Thursday, September 18, 2014

Card #110: Carlton Fisk

Who Can It Be Now?
Carlton Ernest Fisk was born in Bellows Falls, Vermont, on December 26, 1947, which makes him 3 days younger than my mother. Fisk actually grew up five miles away from Bellows Falls in Charlestown, New Hampshire. As with many things in his life, Fisk was adamant about his being a New Hampster, I mean, a New Hampshirite. This point was driven home by way of a story told in his SABR biography.  Fisk forced the Red Sox to recast his $3,000 plaque for the Red Sox Hall of Fame to change the reference of being a "native of Vermont" to reflect that he was raised in New Hampshire. So, don't call Carlton a Vermonter.

Anyway, Fisk was one of six children of Cecil and Leona Fisk. Cecil was a tool-and-dye engineer and a farmer, and Leona was a champion in candlepin bowling. That's about as New England as it gets, I think.  Carlton was tall already as a youth, and he excelled in basketball as well as baseball, leading his high school to the Class M Semifinals in 1965 before losing to Hopkinton. Fisk scored 42 points and pulled down 39 rebounds in that semifinal game before fouling out with a minute to go. His school lost by 2 points, and Fisk's dad was upset with Carlton for missing four free throws in the loss.

Even in high school, Fisk played baseball as well. He spent his summers playing American Legion ball -- first for Claremont, New Hampshire, for a year in 1964 before switching over to Bellows Falls in Vermont (which had won the Vermont American Legion title the previous year). Despite his success as a player in both high school and American Legion, Fisk was not drafted out of high school. Instead, he accepted a basketball scholarship to attend the University of New Hampshire, where his older brother was the All-Yankee Conference sweeper for the soccer team.

Fisk spent a year and a half at UNH before the Red Sox drafted him with the fourth pick overall in the January Regular Draft in 1967. Fisk signed with the Red Sox because, as he put it, "I could never be a six-foot-two power forward and play for the Celtics."

Baseball-Reference has Fisk playing in the Florida Instructional League in 1967, while The Baseball Cube makes no reference to this (perhaps because stats don't seem to exist for that league) and the SABR biography skips right to Fisk's assignment for 1968 in Waterloo, Iowa. I will too. Fisk went to Iowa and hit well -- .338/.403/.600, 12 HR in 195 AB -- but apparently was "despondent" over the fact that the Waterloo team sucked, finishing 12 games under .500 and 26.5 games out of first. 

Fisk played both in the Florida Instructional League and in Double-A with Pittsfield in 1969. Here, my sources differ on Pittsfield's level of play; I'm going with Baseball-Reference because I trust their historical facts more than The Baseball Cube, which says Pittsfield was a low-A ball team. Anyway, Fisk didn't exactly hit well -- between those two stops, he hit .243/.328/.418 with 14 HR in 465 plate appearances. Still, it was enough for the Red Sox to give Fisk 5 at-bats in September of 1969. Of course, making his major league debut hitting 8th against eventual 1969 Cy Young Award winner (undeserved, mind you, but still) Mike Cuellar didn't help Fisk. He went 0-for-4 in that game and did not get a hit that September.

Fisk went back down to Double-A, this time in Pawtucket, in 1970. His hitting was decent, as Fisk got on base and hit with power -- .229/.337/.426 versus league averages of .253/.345/.374.  He then moved up to Triple-A Louisville in 1971 and got a call-up to the big leagues in September. This time, he went up to the plate flailing -- 1 walk in 49 plate appearances but .313/.327/.521 overall.  

Before I leave his minor league time behind, what strikes me as somewhat odd was the fact that the Red Sox had Fisk catch over 100 games just one minor league season out of four, and that was when he spent time in the Florida Instructional League and in Double-A in 1969. Otherwise, it was about 95 games a year and 350 plate appearances. I guess they wanted to save his knees.

Whereas Fisk's minor league career might be seen as somewhat disappointing at the plate, he was an instant star in the major leagues. He was an All-Star, won a Gold Glove, and finished fourth in the MVP race in 1972 -- oh, and he did that as a rookie. He was named Rookie of the Year, and did it by winning every single vote.

