develop roughly like this. Leroy (Whiz) Kidd (a composite drawn from the Boston experience) appears out of nowhere, hungry and on the make. He tears Fenway Park apart, a real hero with the left-field wall. In the off-season Leroy plays Jesse James on the banquet circuit. In between, uh, speeches he measures his first season's clippings. Wow! Nearly a quarter of a mile laid end to end. He asks for, and gets, a raise about the size Charlie Finley considers reasonable for the whole Oakland squad.
In his second season Leroy really moves into what is called Outside Activities. He may be striking out a lot more at the plate, but it's all grand slams with Whiz Kidd sweat shirts. Things are also going nicely, thank you, at Leroy's Bowladrome—ENTERTAINMENT IN THE LOUNGE ON SATURDAY NIGHTS. Before games Leroy spends a lot of time in the whirlpool, talking stocks. After all those banquets he even looks like a banker. He gives the impression that he's incorporated, and that the part of the corporation that plays nine innings is the least of it. Toward the end of the season Leroy begins to complain that the manager doesn't understand him. But by then he has his own private manager anyway.
Like Scott Fitzgerald characters, Red Sox heroes seem to have no second acts. The Affluent Athlete syndrome is a form of curse—one great season and no sequel. As contagious as a yawn, it attacks veterans traded to the team as well as rookies. It is a spreading languidness of the spirit—a chorus of "I'm all right, Jack" after a one-run loss. It is what makes Irishmen in South Boston barrooms refer to Fenway Park's locker room as the Country Club and to the Red Sox as the Gold Sox. Every spring, when he is tempted to dream another impossible dream, the Boston fan crosses his fingers instead, stages a wake for last year's hotshot and prays to the Great God Hustle.
The question being asked in all the Shamrock Taverns this summer is: Will success spoil Carlton Fisk? Can he escape the dread Red Sox plague, compared to which the sophomore jinx is nothing? Despite the pessimism native to a Boston Irishman working on his beer, the answer appears to be: here's an honest-to-goodness survivor, with not only a second but a third act in him. Here's an All-Star two straight years. Here's something that just might make first place in July last longer. August. September? October! Here is Hope.
No Whiz Kidd had a better first act than Fisk (see cover). Up from the Louisville farm club for a look late in 1971, Fisk surprised everybody but himself by making the team in 1972. Making the team? By midseason he was the All-Star catcher, crouching behind the likes of Henry Aaron, chasing Wilbur Wood's knuckleball. He wound up batting .293 and setting a Red Sox record for home runs by a catcher: 22. He was not only elected American League Rookie of the Year but, for the first time ever, he was the unanimous choice. As handsome as Charlton Heston—and a heck of a lot more personable—Fisk had become a classic setup for the Red Sox sleeping sickness. Do their old eyes deceive Boston fans, trained to expect the worst? At the All-Star break this week Fisk has 18 home runs, three more than a year ago, and 11 more RBIs, though his average has slipped 35 points—to .275.
If he continues to escape the doom of the natives, Fisk may have two things to thank heaven for: that he is a catcher and that he is a New Englander. The two identities may be related. New England—hardly nature's spawning ground for major league baseball players—has an old habit of producing catchers. It is as if only a race bred to endure the pillory and the stocks and Cotton Mather's sermons could gird up the loins (and a lot else) and squat in the dirt on 90° afternoons to stop all those fire-and-brim-stone pitches while mean-looking sinners swing devil's clubs in one's face. The roll call of catching saints includes Gordon Stanley (Mickey) Cochrane, out of Bridgewater, Mass.; Charles Leo (Gabby) Hartnett, out of Woonsocket, R.I.; George Robert (Birdie) Tebbetts, out of Burlington, Vt.; and Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy, otherwise known as Connie Mack, out of East Brookfield, Mass.—all of them fighters, all of them hungry athletes to the end.
Carlton Fisk was born in Bellows Falls, Vt. just a quarter of a century ago, and was brought up across the state line in Charlestown, N.H., a town of around 1,600 inhabitants. If one had to invent a catcher's hometown, an exercise ground for character, Charlestown might be it. Horses still graze beside the main street. Three cars constitute a traffic jam. There are rockers on the porches to witness all the excitement. The showplace of Charlestown is an estate bearing the sign: THE FOUNDATION FOR BIBLICAL RESEARCH AND PRESERVATION OF PRIMITIVE CHRISTIANITY. A marker commemorates a fort where 31 settlers held off an awful lot more French and Indian attackers for three days. This is the stuff catchers are made of.
"Pudge" Fisk—the nickname has stuck even though the roly-polyness has spread out to a trim 210 pounds over a 6'2" frame—was brought up on a small farm: one milker, a couple of beef cows. Mother used to put up 100 quarts of beans and carrots for the winter. There was a cold room where quarters of beef hung. The barn belonged to grandfather, who doubled as mail carrier and lived to be 96.
Carlton has two sisters and three brothers. The boys' names all begin with Cas in catcher. There is Cedric and Conrad and Calvin. Carlton is carrying on the tradition with a three-year-old daughter named Carlyn and a 1½-year-old son named Carson. It all goes back to C for Cecil, Carlton's father. Cecil Fisk was the sort of tennis player who could win state championships from highfalutin college boys before part-time farming, his job in a machine shop and raising six kids took over. Oldtimers in New Hampshire still think of Cecil Fisk as the athletic Fisk.