VIERA, Fla., Feb. 24 -- Each morning when Robert Fick walks into the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium -- shades covering his eyes, hat cocked a bit sideways on his head, Starbucks in his hand -- the rest of the Washington Nationals brace for whatever might follow.
"Look at him, right now," reliever Ray King said Saturday. "He looks like he's ready to do something silly."
Such is Fick's reputation, a 32-year-old cross between class clown and traffic cop. His stream of jokes is endless, his wit biting, his boundaries nonexistent and, as King said, "no one's off limits."
But what the Nationals don't know about Fick is that right now, this is all just an escape. Jokes, baseball, hanging with the guys. "This isn't life," Fick said. "This is a game." No one else heard him. Had he said it aloud, his teammates might have taken it as sarcasm. Yet two weeks ago, as he closed the door to his Southern California home and headed east for spring training, Fick had just one inescapable thought.
"I'm probably never going to see my mom again," he said Saturday. "She's probably going to die."
Gloria Fick is 75. She is stricken with lung cancer. She doesn't leave her home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., has a portable oxygen machine, eats little more than grapes and carrot juice, has refused chemotherapy and radiation and surgery and, her son said, believes she is going to beat the disease. A year ago, she was told she had two months to live. She is still here.
"The doctors are amazed," said Robert's older brother, Joe. "She really thinks she can trick the disease."
Each day, when Robert, the youngest of Gloria Fick's eight children, comes to spring training -- a monotonous chore that can seem the height of tedium -- he tries to forget the image of his mother from over the winter, which he spent entirely at her house, and concentrate on baseball. But when he departs the clubhouse, he thinks of her again. They talk every day.
"She tells me she's fine, but I know how she's doing, really," Fick said Saturday. "It's just tough. It's just so tough to see your mom sick like that. I'll sit here and cry about it. I will."
Saturday evening, speaking by phone of her fight and her family, Gloria Fick cried a bit, too.
"We're a very close-knit family," she said. "It's hard for them. I've never been sick before. It's hard for them to see me like this."
That much is apparent from a conversation with Fick. As he spoke Saturday, Fick was perched on a stool in front of his locker, picking at pasta and chicken from the players' buffet. Around him in the background, the clubhouse hummed with its normal buzz about pitching and hitting, hunting and videogames. It is the place where Fick thrives. He has parts of nine major league seasons behind him. He knows how these places work.
"Nothing against anybody in this clubhouse, but nowadays, the young guys are too comfortable," he said. "It's a joke. There aren't more guys who kind of police things around here. It's kind of a lost art."
It is an art Manager Manny Acta doesn't mind having. Fick has an excellent chance to make the team because he can catch, play first base and the outfield and could be a dangerous left-handed pinch hitter. But his personality could be a plus, too.
"You always need to have a guy who keeps the rest of the guys loose," Acta said, "as long as it is within the guidelines. . . . Fick is a perfect example."
Unbeknownst to the rest of the clubhouse, he is now an example of how to keep his personal travails from affecting anyone else. "I don't need anybody's sympathy," he said. So his teammates don't know that, this winter, he did the shopping, took care of the house, tended to the cats, fit his workouts around Gloria's needs.
"I wish all mothers could have this," Gloria Fick said. "He's a great kid. You've always been there for them, but when you need them, they're there for you."
Robert has been through this once before, when he was coming up through the Detroit Tigers' system. His father, Charles, had been sick most of Robert's life, beginning with open heart surgery six months before Robert was born, continuing with the insertion of nine pacemakers into his chest. But in the summer of 1998, Charlie Fick's youngest kid made his way to the majors. A gang of perhaps 20 Ficks -- Charlie included -- made its way to Kansas City for Robert's second series as a big leaguer.
Charlie Fick was so ill he was afforded use of a private elevator and had to be carried to his seat at Kauffman Stadium. That night, Sept. 21, Robert hit his first major league home run, his dad looking on. The following night, he hit another.
"It wasn't his only dream for his son to play in the big leagues," Fick said. "But he sure did want that for one of his boys."
By Thanksgiving, Charlie Fick was dead. Robert was 24. Now, all his bats, all his gloves, bear the word "Charlie." "He was my best friend in the world," Fick said.
Now, he feels as if he is preparing to lose another friend. Because he is gone nine months of the year, because his brothers and sisters have families to tend to, he said he felt the offseason was "my turn" to take care of Gloria.
"I would tell her every day," he said, "'There isn't anywhere in this world I'd rather be than here with you.' . . .
"My mom raised eight kids. I know everybody says they have the best mom in the whole world, but my mom has set the best example my whole life. Now, she's setting this example when she's dying. Dude, it's unbelievable how tough she is and how disciplined she is, the way she's fighting it.
"Most people would quit. She really thinks she's going to get better."
The din in the clubhouse continued in the background. Robert Fick -- catcher, comedian, caretaker -- continued to speak quietly.
"I don't know if that's the case," he said. "It wears on me every day."