Overall, though, his time in Boston was up and down. He played 130 or more games in 6 seasons of the 9 full seasons in Boston. In those other 3 seasons, however, he played in 52 (1974), 79 (1975), and 91 (1979). Then again, perhaps it was more remarkable that he was disabled more.  He hit the DL in 1974 due to a groin injury and a knee injury. He spent most of the first half of 1975 on the DL as well after being hit by a pitch in spring training. He was disabled in 1979 for what was called a persistent right elbow ailment, which caused him to catch just 35 games that season.

And yet, despite having been born and raised as a New Englander, and despite wearing a Red Sox hat on his Hall of Fame plaque, he left the Red Sox before the 1981 season. The reason he left was due to a paperwork technicality. The Red Sox sent Fisk a contract for his option year two days too late after the 1980 season. The same happened with Fred Lynn's contract. 

As the AP wire story linked above mentions, the issue came about under the 1976 collective bargaining agreement and was unique to Lynn, Fisk, and two other players at that point. But, to enforce the collective bargaining provision, Marvin Miller and the MLB Players Association filed a grievance on the players' behalf, alleging that missing this deadline meant that the Red Sox were required to arbitrate the players' salaries or the players would become free agents.  any rights to the players' services that they may have had. 

Now, in 1981, the Red Sox were seen as cheap bastards -- just ask Rick Burleson -- so the Red Sox traded their rights to Lynn to the Angels and, further, let Fisk leave in free agency. Fisk signed a 5-year, $2.9 million contract with the Chisox, keeping him on the South Side through at least the age of 37.  

In his first year with the White Sox, Fisk played 96 games and hit reasonably well. Still, a 5-year contract for a 33-year-old catcher seemed like a foolish decision by the White Sox. How would his knees hold up? Would he even be in the league at the end of the contract?

With Carlton having an In Action card, we'll talk about those White Sox years tomorrow.

Mustache check: Fisk breaks the streak. I think he took the game too seriously to grow a mustache. I mean, I can't even find a Fisk photo with him wearing a mustache.

Family Ties
As I mentioned, Fisk came from an athletic family. Saying it and showing it, though, are two different things.

His father Cecil was an excellent tennis player and played semi-pro baseball and basketball. Mother Leona was a fast-pitch softball pitcher in Minnesota before moving east. She later became the high school softball coach for her daughters.

His brother Calvin was drafted in the 49th round of the 1965 draft with the 758th pick overall by the Baltimore Orioles. He came back from Vietnam at the age of 25, and the Orioles were no longer interested in his services.

Calvin's daughter Erica played tennis at Ohio State University in the early 2000s, graduating in 2003.

Carlton's brother Cedric played baseball and hockey in high school but, according to his parents, did not care much about baseball.

Another brother, Conrad, played baseball at Keene State, graduating in 1972. He had helped lead his high school, Fall Mountain, to back-to-back state titles in baseball in 1968 and 1969.

Carlton's nephew (and Conrad's son) Carrington Fisk (a name which sounds like he should have some sort of trust fund "back east") pitched collegiately at Indiana University and at the University of Tampa after being drafted in the 39th round of the 1999 June Draft by the New York Mets. Carrington now serves as the Executive Director of the Fisk Foundation.  

Carrington's brother Cameron played football at the University of New Hampshire before transferring to play basketball at Keene State College. Cameron was named girls' basketball coach for Keene High in 2012.

Carrington's and Cameron's sister Carrah Fisk-Hennessey played softball and soccer at Keene State as well. She is now the head softball coach and assistant athletic director at New England College.

Carlton's son Casey played at Illinois State University as a pitcher, catcher, and first baseman in the early 1990s. He eventually got his degree and started a performance training center for athletes with professional ambitions located in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Carlton's youngest sister, Janet, also has ties to sports. She was a high school tennis player, and she helped lead her high school to four straight state titles in basketball. In one of them, he made clutch free throws to win the final game. In addition, she married into sports as well by marrying Carlton's teammate Rick Miller.

The Verdict
In 2012, Carlton Fisk was charged with DUI when he was found unconscious behind the wheel of his Ford F-150 pickup truck. The jokes write themselves about the "Field of Dreams" scenario here, but Fisk's truck was found in the middle of a corn field near New Lenox, Illinois, outside Joliet. 

