At a career stage when most players start to tail off a bit, Carlton Fisk leads the American League in home runs, ranks among the leaders in runs batted in, and is generally piling up his most impressive slugging statistics ever. There are probably several reasons for the veteran Chicago White Sox catcher's power surge, starting with his much-publicized ``pumping iron'' sessions. Fisk has been the talk of the American League this summer with his strenuous lifting program, sometimes keeping clubhouse attendants up hours after a game while he works out in the team's weight room.
An equally big factor has undoubtedly been his determination to come back from an injury-marred 1984 campaign -- to prove that at age 37, and in his 14th big league season, Carlton Fisk is still one of the game's top performers.
Throughout his career, of course, Fisk has been known for his power hitting as well as for his outstanding defensive play. Indeed, the image that always comes to mind when his name is mentioned is that of the famous 12th inning home run he hit to win the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. And in regular season play he already has hit more roundtrippers than any catcher except Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench. But after appearing in just 102 games and batting a career low .231 in 1984, he seemed more a ques tion mark coming into this season than a candidate to have his most productive year ever.
Refusing to give up, however, Carlton went on an intensive weight-training program last winter and reported to spring training in top condition, with no trace of the problems that had bothered him all last season. He has continued his weight program throughout the season -- and he isn't about to stop now.
With 30 home runs already this year, Fisk not only has surpassed his own previous one-season high of 26 (which he had in both 1973 and 1977 with the Boston Red Sox and in 1983 with Chicago), but is zeroing in on the league record for catchers of 32, set by Detroit's Lance Parrish in 1982. And with a month and a half to go, he has a good shot at the major league high for receivers of 40, established by Roy Campanella of the old Brooklyn Dodgers in 1953.
As for career totals, Carlton now has 260 home runs all told -- 250 as a catcher and the other 10 when he was a designated hitter or pinch hitter. Bench, who hit 325 of his 389 home runs as a catcher is the all-time leader for the position, while Berra, whose 358 career circuit clouts included 313 while he was catching, is the American League standard bearer.
Although he still has a way to go, Fisk could conceivably surpass one or even both of them -- but a lot depends on how much catching he continues to do as opposed to being a designated hitter or moving to another position as so many other receivers (including both Bench and Berra) have done as they reached the latter stages of their careers.
Fisk doesn't pretend to know the reason for his renewed power this year, but he says the weights in themselves aren't necessarily the answer. He does feel, though, that the lifting program has helped him maintain his strength this summer -- a contrast to some past seasons when the rigors of his position tended to wear him down in the late stages.
``Catching is the toughest position of all,'' he says, ``because somehow the catcher is involved in almost every pitch.
``Sure shortstop is important. However, when a shortstop makes his throw, it needs only to be somewhere around the base. On the other hand, a catcher needs pinpoint accuracy most of the time if he's going to throw out the runner trying to steal second base. Besides, shortstops don't have to handle knuckleballs!''
Despite his slugging surge, Fisk isn't entirely happy with his overall work at the plate in the current campaign. A two-time .300 hitter with a lifetime average near .280, Carlton could shrug off last year's poor statistics because of his injuries -- but is naturally concerned to find himself mired in the .230s again this season. He feels it's largely a case of getting into some bad habits, such as not keeping his head down.
``I guess I've kept it down 30 times though!'' he said.