Tim Kurkjian
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Saturday, July 22
A man born to play behind the plate

When asked to describe Carlton Fisk, Buddy Bell was one of several contemporaries who gave the same answer: "He was a man." A man. Big, strong, tough, durable, stubborn. Catcher was the only position for him, as none other fit a player who worked so hard, was so bright, so respectful of the game and so certain that his way was the best way.

Carlton Fisk
Carlton Fisk spent the final 13 seasons of his 24-year career with the White Sox.

"He went at his own pace, that's for sure," says former Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan, who played against Fisk for years. "He moved so slowly, he took his time getting into the crouch. But he controlled the tempo of the game. He put the focus more on himself than the pitcher. You felt you were hitting against him, not the pitcher. And when a hitter starts focusing on someone other than the pitcher, he's done. Fisk was the best I've ever seen at that."

He was one of the best at a lot of things. He hit more homers (351) than any catcher in history. He caught more games (2,226) than anyone. He, Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra are, in fact, the only catchers to hit 300 homers, drive in 1,000 runs and score 1,000 runs in their careers. Fisk hit one of the biggest home runs in World Series history, the famed wave-it-fair shot in the 12th inning to win Game 6 in 1975. He was perhaps the best catcher ever at stealing bases, swiping 128 in his career, including seven at age 42.

He began his career on a high note as he was the first American Leaguer to be named unanimous Rookie of the Year; that '72 season, he won a Gold Glove and led the league in triples. He was a terrific defensive catcher, quite a feat for a big man (6-foot-3) playing a shorter man's position. He was voted one of the 100 best players of the century, an honor that made his "arm hair stand on end."

Why? Because Fisk always understood the game and its rich heritage. And he disliked anyone who didn't treat it with proper deference. Deion Sanders didn't when he debuted with the Yankees in 1990. Sanders came to the plate and drew a dollar sign in the dirt with this bat, then popped out and didn't run hard to first base. Fisk screamed at him about how he disrespected the game, especially when wearing a Yankees uniform.

The next time up, Sanders drew another dollar sign in the dirt, glared at Fisk and said something about "slavery being over." Fisk told Sanders, "There's a right way to play and a wrong way to play, and you're doing it the wrong way." Then he told Sanders to get in the box and hit "or I'll kick your ass right here in Yankee Stadium."

But Fisk hated the Yankees, as would anyone born in Bellows Falls, Vermont., and raised in Charlestown, New Hampshire (population 800). He always hated the Yankees. He even got in a fight with former Yankee infielder Gene Michael. Once, he threw out the first ball before a Red Sox-Yankees playoff game, then was seen during the game giving the finger to the Yankee dugout.

Real men hate their biggest rivals. Real men also react angrily when their authority is questioned. It happened briefly to Fisk with the White Sox in the '80s. Manager Tony La Russa took away Fisk's pitch-calling duties, which Fisk said was the "biggest insult" for a catcher. He got it back. He helped carry the White Sox to the AL West title in 1983. He hit 37 homers in 1985 when he was 37 years old. Fisk was at his best when his team needed him most. He played in big games, he played for championship-caliber teams and he made 10 All-Star teams.

Fisk was the best catcher in the American League for a good portion of his 24-year career. Sunday, he will become the 12th catcher to officially be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, an amazingly low number, which just shows how difficult that position is to play. Someday, he'll be joined by Mike Piazza and Pudge Rodriguez. Fisk wasn't as good a hitter as Piazza is, and he couldn't do some of the things that Rodriguez can do behind the plate, with the bat or on the bases, but he embodied the spirit of a catcher more than those two -- or perhaps anyone.

So when he enters Cooperstown, be a man. Salute him by getting down in a crouch. And do it at your own pace.

ESPN The Magazine's Tim Kurkjian writes a weekly column for ESPN.com.

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