Brad Balukjian emerges from his friend’s bungalow in the Hyde Park section of Tampa, Florida, looking surprisingly fresh. He doesn’t look like a guy who drove 849 miles from Memphis to Tampa the night before, traveling 13 hours in his 2002 Honda Accord.
“It’s been the longest day of my trip,” he says.
This has been an unusual sojourn, one that has added 4,700 miles to a car that already has logged more than 158,000. Balukjian, a 34-year-old biology professor at Laney College in Oakland, has been crisscrossing the country in search of baseball players — 14 of them. He began collecting baseball cards in 1986, and after opening a random pack of cards from that Topps set, decided to contact the players in that pack, meet with them and write about their life out of baseball and the adventures he experienced while tracking them down.
The book, tentatively called “Wax Pack” and due out in 2017, is more than a “Boys of Summer” or a Charles Kuralt-like travelogue. It’s a look at the lives of men who played the game, and what has become of them since they retired as players. While Balukjian has an agent, he is still looking for a publisher. He is updating his travels daily on his website, waxpackbook.com.
“Wax Pack” is more than just interviews with the players. When possible, he is talking with those players’ family members, friends and coaches. Before coming to Tampa, Balukjian met with the mother of former pitcher Don Carman at her home in Camargo, Oklahoma.
“The town has 178 people. It’s a zero stop-light town,” he said. “It’s one of the most evocative trips I’ve ever taken.”
Here are the players Balukjian pulled from that 15-card pack: Carman, Rance Mulliniks, Al Cowens, Garry Templeton, Randy Ready, Gary Pettis, Jaime Cocanower, Vince Coleman, Dwight Gooden, Lee Mazzilli, Rich Hebner, Carlton Fisk, Rick Sutcliffe, and Steve Yeager. The final card was a checklist.
“These players have nothing in common except being in the same pack,” Balukjian said. “What sealed it was the random nature of the pack.”
Balukjian already has interviewed six of the players in the pack — Mulliniks, Ready, Cocanower, Yeager, Pettis and Templeton. He’s tweeting about his journey and posting pictures of the players he meets.
Jaime Cocanower, card #6 of 14, with the wax pack in his house in Lowell, Arkansas. #BrewCrew pic.twitter.com/Z69TZLlWQO
— Wax Pack (@waxpackbook) July 6, 2015
When we met Tuesday and lunched at a West Tampa sandwich shop, he already was plotting a meeting with Billy Reed, Gooden’s high school baseball coach. The next day, Balukjian was traveling to Naples to meet with Carman. It was an interesting meeting. As we ate quesadillas and sipped café con leche, Balukjian was interviewing me while I was asking him questions. Balukjian’s goal was to do more than just interview the player. He wanted a personal connection, and so far he has achieved that. He bowled against Ready, losing 130-129.
Randy Ready, right before kicking my ass in bowling. #Padres http://t.co/TYBT0Ohe9M pic.twitter.com/UpRaG3ZKpD
— Wax Pack (@waxpackbook) July 1, 2015
He watched kung fu movies with Templeton. He paid attention while Yeager made subs at his Jersey Mike’s store in Los Angeles, and got a hitting lesson from Mulliniks in Visalia, California. He opened fan mail with Coconower. “The guy sent two dollars and a self-addressed stamped envelope to get an autograph.” Balukjian said.
A sample of Jaime Cocanower’s fan mail. Note the “donation enclosed” envelope. #brewers pic.twitter.com/m73ZkSyRtZ
— Wax Pack (@waxpackbook) July 5, 2015
Meeting with Carman in Southwest Florida was something Balukjian was looking forward to, since the left-handed pitcher was his favorite player while he was growing up in Rhode Island.
“I always liked the underdog guys and I liked the Phillies. I don’t know why I fixated to him,” he said. “In 1994 my family took a trip to Clearwater. We found him at the Carpenter complex. I was 13. He was great, really nice. I took a picture of him, which I still have. Me, 5-foot-2 with him, he was 6-3.”
But why would a kid in the heart of Red Sox nation root for the Phillies?
