By Glen Sparks
(This is the second of my two-part interview with baseball writer Doug Wilson. You can read the first part here.)
You write about Carlton Fisk and his personal code. Could you explain that a bit?
Carlton Fisk had a code that he lived by. I am reminded of John Wayne’s code in the opening of The Shootist: “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” Add to that the constant admonition of Carlton’s dad to “do something right or don’t do it at all,” and his own, “respect the game,” and you have the essence of Carlton Fisk’s code. You can see its manifestations throughout his career. It was somewhat rigid–a lot of his triumphs and a lot of his frustrations and conflicts, with teammates and opponents, are due to the code.
Fisk the player always seemed like a manager-in-waiting. Why didn’t it happen?
Carlton Fisk was very knowledgeable about the game and seemed like a good fit to manage. Although there were numerous offers to coach or manage, it never happened for several reasons. He had a lot of bitterness left from the way he exited the game; he really wanted nothing to do with baseball for a number of years. Also, as one of his former teammates told me, he would have been extremely frustrated by modern players who didn’t have the same desire and dedication he had. (Who did?) He would have clashed with overpaid, underperforming players. I think he realized that. Also, he always told reporters that he did not want to do all the traveling that coaching or managing would have required.
Where do you rank Fisk on the all-time list of top catchers?
When it comes to picking all-time rank, I think it is a matter of opinion and who can say who is right? In my opinion, Johnny Bench is in a class by himself, offensively and defensively, as a catcher. No one is even close. I think Fisk belongs firmly in the second tier of catchers, with guys like Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella and Bill Dickey. After that, I would place Gary Carter. I should note that I don’t consider any player for any of my all-time lists who needed steroids to pad his stats.
One surprise about Fisk is that he only won one Gold Glove (1972).
Fisk was a solid defensive player and certainly excelled at calling a good game. There was a lot of stiff competition for Gold Gloves in his years: Thurman Munson, then Jim Sundberg, then Lance Parrish, then Bob Boone. Fisk won it as a rookie but never won it again. Munson generally threw out about 50 percent of would-be basestealers. Fisk, although he had a great arm, was usually around 40 percent. They said Munson had a quicker release and was a little more accurate. Fisk probably could have won a few more Gold Gloves, but sometimes it seems like a guy will win it and then hang on to it for several more years.
Should Fisk have been a Red Sox player for life?
In a perfect storybook world, Fisk would have remained in Boston forever. He certainly never wanted to leave Boston. It was a perfect fit, for him, his family and the team. The one reason he was forced to leave, pure and simple, was the effect of the new economic forces in the game. He had a very aggressive agent, the new Red Sox owners were determined to keep salaries down and something had to give. Add to the mix the fact that the owners publicly insulted Fisk numerous times, and there was no way he would have re-signed by the time they were ready to make an offer. Unfortunately, the owners destroyed a great team in the process.
What led to the animosity later on between Fisk and the White Sox?
In Chicago, Fisk was the rare big-ticket free agent who came through as billed and stayed in town. He certainly gave the White Sox their money’s worth with each contract. He continued to play better than his higher-paid peers into his forties. He helped turn the franchise around and was loved by Chicago fans. Again, money played the major role in his discontent. The White Sox owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, was one of the toughest hard-liners among owners. He played a major role in the collusion fiasco, of which Fisk was one of the major players, in 1985. By the late 1980s, each contract Fisk signed was the result of a bitter fight in which insulting things were said publicly by both parties.
Jerry Reinsdorf may have considered the tactics normal negotiation strategy and merely business, but to a man of Fisk’s pride it was absolutely the wrong way to go about things. And Fisk’s contract demands were never out of proportion compared to his peers. He is a guy who very much wants respect and when he felt publicly insulted, it paved the way for long-term discord and bad blood. When he was finally cut from the team, being unceremoniously dumped in a hotel in Cleveland, it was just something that left a lingering bitterness.
What is Fisk most proud of in his baseball career?
I believe he is most proud of his longevity in the game. Overcoming the near-catastrophic injuries early in his career and then being able to play more games and hit more career home runs than any catcher before him was a testament to his work ethic, determination and code. It validated his efforts.
What is Carlton Fisk up to these days?
These days he mostly plays golf, cares for his orchids and spends time with his children and grandchildren. He and his wife have a house near Chicago and another in Florida and they divide their time between those.
Do pro athletes tend to meet or exceed the personal expectations you have for them?
When writing about someone, I think it is important to try not to have any personal expectations. I try to let the interviews and the person’s public actions build a picture of what the guy is like. Of course, that’s very difficult at times. It is important to realize that pro athletes are just like everyone else, only blessed with size, speed and coordination that make them able to perform great athletic feats. Obviously, they are not perfect and usually are not the sort of people you would want your kids to emulate any more than anyone else who is less talented. Any expectation fans put on them is artificial, and people often set themselves up for disappointment if they want their sports idols to be great guys off the field.
How do you find time to research and do your writing and also find time to perform eye surgeries?
Occasionally, I will get up an hour or two early to have some quiet time to research or write. There is usually a little free time on the weekends. And, like I said, after my sons went to college, all the time I used to spend playing with them and going to their games became free.
Have you picked a subject for your next book?
Not yet. It is difficult to find a subject who is interesting who has not been written about numerous times. Of course, a publisher wants it to be about someone who still has a following, who is going to get people to buy a few books.