Granted, it was in late October, so I'm pretty sure that the corn field had been harvested at that point. He ended up resolving the case by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor drunken-driving charge. He was assessed court costs of $1250, received one year "court supervision" (probation), and had to undergo a drug and alcohol evaluation and counseling.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Full disclosure: I never liked Carlton Fisk. Despite my love for catchers, which has manifested itself in my baseball card collecting to include collecting Gary Carter cards and cards for Brewers catchers Charlie Moore, Ted Simmons, Dave Nilsson, Jonathan Lucroy, and B.J. Surhoff, I could never warm to Fisk.  

Certainly, this is the result of the teams for which he played in combination with Fisk being the slowest damn catcher on the face of the planet.  Setting aside his playing for Boston (a Milwaukee divisional rival) and the White Sox (with whom the Brewers had a mutual hate relationship spilling over from the Packers-Bears rivalry in the NFL), let's talk about how slow Fisk was. None other than friend and former teammate Bill Lee said this about Fisk in Lee's book, The Wrong Stuff:
(In Single-A Waterloo,) Carlton Fisk and I shared an apartment in town with a couple of outfielders from Massachusetts. Fisk was always late, the last one to get to the ballpark, the last one to leave. Very methodical. He was also slow at putting down signs. I used to think, Jesus, what's taking him so long? I've only got two pitches. I had my revenge later on, when we were both on the Red Sox. During one game I shook him off six consecutive times. He came out to the mound and yelled, "How the hell can you shake me off six times! I've only got five fingers!" My point exactly.
Carlton still catches the longest games in the majors. That's because he takes things in stride and likes to consider all options. He'll live to be a hundred and five, there's no doubt about it. Fisk comes from hardy stock and never gets frazzled. 
Maybe so. Lee might be on to something about how long Fisk will live, though -- Fisk's father Cecil lived to be 97 years old

Fisk also got on my nerves a bit as one of those self-appointed "protectors of the game." I know a lot of folks probably appreciated his send-up of Deion Sanders back in 1989 (here's a link to an interview between Fisk and his fellow self-appointed protector of the game Joe Morgan from last year about it). 

I mean, this started back in 1973. As Bill Lee again tells the story:
Young and idealistic when he first joined us, Carlton had a utopian view of the game, viewing the majors as a large-scale version of the minors. He could not understand the clique situation on our club. The social polarization that occurs on a team is not an unusual or even necessarily a bad thing. Twenty-five guys can only stay in the same room with each other for so long. But Fisk didn't understand this. He thought everybody would be going out to eat together and be more of a group off the field. It upset him when he discovered that things weren't like that up here. He also expected Yaz and [Reggie] Smith, the team's two biggest stars, to be the club's leaders. When he didn't see them taking up the reins, he really let them have it in the papers. 
Speaking out like that is okay, I suppose. But, did Fisk's mother have to pop off about Reggie Smith too? Well, she did.

His "protecting the game" did not end when he retired, either. He spoke out -- and completely messed up the facts -- about Mark McGwire's and Barry Bonds's use of steroids back in 2010. 

Getting back to the Deion Sanders thing for a moment, Fisk complained to Joe Morgan about how Deion drew dollar signs in the batters' box before hitting and lollygagged to first base on a popup.  As a result, Fisk screamed at Sanders that "There's right way and a wrong way to play this game." The next time up, Sanders -- and if you have seen Deion on TV, you know that he's not the wittiest guy on the planet -- says as his retort that "slavery ended years ago."  That set Fisk off and started a brawl.

The only problem I have with that whole scenario is this: why the hell should Fisk want his opponent to run balls out? Wouldn't it be better for Fisk's team for Sanders to loaf around and not take things seriously? I mean, only if Sanders is on Fisk's team should Fisk care about how Sanders acts.

That's one of my problems here. Why does Carlton Fisk -- or Kirk Gibson, or Gerrit Cole, or Brian McCann, or Joe Morgan -- get to be the arbiter on what these unwritten rules of "the right way" to play the game is? 

It's a game. It's not fighting ebola or the so-called Islamic State or Al-Qaeda. Lives are not lost if Deion Sanders draws a dollar sign in the batters' box or loafs when he pops out, nor are they lost if Yasiel Puig flips his bat, nor are they lost if Carlos Gomez watches a home run for its entire flight over the fence.

It's just a game.

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