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Essay excerpt from "Squatting in the Dust," about Carlton Fisk and a lifelong love of catchers

Monday 6/20/22

In the summer of 1983, aged seven, I entered my parent’s bedroom holding a baseball card I’d just plucked from a pack purchased at the store down the street for the princely sum of a dime and a quarter. I was a ruthless gatherer of coins totaling that figure, or, better yet, seventy cents, or a dollar five—for some reason, there was no tax on baseball cards in my memory—so that I might acquire multiple packs. You could chase me away for twenty minutes with the loose change jangling in your pocket. I was also an ever-eager volunteer to acquire the peanut butter or milk we may have been in need of—for my standard thirty-five cent errand-fee, of course.

But there was no time like that one time I was struck through my core upon seeing this particular baseball card. I’d seen hundreds—or however many baseball cards a boy who is mad about baseball sees, though none had impacted me like this slab of cardboard. The card showed a catcher for the Chicago White Sox standing in front of home plate. An important play was clearly unfolding, preserved forevermore in this priceless paper amber, though much of drama was offstage, because we didn’t see it, with the photographer’s focus being this sole player, for such is how baseball cards typically work. We beheld this catcher, standing upright, not in his familiar crouch, minus his mask, his helmet on backwards, of course, in the way of the men who play the coolest position there has ever been, an honorific I decided upon in that exact moment.

He’s taking charge, calling out instructions—which somehow seem so important—to his teammates. Perhaps as to where to throw the ball, whether it’s second or third base, given that they likely have their back to the infield. He is the receiving beacon who sees all. Or maybe he’s calling for the ball to come to him, to stamp out a would-be rally and preserve victory in the bottom of the ninth. This catcher’s gray uniform—with a giant number 72 emblazoned on his left thigh in the chunky manner of those less-than-subtle 1980s uniforms—tells us his team is on the road. There’s an inset photo at the bottom right of the card, a headshot in circular frame of the catcher in a more relaxed setting, a genial pose. He smiles easily, winningly, and appears to be in mid-laugh. Nothing will keep him down, dull his heroic, knowing, laconic humor. His batting helmet faces forward this time, his bat resting against his right shoulder, his hair long but not unkempt. He looked to me like a man one would both approach and be in awe of. Someone you’d ask your dad if you could say hello to if you both were near him, hoping he would impart to you a line or two about the verities he had discovered and now embodied, after squatting so well, so MVP-ishly, in the dust both ancient and eternal.

My mother was making the bed. I halted her by holding the card aloft, like I was Jack Webb on Dragnet, and it was high time for real answers.

“Do you know this player?” I asked, trying not to sound rude but likely failing. I was excited.

I don’t know why I thought that my mother definitely would know about this man, but I did.

She laughed. “Sure,” she said, full of confidence. “That’s Carlton Fisk.”

Her tone was in a style suggesting that everyone knew Carlton Fisk—how could you not?

When I think of how cool my mother is, and how unlike most moms, I think of a memory like this exchange, which I’m certain she doesn’t remember. I asked about a lot of things. If my parents couldn’t give me answers, they’d point me in a direction where I could locate them myself. It’s a great gift to give somebody.

My mom told me that not only did Carlton Fisk used to play for our Boston Red Sox, he was from New England himself, which was not a place you expected professional ballplayers to originate from. Florida, yes, and Texas and California, but the spring could be cold and bite-y where we lived, the nip of autumn came on early, and as for playing ball in January, that was only going to be street hockey in the road in front of your house, pulling the net aside when another blasted car came along.

Immediately it registered to me that this great man—which is how I already thought of Carlton Fisk—had once featured regularly on the TV in my own house—for my dad would always have the Red Sox game on, and it’s not like that stopped when that got me—before whatever set of circumstances had sent him to the Middle West, and somehow I had been unaware, and missed out on so much. And yet I knew and had regular viewing access to current Red Sox players like Mark Clear, Dave Stapleton, and Gary Allenson? These fellows could not compare. Alas, Poor Yorick, said Hamlet; alas, the Red Sox’ light-hitting shortstop Glenn Hoffman, said nearly-eight-year-old me.

For a boy in summer, whose saddest days occur when he gets a bevy of doubles—the cards he already had—in a pack he scrounged thirty-five cents for—this is akin to the tragic. I think that’s one of the reasons we lament the loss of our youth as we do; or, put another way, why we must fight to retain youth’s clear-eyed, ever-present wonder. I was also grateful to my mother that afternoon. I’m not saying I offered to help her make the bed, though I probably wouldn’t have been much use with that anyway. But it was on that summer day, in my parents’ bedroom, that Carlton Fisk became my guy for the rest of my life that I may not yet be halfway through.


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