“When I was four my favorite letter was F. I heard ‘Philadelphia Phillies’ and thought, what a great name,” he laughed.
Balukjian said Carman was “real excited” to cooperate. In fact, most of the players were glad to talk, with the exception of Fisk. But Balukjian will try to find Fisk in Sarasota this week; if he cannot connect, he will get his autograph on a 1986 Topps card during the Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown, New York. And perhaps an interview.
Even if he doesn’t get Fisk to go on the record, Balukjian still would have a story.
Gooden agreed to talk, but only for money, a point Balukjian will make in his book. Balukjian and his agent tossed that idea back and forth before finally agreeing to a small stipend for the former Mets ace, who has been struggling with money issues.
Cowens died in March 2002 at age 50, but his family agreed to meet with Balukjian.
Beyond the visits with players, experiences during the course of his travels have been varied.
“In Los Angeles I went to a yoga class,” Balukjian said. “On the front of the door there was a sign that read, ‘No autographs.’”
At Bar Marmont on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, he was propositioned at the bar by a prostitute.
Balukjian has balanced his writing with a professional teaching career. His first job after college was as a fact checker for Islands magazine in Santa Barbara, California. He earned his Ph. D in entomology from Cal-Berkeley in 2013. En route to that degree, he spent a year in Tahiti (2008-09) and discovered 20 new species of insects.
Tahiti “makes Hawaii look overgrown,” he laughed.
He won a fellowship as a science writer for the Los Angeles Times during the summer of 2013. He was doing two things that he loved, and was hesitant to give up either practice.
“I didn’t want to sacrifice science and writing,” he said.
A writer who is “always thinking of book possibilities,” Balukjian moved to Atlanta several years ago to write a biography of Hossein Khosrow — better known as the Iron Sheik in professional wrestling — “but it didn’t pan out.”
But the Internet, which pro wrestlers have used to give “shoot” interviews and abandon “kayfabe” — pro wrestling’s version of omerta — gave Balukjian an idea.
“A lot of stories are untold when players are playing because they are taught not to say anything other than clichés,” he said. “A shoot interview with baseball players would be cool.”
Balukjian wrote the chapter on Mulliniks (“that’s a quintessential 1980s name”) and sent it to several agents before deciding on Peter Bernstein. “I chose the guy who was the least connected to sports,” he said.
Balukjian says he felt a connection to the players who were once at a similar stage in life.
“Growing up was a focal point,” he said. “Here I was, 34, still single, and most of my friends are married. I’m the same age as the players were when they retired.”
Players sometimes find it hard to let go when their career ends. Some turn to alcohol or drugs. Others become depressed. Balukjian’s stories are poignant and give readers a sense of what life after baseball is really like. He believes his book will appeal to more than just sports fans.
“In some ways, it’s turning into a love story,” he said. “I have been uncovering a lot of relationships: friends, siblings, husbands and wives.”
Lunch is over and we drive through the streets of West Tampa, viewing the homes where Lou Piniella and Dave Magadan grew up. Balukjian snaps a photo of a street sign that reads “Armenia Avenue,” because his father’s heritage is Armenian. His mother’s family came from the Philippines.
Armed with six autographed cards, Balukjian will try to complete the set. After meeting with Carman, he will head north to Atlanta to meet with the Iron Sheik, and then travel to Chicago for a meeting with Vince Coleman. After that, he will steer his car eastward to New York to meet with Gooden and Mazzilli. He then will venture into Massachusetts to meet with Hebner, who runs a funeral home in Walpole, and then on to Cooperstown and a possible face-to-face meeting with Fisk.
He estimates he will spend $3,000 in gas and travel 10,000 miles by the time the trip ends on August 7.
One thing Balukjian has noticed while interviewing players: sentimental is not in their vocabulary.
“Players don’t watch games now. They’re much less nostalgic and romantic about the game,” he said. “A lot of things that were so important to fans, they don’t care about.”
Baseball fans — and readers who like adventure and descriptive — will care about “Wax Pack” when it is published. It promises to be a book about sports, travel and the human spirit.