For a while it was debatable which Fick brother had given the best performance in catcher's gear. Chuck, who reached the Double A level for the Expos and the A's, set the bar high in 1988 when, portraying the Angels' catcher in the movie The Naked Gun, he framed pitches for undercover cop-umpire Leslie Nielsen. Robert, nine years younger than Chuck, was an All-America backstop for Cal State-Northridge and a fifth-round draft choice of the Tigers in 1996. But he was held in far higher regard for his bat than for his catching skills, and one American League scout went so far as to say that Robert would catch in the majors only "when somebody with a good pickoff move is on the mound." Five years later Detroit skipper Phil Garner went one step further, taking the 27-year-old Fisk aside during spring training and telling him he wasn't good enough to catch in the majors no matter who was pitching.
Fick had undergone surgery to repair a separated right (throwing) shoulder last November following a rookie season in which he had 163 at bats, hit .252 and played more first base (34 games) than catcher (16). "I didn't think his arm strength would come back," says Garner. "Watching him in drills, he looked sluggish behind the plate. He wasn't moving well. He didn't look like a catcher, and I told him I didn't see him making the club as one."
Garner told Fick, who had also played a little third base and outfield, to consider a permanent move to another position, which was kind of like telling Nielsen to start playing his scenes straight. Fick had been a catcher for most of his baseball life—including in 1992, when his American Legion team, coached by Chuck, won the national championship—but he had little choice in the matter, and he wound up making the Tigers as a backup first baseman.
"[Last year] I would have been pissed at the beginning of the season that I wasn't [catching], thinking the team was screwing me," says Fick, "but I seized the opportunity. After one full season in the big leagues, I knew that if I kept my mouth shut and kept playing, a lot of stuff could happen."
It did. Starting catcher Mitch Meluskey had arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in early April, and rookie replacement Brandon Inge hit .224 in the first two months of the season. In need of a hot bat, Garner gave Fick, who in 24 games at first base was hitting .311, a full-time shot at catching. "I figured I could accept a little less defense at that position to get a little offense," says Garner.
He got more than he bargained for. With a .302 average and 16 homers through Sunday, Fick was on pace to become the second Tigers catcher, after Rudy York, to hit .300 and 20 homers in the same season. What's more, Fick has shown enough improvement behind the plate—despite his 11 passed balls, second worst in the American League—to make Garner comfortable sending him out every day.
Third base coach Lance Parrish, who had one of the game's best arms when he caught for Detroit in the 1980s, puts Fick through a throwing regimen every other day and helps him with his mechanics. Now his arm is as strong as it was before his surgery, and while Fick had thrown out only 17.0% of would-be base stealers (the American League average is 29.2%) on the season, he had nailed three of his last seven, including Indians speedster Kenny Lofton last Friday.
"Where I was two months ago compared to where I am now as a catcher—it's no contest," says Fick. "But Rome wasn't built in a day."