NEW YORK – Brad Balukjian tore open a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards, chewed the stale, brittle bubblegum and then planned a road trip most sports fans could only dream about.
The college biology professor set out to meet every player whose image appeared on those old pieces of cardboard — from Garry Templeton to Rick Sutcliffe to Carlton Fisk — and see what life after baseball has been like.
"Whether it's musicians or artists or baseball players, I'm just fascinated by what happens when they're done after the spotlight," Balukjian said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I always wanted to do something about those guys I grew up with. And I saw the pack as the perfect device to get a random sample of players from that era."
The self-funded trip in 2015 cost about $8,000 and took him and his 2002 Honda Accord across 30 states over 11,341 miles in 48 days — fueled by 123 cups of coffee. What Balukjian learned is vividly documented in his recently published book, "The Wax Pack," which has quickly become a favorite among baseball-hungry fans during the coronavirus pandemic.
"When I actually started doing the trip and talking to these guys, that's when it really became something a lot bigger," Balukjian said. "It was transcending baseball and talking about these bigger themes like what is our relationship like with fear, which is a universal question that we all deal with. Baseball players and athletes, in general, they have to master fear to be successful. Call it fear, call it anxiety, whatever you want to call it, it's all fear.
"And the lessons that they passed on to me about what their relationship was like with fear, it's something we can all benefit from."
"The Wax Pack" journey began in 2014 when Balukjian was sitting in the upper deck of Oakland Coliseum watching an Athletics game and realized he wasn't as familiar with the players on the field as he once was. As a kid growing up in Rhode Island, he followed the game religiously and baseball cards — boxes of them — provided easy links to his heroes on the field.
So, Balukjian ordered a few unopened packs of Topps cards on eBay from 1986, the first year he recalls collecting. The 15-card pack he picked included a mix of stars (Fisk, Sutcliffe, Dwight Gooden and Vince Coleman), solid players (Templeton, Lee Mazzilli, Steve Yeager, Gary Pettis and Richie Hebner) and non-stars — called "common" cards in the hobby — such as Rance Mulliniks, Randy Ready, Jaime Cocanower and Don Carman, Balukjian's childhood favorite player. Also included were a checklist and the late Al Cowens, whose chapter is arguably the book's most intriguing.
"I didn't mix cards between packs because that would definitely be cheating," Balukjian acknowledged. "Also, I didn't keep opening packs until I got Don Carman because that would be kind of cheating, too."
Balukjian spent about nine months planning his trip, researching the former players and exchanging letters, emails, texts and phone messages with them and their families to set up meetings.
"I set my expectations to be reasonable enough that, like, OK, I didn't have an advance, I didn't have a book deal and I had no guarantees this would work out," he said. "But I knew that I was having a hell of a ride — the pure road trip aspect of it was fun."
What transpired is detailed over 275 pages in "The Wax Pack," which took Balukjian a few years to get published before University of Nebraska Press took a swing – complete with a wax paper-like cover.
Several of the former players shared tales of personal successes and failures with Balukjian, whose adventures included visiting a zoo with Carman, getting a hitting lesson from Mulliniks, watching kung fu movies with Templeton, lifting weights with Ready and desperately trying to chase down Fisk.
There were a few players Balukjian didn't link up with, but he managed to turn those setbacks into entertaining chapters.
He also weaved aspects of his own personal life into the book, including his struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, briefly reuniting with a lost love and reliving moments of his childhood.
"I mean, it's almost a self-help book as well," Balukjian said, "because you can get these little bits of wisdom from these players."
The 39-year-old Balukjian, who teaches at Merritt College in Oakland and is the director of the school's Natural History & Sustainability program, has maintained relationships with many of those featured in the book.
Despite the overwhelmingly glowing reviews of "The Wax Pack," Balukjian isn't planning on hitting the road for a sequel when social distancing and travel restrictions are lifted.
"It's not tempting creatively because I just don't think I could match it," Balukjian said. "I think the novelty of that idea is gone and that's OK. ... I get asked this a lot, but I'm like, hey, man, if anyone out there wants to write about another wax pack, like you could franchise this and do other sports and other years, and I would gladly read someone else's book."