Monday, August 24, 2015

How one baseball card pack ignited a writer's quest to discover the afterlife of a major league career

Opening a pack of baseball cards for a child in the 1980s brought feelings of tremendous anticipation not only for the cards that were hidden beneath the sealed wax paper, but also the stale piece of gum that was pressed up against hopefully the worst one in the bunch. For many, those images on the front of each card and the stats on the back were burned into memory after spending hours poring over their contents. Well before the advent of widespread availability through cable television and the internet, these cards were often one's only visions of the players we followed in newspaper box scores. These men stood as heroes to an entire generation, frozen in time due to a picture on a baseball card; however, what happens when that fame melts and the players are left to deal with the closing of their careers at an age when most of their peers are just establishing theirs? 

Author Brad Balukjian cracked open a pack of his favorite 1986 Topps and after sorting out the players, he set out to find the next world for a ballplayer after an entire generation has passed since they ended their career. Engaging in a cross-country trek starting from his home in California, he put over 10,000 miles in seven weeks on his 2002 Honda Accord to meet with and examine the lives of the 14 players in one pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards for a book cleverly entitled “Wax Pack.”

1986 Topps Wax Pack (WaxPackBook.com)

Fast forward thirty years and every statistic that can be measured or imagined exists a mouse click away on the internet. While seemingly every bit of data exists about their effectiveness on the field, for most of the players in the 792 card set, little is written about what happened to them after they put their gloves away and hung up their spikes. The idea for breathing life to the stories of each of the men in this singular pack of baseball cards was spawned from Balukjian and a friend reminiscing about their childhood.

“One of my best friends and I were talking about growing up in that era and how we really felt like some of the best stories could be told from some of the players who were not superstars,” Balukjian said during a stop in Brooklyn in July, 2015. “These guys maybe have not been asked as often about their careers and their lives. We started to think about what would be a project that would allow us to start to explore those stories from those guys who were not the superstars. I had the idea that what was really fun about buying a pack of baseball cards as a kid was the random factor, you don’t know what you’re going to get in the pack.”

After opening a few packs to get one with a mix of players that were attainable to reach, Balukjian settled on a collection that included 14 players and one checklist. Once he had his pack laid out in front of him, he had to decide how he was going to string together this group who all shared one thing in common, their presence on the eerily familiar black bordered 1986 Topps baseball card.

“Being a random selection of players, most of the guys are not going to be the superstars,” he said. “I thought there are 15 cards in a pack, 15 chapters in a book, it sort of lends itself to that format to make a book about that single pack. Initially we talked about doing a book pack about the 1985 season told from the varying perspectives of whatever 15 players we got in the pack. As we tried to figure out how to do that, it got a little bit difficult because there might not be a cohesive narrative from 15 random guys, so we decided it would be better to focus on the journey of trying to track down the 15 guys in the pack, telling the story of the journey, and each of the individual players.”

Now that Balukjian had a plan in mind, he set out to track down the men in his pack of baseball cards. They ranged from the highly recognized (Carlton Fisk and Doc Gooden), to the controversial (Vince Coleman), to the relative unknown (Jaime Cocanower). Spread out across the country, the author filled his summer with appointments stretched out from coast to coast.

“Most guys were pretty receptive,” he said. “Garry Templeton and Steve Yeager both were guys that on the first phone call, they seemed like they would cooperative. They may not have fully understood the project, but when I said, ‘Hey I’m going to be in your town on this date,’ they said, ‘I could do that.’ With a couple of exceptions, most of the guys were pretty easy to work with.”


Garry Templeton with the Wax Pack / (WaxPackBook.com)

Of course the story wouldn’t be so interesting if all of the players fell in line. It turned out that the highest profile players in Balukjian’s pack turned out to be the most elusive. Using tactics that could serve him well as a private investigator, he turned to covert methods to try to track down the likes of Fisk and Coleman, which he kept running tabs of in his blog.

“In a way those failures makes the book better,” he said. “I think it is better that I don’t get all 14 players. The story of sneaking my way into an exclusive golf course in Sarasota, Florida to try to ambush Carlton Fisk after he plays a round of golf is going to be really fun. Tracking down Vince Coleman’s childhood home, his high school in Jacksonville, and the story of how he told me basically to ‘f-off,’ those stories would be kind of more fun — the quest aspect.” 

