January 13, 2000

How frogs become princes on bad knees

Carlton Fisk was sturdy and stubborn enough to endure behind the plate for 24 seasons.

Did you ever try catching?

It is the pigpen of positions.

Just to get into place is debilitating in itself. You frog squat-what?-a hundred and fifty times, counting warm-ups, easy.

That's why catchers have knees that sound like someone is cracking walnuts.

And you make your living hunkered down in the dirt, with the foul tips coming at you like shrapnel, hot and hissing, taking bites out of you, mangling your knuckles, leaving your hands gnarled and grotesquely misshapen.

Ouch! Dammit! Ouch!

Catchers shake hands like boxers; they give you a bunch of limp carrots.

And if you sque-e-e-e-z-e-e-e-e them back, they will give you a look that suggests homicide.

You catch, and there's a 300-pound blue-suited garlic-eater perched on your shoulder, wheezing in your ear, and he's myopic and mulish, and you try to coax the calls out of him, framing the ball, stealing strikes where you can, trying to make it rocking-chair easy for him and, when you disagree, you hardly move your lips and you never so much as twitch your head because you know he's just looking for an excuse to go off.

You catch, and every night there's a different rag arm out there on the mound, and some you have to make brave and some you have to make smart. Some you have to grab by the scruff of the neck and some you have to sweet-talk.

Some of whom you have to ask: "Have you got the real hard cheese tonight?"

And some to whom you have to hiss, through clenched teeth: "Listen, pus-arm, you shake me off even once and you're gonna walk with a permanent limp, got that?"

You catch, you run the game.

You catch, no one wants to swap spots with you.

Which brings us to Carlton Fisk, who has a name that sounds Yankee. Not Bronx-Bomber Yankee. New England Yankee. Maple syrup, whaling ships, birch trees in winter, chowdah Yankee.

Carlton Fisk caught more major-league baseball games than anyone who ever strapped on the shin guards and looked at life through a mask.

Twenty-two hundred and twenty-six.

Do the math: Multiply by 110 pitches a game, which is, yes, you're right, very conservative, but even so it still comes out to . . . good grief, more than 250,000 pitches.

Throw in bullpen time, throw in spring training, throw in extra innings, we're talking the better part of 300,000 pitches.

On the basis of absolutely nothing else, Carlton Fisk deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

Which, now, he is.

Sometimes, we get it right.

He thought he deserved to be in last year, which was the first time he showed up on the ballot, and part of that opinion is him just being him, which is to say crusty as a barnacle and crabby and never without a thought, never with a hesitation to give it voice.

There are some athletes for whom top hat and tails seem appropriate. They are elegant. Carlton Fisk was a flannel shirt. One of those insulation-lined, red plaid jobs that you can wear while you're out back splitting wood for the fire. Nothing fancy, just serviceable, durable. Can't wear it out.

He was called Pudge, but of course he was just the opposite, tall and rangy. Usually, it's the fat kid who gets plopped behind the plate. Carlton Fisk had a first baseman's build, but he was eager to get back there. Probably because he understood the challenge, sensed all that is required, how it will plumb a man's soul, all that noble discomfort and suffering. It must have appealed to the stoic in him.

"Sometimes," he said the other day, "lost in the translation is how difficult catching is."

He was born in Vermont, grew up in New Hampshire. He was a piece of flint. He was also about as warm as one. He was often aloof. But he had a respect and reverence for his craft and for the honest labor it required, and also for the game itself.

He did not suffer fools or slackers, and so when the extravagantly talented Deion Sanders appeared to be doodling dollar signs in the batters box as a brash rookie back in 1990, it was Fisk who berated him, scolded him, shamed him.

And they weren't even teammates.

"I was not a taker of the game," Fisk said, "I was a giver. I gave everything I had to the game. I'm proud of that."

He deserves to be.

He played 24 seasons, played exactly one game shy of an even 2,500, and played until he was 45, which would have been astonishing enough if he were doing nothing more strenuous than designated-hitting.

But it was in the dirt where he belonged, frog-squatting on a knee that had been completely reconstructed in 1974. ("Not a real good thing if you squat for a living," he said, wryly.)

Bench was better. Berra was more famous. But Pudge was tougher, more indestructible and, in the end, more difficult to discourage.

He played an ignoble position, but because he embraced its rigors and accepted its blunt, simple demands, he brought a certain nobility to it.

The frog-squatter could remind you of a prince.