One Man’s Search for Baseball’s Underdogs

By Coby McDonald

Of all the casualties of the coronavirus pandemic, the delay of the Major League Baseball season ranks pretty low on the list, closer to the cancellation of Coachella than the shuttering of all public schools. And yet for many people sports would have been the ideal distraction from the stress and uncertainty of the present moment. Alas, baseball is just one of a long list of things we must do without for the foreseeable. But remember, baseball is America’s most written-about sport. If we can’t root for our favorite players in their desperate, but ultimately low-stakes goal of touching home plate, we can certainly read about them.

There’s no shortage of athlete profiles out there, and to state the obvious, the overwhelming majority focus on superstars. However, in the new book The Wax Pack by Merritt College professor and UC Berkeley alum Brad Balukjian, it’s the unsung, the forgotten, the underdogs who are celebrated. Balukjian isn’t interested in how Aroldis Chapman throws a 105 mile-per-hour fastball or how Aaron Judge launches baseballs obscene distances. His interest is in the person behind the player, without regard to the degree of their accomplishments in the major leagues. From the leadoff hitter to the guy riding the pine, everyone gets equal shrift in The Wax Pack.

Balukjian is not a sports writer. He is a professor of biology and environmental management at Merritt College where he directs the Natural History and Sustainability Program. So scientist that he is, in choosing players to profile for his book, he devises a clever way to randomize the sample.

He orders a pack of 1986 Topp’s cards off ebay, which arrives in that now-outdated wrapper called a “wax pack.” Balukjian grew up in the golden era of baseball cards, when kids across the country collected, swapped, and tracked the values of cards like seasoned stock traders. Opening a new pack of cards, he writes, is like the “kid’s version of a scratch-off ticket.” He opens the decades-old pack, chews the crumbly stick of bubble gum, and beholds the random assortment of fourteen players, which he describes as “a tantalizing mix of greatness and mediocrity.” There are stars including former Mets ace Dwight Gooden, solid but largely forgotten players like Lee Mazilli, and those who never made much of a splash in “the Bigs” such as Jaime Cocanower and Randy Ready. Balukjian wonders, who were they before they became big leaguers? And what’s become of them since?

Balukjian starts his interviews with an unconventional preamble. He says, “I’ve read all these articles about your career, and I still feel like I know nothing about you.”

He hops in his beat up Honda Accord and sets off on a road trip across the country in search of each member of the “wax pack,” as he calls them. The book is part travelogue, part treasure hunt, part love letter to the unlikely heroes of Balukjian’s youth. The author zigzags across the U.S., hoping to get the players to open up about their lives beyond the sport that once defined them.

Since many of the players had long ago fallen off the radar, finding them is just the first hurdle. Next he’s got to get them to open up to a pesky stranger with a notebook. Athletes are trained to hide their personal lives from reporters. It’s how they protect their brands from the curious and often judgmental minds of their customers, i.e. sports fans. To get beyond the cliched answers, Balukjian starts his interviews with an unconventional preamble. He hands the player a manila folder brimming with news clippings about him and says, “I’ve read all these articles about your career, and I still feel like I know nothing about you.”

“It kind of set the tone,” Balukjian told me. “I think they realized I just wasn’t interested in the typical sports interview.”

It works. At a Bar & Grill in San Marco, California, Garry Templeton opens up about racism in Major League Baseball. “I wasn’t a militant,” Templeton explains. “I just said what was on my mind. I didn’t hold back. I wasn’t that black guy that just kept his mouth shut.” In Lowell, Arkansas, in Jaime Cocanower’s man cave, the former Brewers pitcher shares about his wife’s ongoing battle with breast cancer. The author, it turns out, has a knack for getting players to talk about their greatest challenges in life.

Balukjian’s tendency to approach baseball stars in an unusual manner started young. At age eleven, he heard that former Red Sox 2nd baseman Marty Barrett would be signing autographs at a nearby car dealership. He got on the family computer, typed up Barrett’s career stats, and printed them out. At the signing he handed the no doubt perplexed player the sheet. It was an early expression of Balukjian’s OCD, a demon he grapples with in the book. “The OCD brain is different,” Balukjian writes. “Instead of the radio skipping along from station to station, imagine getting stuck on Nickelback’s ‘Rockstar’ and never moving off.”

