Meet Brad Balukjian. He's a 34-year-old with a PhD in entomology—the study of insects. While Balukjian was training as a scientist, he spent time in Tahiti and discovered 20 new species of insects that only lived in that area. With a background in journalism, Balukjian toggles between science writing and teaching biology at Laney College in Oakland. Oh, and this past summer, he went on an 11,341-mile road trip in his 2002 Honda Accord to visit 14 players from a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards.
"It's a project I've always wanted to do for a while. It was just waiting for the right time," Balukjian tells me. He didn't just open one pack of cards. There are several, in case you get "four guys who are dead, or eight guys that are in California. The road trip was as much a part of the story as baseball," he said. And so, the pack he chose from to form his road trip included former Toronto Blue Jay Rance Mulliniks, Al Cowens, Garry Templeton, Randy Ready, Gary Pettis, Jaime Cocanower, Don Carman, Vince Coleman, Dwight Gooden, Lee Mazzilli, Richie Hebner, Carlton Fisk, Steve Yeager and Rick Sutcliffe.
There was also a checklist in the pack, which did not make it into the narrative. Of the 14 players, all were still living and breathing, with the exception of Cowens, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 50 from a heart attack. Admittedly, having Carman in the pack was a plus, since Balukjian grew up a Phillies fan and idolized the former Philadelphia pitcher. And, yes, just to confirm in case it's not apparent: baseball is Balukjian's favourite sport. He remembers spending hours outside in the backyard with a wiffle ball and bat playing out countless imaginary scenarios. He spent hours watching and talking baseball with his father, and still does.
The plan all along was to use this experience on the road to write a book. But before he actually hopped into his car with six CDs and minimal expectations, Balukjian needed to figure out how to actually track down these players. "That was the biggest challenge," he says. "I'm a nobody. I don't have a name that people would recognize." So, there was a lot of networking, Googling and database searching. "You really have to turn into a stalker," Balukjian said with a laugh. It helped that most of these players were still on landlines, which were easier to track down than cell phones. In one instance, in order to track down a player, Balukjian emailed the wife of the player who worked at a public school, and she was kind enough to make the connection. As a result, Balukjian ended up spending the Fourth of July watching fireworks in Little Rock, Arkansas, with Cocanower and his wife Gini.
The trip, which began in June of this year, took Balukjian to California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois and Missouri, with other stops in between. His first player meeting was with Mulliniks. Balukjian stepped in the batting cage and got a brief batting lesson from the former third baseman, a career .272/.354/.407 hitter who spent 11 seasons with the Blue Jays. Along the way, Balukjian went on a bowling trip with Ready, watched kung-fu movies with Templeton, but his most memorable encounter was with Carman, with whom Balukjian got to play catch with.
"I've met a lot of my childhood heroes," Balukjian says, naming Mike Schmidt, Hulk Hogan and The Iron Sheik as examples. "Most of them don't measure up. You build them up so much in your head. But Don Carman, I have to say, really did. He's just a really different guy, in a really good way. The level of introspection and wisdom is something you don't often see at that depth in professional athletes. He's definitely special."
The most popular names from the pack were Gooden, Fisk and Coleman. Balukjian managed to meet with Gooden's high school coach and his son, Dwight Gooden Jr., but didn't end up meeting with Gooden himself. Unable to get Fisk to comply to his request, Balukjian—resourceful as always—went to an autograph signing in Cooperstown, New York, during the Hall of Fame induction weekend and paid $69 to have Fisk sign his 1986 Topps card. In exchange, Balukjian gave Fisk an autographed card, free of charge.
Carlton Fisk during his 2000 Hall of Fame induction speech. —Photo by Reuters
None of those compare to Balukjian's chase for Coleman, a story unto itself. The two connected at spring training in Phoenix, where Coleman was working as a baserunning instructor for the Chicago White Sox. Balukjian caught Coleman's attention by shouting out his hometown of Mixon Town in Jacksonville, Florida, from the stands, and referencing his uncle's sweet potato fries, something Coleman mentioned in a Sports Illustrated profile years ago. Coleman wa curious enough to walk over and hear Balukjian's pitch, but he was not interested in having a conversation. Other subsequent attempts were also rebuffed. Balukjian jokingly refers to Coleman as his unicorn.
"I think the whole thing about the firecracker incident really soured him on the media," Balukjian explains. "He's fascinating to me because I see him as more of a tragic figure. I saw where he grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. He comes from a tough background, he's an only child, wasn't a hyped prospect coming out of high school and I think a lot hit him with so much success, with his Rookie of the Year, going to the 1985 World Series. I think he bought a lot into his celebrity and when things started to go wrong, he wasn't prepared to make that transition. I think he just never matured in the way that some other athletes do. He's still very suspicious of people and is very private."
In such a random sample size of players from this particular baseball pack, there was a separation between players who were swallowed up by fame, fortune and controversy, and others who simply receded to the background after their playing career, not stuck in some perpetual baseball bubble. "It's not a coincidence that the most successful guys were the most difficult to reach," Balukjian says. "When so much of your identity is wrapped up in baseball, even when you lose the ability to play that game. You don't stop being that baseball player. It's like in Hollywood. I think I would rather be the director or producer who no one recognizes but is successful and remains anonymous, instead of the person in front of the camera who has to deal with the pressure of being recognized."
The trip also allowed Balukjian to discover other side adventures. In Los Angeles, he attended a yoga class in Hollywood. At the famous Bar Marmont at Chateau Marmont, he crashed an Ivy League mixer and ended the night at the bar with what may have been a prostitute trying to solicit him. In New York, he reconnected with his father who joined him for part of the trip. While driving, he got obsessed with the Serial podcast. Most importantly, Balukjian discovered that people are really nice to you when you eat at a restaurant and have a notebook out. We should all be pretend food critics for that very reason.
The book, which is scheduled to be published in 2017, is not just about baseball, though. "It's really about growing up, and relationships, and I'm the narrator that takes you through the journey," Balukjian says. "It's really a meditation on late youth, growing of age—I'm too old to be coming of age." Still, he would not trade it for anything even if it has changed his perspective about athletes. "You hear about their own heartbreak, the tragedies they've experienced, and it humanizes them. You relate more to them," Balukjian said. "It was nice to get to know them, to take them off a pedestal. To understand who they are, and how some of the experiences really shaped them."
If there's anyone looking to make the same trip, Balukjian says you should leave your friends at home. "There's something about traveling alone for that length of time," he explains. "Your brain goes to places that it may otherwise not go because for that period of time, in that constantly foreign environment, you don't have the distractions that sort of clutter your brain every day. It's very empowering."