Baseball on Christmas Eve

Turned on the TV last night and found Tim Russert interviewing four Hall of Fame catchers on CNBC. It was a fun hour of television. Yogi Berra was joined by Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter.

Fisk is one of my favorites. He is a patrician. He played baseball like George Washington rode a horse, with a regal air. They called him the "human rain delay." Every game Fisk caught took on the feeling of a slow processional. In fact, research shows that games caught by Fisk took, on average, twenty minutes longer to complete than the average game.

Well, Fisk talks the same way as he played. Slow. Deliberate. Dignified. His big hobby is collecting orchids. I don't know much about orchids, but I do know they require patience.

Catchers are egotists, so there was quite a good-natured battle for the floor. Yogi, the least egotistical of the four, didn't get much chance to talk. How unfortunate, given his many contributions to the American language.

Bench often punctured the balloons, including his own, with a one-liner at just the right time. All four agreed that most pitchers are completely stupid, and they gave examples to back it up. Bench made an illuminating comment when he said "If I knew I could get the next guy out, I wouldn't mind walking the guy who's up." He said it as if he were the pitcher, but he was just calling the pitches.

Fisk talked about one pitcher who told him in the dugout, "I just can't get into it today." Fisk gave him an immediate backhand across the face, and made some comment about pitchers work only once every five days, they'd better be able to get into it.

Gary Carter was a good catcher, but his bubbly personality grated on nearly everybody during his playing days. He was a smiley, enthusiastic sort, kind of a car salesman. Just too sugary to be a catcher. So sugary, in fact, that he almost didn't get into the Hall of Fame, despite his stellar statistics. He just didn't seem like a Hall of Fame catcher. He didn't last night either. His comments were tolerated by the other three, but he clearly wasn't a member of their fraternity.

Russert asked Fisk to tell the story about the time he fought with Deion Sanders. Sanders, who also played football, had a big contract with the Yanks, but never really understood baseball. He irked people by drawing a dollar sign in the dirt before he stepped in the batter's box.

Once when Fisk was catching for the Red Sox, Sanders stepped in the box for the Yanks, popped the ball up to the infield and just stood in the batter's box and watched the ball before walking back to the dugout. Fisk took umbrage and told Sanders, "run the ball out, you stupid ****."

Next time Sanders came bat, he drew his dollar sign, popped the ball up, and again didn't run the ball out. Fisk lost it. It is probably the only time in baseball history when a player punched out a member of the opposing team for not playing hard enough. The terms "honor" and "respect for the game" popped up several times in Fisk's angry diatribe against Sanders last night. One has to admire that. Bench piped up, "You're right, man, but calm down!" Fisk laughed.

Carter, Fisk and Bench all broke over 20 bones in the course of their career behind the plate. Yogi didn't mention his injuries, except when Russert asked him what happened the time he got hit in the nose. "It broke!" Yogi replied.

They replayed a grainy black and white clip of Jackie Robinson stealing home against the Yanks in the 1955 World Series. The umpire called Robinson safe and Yogi went nuts. Yogi says to this day that Robinson was out. Could be--there's no more difficult play for the home plate umpire to call than a steal of home. He has to call the pitch a strike or a ball only to have a blur plow across the plate a split second later which he has to call safe or out whether he knew it was coming or not.

I was on the edge of my chair the entire hour. When the camera panned the audience, it was obvious they were rapt as well. There's something about baseball stories told by the great ones which grabs hold of people.