A pattern quickly emerged: the lesser known players are happy, if not eager to chat with him, while the stars are elusive, if not outright
opposed.

It’s not all heaviness though. The book also contains amusing anecdotes, like the day an 18-year-old Rich Sutcliffe registered for the military draft and got a call from his grandmother. “‘You’ve been drafted.’ And I’m like, right when I think my life can’t get any worse… so I say, ‘What is it, army? Navy?’ and she goes, ‘No, you’ve been drafted by the Dodgers!’”

The Wax Pack celebrates the underdogs and the forgotten players, though not necessarily by design. The pack contains stars as well as benchwarmers. But as Balukjian traversed the country a pattern quickly emerged: the lesser known players are happy, if not eager to chat with him, while the stars like former Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk and Dwight Gooden are elusive, if not outright opposed.

One of the book’s more comical threads is Balukjian’s uphill fight to get Fisk to sit for an interview. He refers lightheartedly to the famously surly Hall of Famer as his “archnemesis” and employs some unconventional tactics to get his attention, including an attempt to ambush him at a country club. Former superstar Dwight Gooden proves equally elusive, but for what turns out to be more unfortunate reasons related to his long history of drug addiction.

In the absence of stars, the underdogs have their day in The Wax Pack. As a kid, Balukjian’s favorite player, his “idol of idols,” was Don Carman, a pitcher who spent most of his not-especially-noteworthy years with the Philadelphia Phillies. Carmen’s career was forgettable in almost every respect–unless you were a young Brad Balukjian. He collected all of Carman’s baseball cards, displaying them at the front of his card album, and he even once sent his hero a birthday card.

“I have always wondered why Don stood out from the rest of the underdog players I liked,” Balukjian writes. “[…] other than playing for the Phillies, there was nothing else obvious to distinguish him. But my feelings were involuntary–I just liked him.”

That Carman ended up in the pack of cards that Balukjian opened isn’t entirely coincidental. A “full disclosure” footnote reveals that he in fact opened several packs to limit the number of dead players in the final group. He didn’t mix and match though; the players he profiles did all come from a single wax pack.

“What makes somebody heroic to me now is really about their willingness to be honest with themselves and the people around them.”

Whether by chance or by design, Carman’s inclusion yields one of the most affecting portraits of the book. A shy kid raised in the desolate town of Carmargo, Oklahoma by a father who only ever spoke to him twice, Carman was driven to succeed by the fear of ending up stuck raising cattle and pigs. He discusses with Balukjian the challenge that all professional athletes must face at some point, life after the game that was for so long their entire world. For Carman, retirement triggered a two-year-long depression. Balukjian writes, “in that second life, the challenge is to learn how to live like the rest of us, to understand that most of life is not a home run or a strikeout but a line drive single to left or a groundball to second.” With help from his wife, Carman dragged himself out of his malaise, went back to school, and is now a sports psychologist helping athletes to overcome their emotional crises. He helps players by encouraging them to talk about their feelings, something Carman himself only learned in his “second life.”

Balukjian’s conversations with Carman and the others in the wax pack redefines his notion of what a hero is. “What makes somebody heroic to me now is really about their willingness to be honest with themselves and the people around them,” he says. “Their strength comes from their willingness to be vulnerable.”

Balukjian is the first to admit that the The Wax Pack is no Eat, Pray, Love. His journey across the country doesn’t yield a passionate love affair or the secret to a happy life. But his exploration of his own issues, his struggles with OCD and his complex relationship with his father add a dimension to the story that helps hold the disparate profiles together. And his focus on lesser known pros, coupled with his ability to draw out the person behind the player, makes the book a welcome addition to a crowded field of baseball books.

“I’ve learned that the real greatness of a game that’s supposed to be all about numbers has nothing to do with numbers,” he writes, “that all the homeruns in the world can’t replace the strength demonstrated when you’re honest with yourself and deal with what’s right in front of you.”

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Comments

Having been only an off-and-on baseball fan, I really enjoyed reading this article. When I first started going out with my now husband, we went to a lot of A’s games and what I really liked was the background that my husband shared about the players. I relearned to like the game by “connecting” with the players on a more personal level. So this article was very interesting for me. Thanks

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