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Heroes when we are young




It occurred to me this morning that today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the last game Carlton Fisk caught in the big leagues. He was, of course, on the White Sox at the time, having joined that club in 1981, after being with the Red Sox from 1969 to 1980. The 1969 date is a little misleading, as Fisk would take Rookie of the Year honors in 1972 (with one of the best rookie seasons anyone has ever had, and one of the best seasons any catcher has ever had, when you really get inside the numbers of Fisk's overall game). That final appearance nudged him ahead of Bob Boone for most games caught at the time. Boone was himself an interesting player, sort of like the 1970s/1980s version of Detroit's Bill Freehan (who, incidentally, was referenced on the first episode of Cheers in 1982) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with less pop. He was the best I've ever seen at framing pitches, and was on that Angels team that lost to the Red Sox in the 1986 ALCS, in a worse way than the Red Sox would then go on to lose to the Mets in the World Series. If that is even possible. But there it was.


But as for Fisk: he was my lone hero from an early age. Of course, as I grew older, I ditched the hero bit, but I always had a huge admiration for him. In the summers where I grew up, in Mansfield, I was rarely indoors. A forest called the Great Woods--which gave its name to the popular concert venue in Mansfield, whose name has changed over the years a lot (I wrote about a great Smiths gig that was recorded there, a little while back, for Salon)--was literally our backyard. The development was cut out of those woods. Animals everywhere. Snakes everywhere. Tons of kids to play with. Endless games of freeze tag, flashlight tag, football games, street hockey, basketball, ballparks we'd design and name on our back lawns, with green sailcloth or rain tarps hung over fences or jungle gyms to make super cool outfield walls. I spent a lot of hours deep in those woods, miles out, exploring. I learned the names of all of the birds, learned to recognize their songs, I'd trail behind a black racer snake, get up close with a snapping turtle by a brook, thrilled--and admiring--how they were the only animal who would turn and come at you, with this attitude of "You want to do this, human? Fine, we will do this, and I will carve you up, snapping turtle style!" Loved those guys. I wish more humans had the healthy pluck of a snapping turtle.


One day I ducked in for something. I don't know what. Perhaps a refreshing Popsicle. My standard summer time to duck in was early afternoon on the Fourth of July. I always liked to see that animated film from 1953, Ben and Me, which is about this mouse who hangs out with Ben Franklin (well, before they have this falling out) and gives him some of his best ideas, acts as his guinea pig, sounding board, that kind of thing. I'm doing a novel called Musings with Franklin that is told entirely in conversation that is an entirely new form of novel, a kind of post-post-modernism for the digital age which professors could study for an age or horny teenagers could endlessly quote, that is about Writer, who believes he is dead and might be in hell, Bartender, and this pervy/sagacious guy from the suburbs who dresses up as Ben Franklin. Most of it takes place in a Colonial era bar, in the present day, with other characters entering the story through what these people are saying to each other. It's not a play, it's not like any novel there has ever been, it's not a transcript, it's not dialogue. Entirely in conversation. I'll probably write a reference to Ben and Me into it, with pervy Franklin boasting of his cartoon appearance. And this guy is really pervy. Some of the stuff I have him say. Jesus. But, again, there it is.


Anyway, my mom was inside, my dad outside with my sister Kerrin. Both are gone now, and I think about them together on the lawn, playing. The ballgame was on. We always had the game on. And there was this batter at the plate. He was tall, elegant, and yet also granitic. Like he had been carved out of the very rock structures I studied in our backyard of New England woods. I saw him for all of four, five seconds, and asked my mom, "Who is this guy?" She said, as if anyone who has ever existed would know, "Why, that's Fisk, of course."

Turns out that he was from New England. Do you know how few professional baseball players come from New England? Hardly any. It's cold here. You don't play baseball year round. But to be from New Hampshire and make the baseball Hall of Fame? And after starring for the local team? Nuts.


Fisk represented character on the ball field. He was always in control. He decided pace in a way I've never seen a baseball player decide it. He's not the best ever catcher. That's Johnny Bench, who was, in all honesty, quite a bit better than Fisk. But Fisk may have had the best all-around game of any catcher. He hit for power, average, he got on base a lot, he had good speed for a catcher (led the league in triples in that great rookie season), called a strong game, had an excellent arm, blocked the ball well, was awesome on pop-ups and going into the stands to get them.


He was one of the rare players who was injured a lot early in his career, who then went on to be a paragon of health. In 1978, he played in 157 games. He was a catcher. Also nuts. His 1977 season is one of the dozen or fifteen or so best by a receiver. If you know anything about baseball history, you know about his 1975 World Series Game Six foul pole shot (or if you've ever seen Goodwill Hunting). But this is also interesting: Fisk played for half of his forties, and you can make a compelling case that he was the best MLB player of all time, so far as success in your forties goes. He is easily the best catcher post-forty.


Fisk was not the player I admired most as a kid. That would be Wayne Gretzky. But I gravitated to Gretzky in the same way I gravitated to Mozart, whose music I would listen to. Both Gretzky and Mozart made a great deal of sense to me. I could watch the former play and know exactly where he was going to be moving to next, just as I could listen to some bars of Mozart and know how he'd next modulate, what the chord changes would be, how he'd bring in a new harmonic line. What they were doing just synched up with my brain. But Fisk, I wanted to be seen like Fisk. Iron-jawed. Unflappable. That blend of power, finesse, old New England, present day ass kicking. That idea of solidity, and flexibility. A catcher has to possess both, right? And none symbolized that to me more than Fisk.


Also: Is this not one of the best looking baseball cards ever?