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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, July 30, 1973
LIKE F. SCOTT FITZGERALD CHARACTERS, Red Sox heroes seem to have no second acts. They are victims of the Affluent Athlete syndrome: 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.
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 Boston whiz kid had a better first act than Fisk. Up from the Louisville farm club for a look late in 1971, Fisk surprised everybody but himself by making the team in '72. 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. At the '73 All-Star break Fisk had 18 home runs, three more than he had in 1972, and 11 more RBIs.
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-brimstone pitches while mean-looking sinners swing devil's clubs in one's face. The roll call of New England's catching saints includes Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett, Birdie Tebbetts and Connie Mack—all of them fighters, all of them hungry athletes to the end.
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. 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. A marker commemorates a fort where 31 settlers held off an awful lot more French and Indian attackers for three days. Fisk was brought up on a small farm—one milker, a couple of beef cows—along with two sisters and three brothers. The boys' names all begin with C, as in catcher, but it all goes back to C for Cecil, Carlton's father. Cecil Fisk was the perfectionist father who produced a perfectionist son.
If a catcher is not a New Englander, he has to have the soul of one. He lives in a hostile universe, convinced that nobody understands him but God and other catchers—and he isn't so sure about other catchers. Catching is a sacrifice for which even the sternest Puritan God must grant a reward. The reward is called winning. Perfectionism is hard to contain, and once a perfectionist catcher gets going, he is carrying a whole team of prodigal sons on his shoulders. He wants to make things move, and for a man who really wants that, there are no off-hours. After a road game Fisk will have a beer or two with the boys, but four is his limit. "Some guys have to work for a living" is his getaway line when a good time seems about to be had by all. In hotel rooms as remote from Charlestown as Los Angeles, the New England conscience will climb the wall. What did I do wrong? What could I have done better? "I've never come out of a game when I could say, 'There. I've done everything right,' " he says.
During his sleepless nights Fisk has worked out a dream, a New England pilgrim's vision. The Red Sox—and maybe all the teams in baseball—will get hungry again. There will be rules. Players will live to play, not play to live. ("Too many guys want the baseball life—the booze, the broads, the celebrity status. Too few guys really want to play baseball.") There will be competition for jobs. ("The kids hustle their way up. Then they think, I'm in the big time. I've got it made. If more players felt insecure, there'd be better baseball.") He fantasizes a team that is a team: nine lean New England souls who have known the agonies (and joys) of demanding the absolute best of themselves. A congregation of winners.