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The emergence of Ron Karkovice as a solid starter a year ago, when Fisk was troubled with foot problems and was limited to 62 games, has meant an obvious cut in Fisk's playing time. Karkovice is a good defensive catcher and an improved bat. He also has a 29-year-old body. Fair enough. What bothers Fisk are the murkier aspects of his situation.
He returned to the White Sox this year after a rancorous off-season. A free agent, he was left off Chicago's 40-man roster so the club could protect younger players in the National League expansion draft. Fisk was offered a $500,000 minor league contract from White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf with guarantees that he would be on the major league team. The offer was a 50% pay cut, and the very idea of it was a personal insult, to Fisk's thinking. The winter was filled with angry words on both sides, with Fisk finally accepting a $650,000 minor league contract along with the guarantee of promotion.
"I've gotten letters from people saying, 'What are you whining about? You're still getting great money,' " Fisk says. "Well, that's beside the point. There are ways you do things in this game and ways you don't. You can say this is just business, but——you, it's not business. It's me. This is not Coca-Cola or Budget Rent-A-Car or Miller Beer. That's me you're talking about. I've taken this game personally for a long, long time. You say I can't do this, can't do that, that's personal."
The relationship with Reinsdorf has not improved, which is why Fisk does not want any ceremonies on the day the record is broken and why he does not want to do public relations work for the team. His relationship with White Sox manager Gene Lamont is not much better. Lamont says it is "fine," but Fisk says Lamont thinks it is fine "because we never talk. He never says a word to me, and I haven't swamped the boat lately."
There is speculation that once Fisk sets the record, he will be released. On April 23 the White Sox signed Mike LaValliere, the stout former Pittsburgh Pirate catcher, and sent him to their Sarasota, Fla., farm team to lose weight and get into shape. He is an obvious candidate to join the club in the future.
"I've thought up three scenarios, assuming the number-one catcher doesn't get hurt," Fisk says. "First, I break the record and they give me my release. Second, I break the record and they approach me about a trade. Third, I break the record and they bring up LaValliere—quote, because we need a lefthanded bat, end quote—and we go with three catchers and even my bullpen time is diminished."
All of the possibilities seem crazy to Fisk. Shouldn't this be a time of joy, of reflection on his accomplishments? Don't his accomplishments count for anything? Doesn't he at least have experience that he could share with young players? He feels as if he is an outcast in a place where he spent his best time. He is so bitter that, he says, when his plaque is being engraved for the Hall of Fame, he doesn't want to be pictured in a White Sox hat, and he also doesn't want to be pictured in a Red Sox hat. Is there any rule against being pictured "as a civilian with a Nike swoosh across the front of my hat?" he asks.
"I don't know where I am right now," Fisk says. "The whole situation just fractures my self-image. My wife wants me to forget about it, to retire at the end of the year and come home. I don't know. I haven't ruled out trying to play another year somewhere. I'd like to be in a situation where I really could find out if I still can play."
He remembers the first time he was ever called to play catcher, this hard-hat position of his. It was a fluke. He was a freshman in high school in Charlestown, N.H., and he began the season as a third baseman. His older brother, Calvin, was the team's catcher. A high pop was hit along the third base line. The two brothers converged and then collided. Carlton's elbow struck Calvin in the face, knocking out a few teeth and bloodying his nose. By the time the next game arrived, Calvin's face was so swollen it wouldn't fit inside the catcher's mask. He moved to third. Carlton moved behind the plate.
Who would have thought a collision in a New Hampshire field would be the start of a career like this? Who would have thought he would play all these games? Who would have thought it would end like this?