As close as the author would get to Fisk in Cooperstown (WaxPackBook.com)
As Balukjian continued to survey the players in his pack of baseball cards while spending endless hours on the road counting off whether Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts had a grip on each locale, he found a consistent theme with each of the retired athletes. They no longer basked in their glory days the way fans romanticize their on-field accomplishments.

“There is a disconnect between the fans’ enthusiasm for some of the stuff in baseball history and the players that were actually part of that history,” he noted. “As fans we tend to glorify and get really enthusiastic about our memories. The guys that actually lived through that stuff, even the really positive moments, I found a lot of the guys kind of had the attitude of being not too excited to talk about or relive those moments. 

“I think there are a couple of reasons why that may be. It may be painful; relieving those glory days is a reminder to them that they will never be that athlete again. You are dredging up a lot of feelings and memories about a time when their entire lives were dedicated to achieving this goal. Once you are past your prime, you know you will never win another World Series or hit another home run. It could be kind of painful to have to talk about that.”

Many of the players had difficulty replacing the highly regimented schedule of a Major League baseball player and the adulation that comes with playing in front of 30,000 fans every night. Their struggles with the transition to a regular civilian caused problems in many facets of their lives, including their relationships and what vices they sought to help them cope.

“It was hard for all of them,” he said. “It’s no coincidence that some major life changes happened in those years right after they retired. Some guys started drinking, some guys got divorced, and some tried some other professions where they didn’t catch on. I think they all had a hard time letting go of playing. Even if they were going into coaching, Randy Ready said something like, ‘Putting the player inside to bed, letting that person go is a very hard thing to do.’ They all spoke to the competitive nature they needed to have to get to the major leagues, and how hard it is to know that you’ll never be able to do that again.”

This isn’t to say that all of these men are disgruntled ex-athletes, rather Balukjian’s odyssey revealed how human these ballplayers are. While most only get to know them from their baseball cards and television highlights, he was fortunate enough to be able to engage them in some deep conversations that had nothing to do with stepping in between the lines.

“A lot of the time we haven’t talked about baseball directly,” he said. “It’s been about relationships — really candid, really powerful and emotional stuff about relationships with their fathers, relationships with their kids, with spouses, and the game itself. Some stuff that comes up has been very traumatic that they’ve talked about.” 

These deeply guarded layers are ones that he intends to reveal in his book. He hopes that by peeling back the curtain on their lives that he will appeal to a group wider than just baseball fans.

“I’m more interested in understanding these guys as people and men,” he stated. “I’m less interested in asking about their favorite memory in their baseball career was or how they felt when they won the World Series; they’ve been asked that a million times. I’m more interested in what they did the day after they retired, or how did being on the road for all those years affected their marriages — things of broader interest than baseball.”

One such player that he connected with beyond balls and strikes was former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Don Carman, who was Balukjian’s favorite player growing up. Carman is now a sports psychologist that works for super agent Scott Boras, whose clientele includes New York Mets ace Matt Harvey.

“I felt like after spending a couple of days with him, it sounds cheesy, but it almost was like I was meant to have him as a favorite player,” he said. “Getting to know him personally I really identified with who he is as a person. He told me a lot of stories about growing up in Western Oklahoma in a difficult family situation. He said his dad never spoke to him directly ever. His dad died of a heart attack when he was 15, so there’s a lot of pain there. I couldn’t relate to that because I had a good relationship with my dad, but Don described sort of being sort of an outside as a kid, always being a little bit different. That’s something I could relate to. When you make these human connections with a guy that was literally my idol as a kid, it is a really unique thing. It’s no longer, ‘I’m a fan and he’s my favorite player,’ it’s sort of a relationship between two people.”

Balukjian with Don Carman (r.) / (WaxPackBook.com)

At 34 years old, Balukjian is about the same age as when many of his subjects ended their professional baseball careers. This journey has allowed him to examine many questions about his own life, taking bits of wisdom from each of his interviews to help him gain some perspective on his own direction.

“Frankly, it’s not even about baseball,” he said. “Really it’s a story about growing up. I am now the age these guys were when these guys had to retire and stop playing the game for a living. I’m a single guy, 34, no kids, nowhere near married. I’m sort of facing my own questions in life; do I need to grow up? I always bucked against the trend of getting married, settling down, and doing the traditional thing career wise. This book is giving me an opportunity to think out loud about myself and also learn from the lives of 14 other men that had to grow up themselves when they could no longer play baseball.”

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