How a Pack of '86 Baseball Cards Inspired an Epic Road Trip

Richie Hebner holds the '86 wax pack his card appears in. Hebner had an 18-year career in the majors. Balukjian caught up with him in Buffalo, NY for stop #11 on the road trip. (Courtesy Brad Balukjian)

Many of us hold on to things from our childhood. For Oakland biology teacher Brad Balukjian, it's the memory of the 1986 baseball season. In search of a cardboard piece of his past, nostalgia led him to eBay and packs of baseball cards. For most people, that would be it -- curiosity satisfied. But for Balukjian, it's led to a cross-country road trip and an idea for a book called "Wax Pack."

He's trying to interview each player from a 1986 pack of Topps cards -- from Hall of Famers to obscure utility infielders -- and find out where their post-baseball lives have taken them.

We caught up with Brad Balukjian in Kansas City, in between his attempt to track down Carlton Fisk at the Hall of Fame induction weekend in Cooperstown and his visit to Rick Sutcliffe in Lees Summit, MO.  Balukjian says the 15 players in his pack cover a wide range of talents.

"One Hall of Famer (Fisk), some guys that were pretty big stars like Dwight Gooden, and it ranges all the way down to guys that most fans would not have heard of, like Jamie Cocanower, Don Carman, or Randy Ready.  It really is a mix in terms of where these guys came from, what kind of careers they had, the randomness of the pack."

Brad Balukjian (L) tracked down Randy Ready for a game of bowling in Dallas. The Fremont, Calif.-born Ready began his career in '83 with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Brad Balukjian (L) tracked down Randy Ready for a game of bowling in Dallas. The Fremont, Calif.-born Ready began his career in '83 with the Milwaukee Brewers. (Courtesy Brad Balukjian)

The California Report (TCR):  Most of these guys are now in their fifties and sixties, decades removed from playing. How do they deal with being ex-major leaguers, was there a commonality about how they look back?

Sponsored

Brad Balukjian: One of the things that I'm discovering is that the players are actually a lot less nostalgic than the fans are. They will talk about their past and the heroics if you want them to, but they're not necessarily as romantic about the past as fans or writers are. And also, the guys that were less famous or less successful in their baseball careers had an easier time of making that transition, letting go of being a baseball player and moving on to the next part of their life.

TCR: It seems pretty fun - a road trip where you're actually going to people's houses and going on picnics.

Balujkian: I want the book to be fun, because baseball is fun, and I want to do things other than just sit across the table in a sterile environment and conduct an interview.  So I went to the zoo with one guy, I went bowling with one guy, I went to an art museum with one guy, got invited to a Fourth of July party with one guy and played Cards Against Humanity with his family, which is always a fun and kind of awkward introduction to people when you don't really know them.

TCR: You started this road trip in Oakland, made a few California stops, you've been all the way across the country and now you're going to end with Al Cowens's family in Downey, California. Can you tell us a little about him?

Balukjian: Al grew up in Compton, California in the mid-1960s. He was a terribly underrated player, a really great player for the Kansas City Royals, and had one season where he came in second place for the MVP award, but always somewhat under the radar. He's the one guy in the pack who's no longer alive, but I am going to talk to his widow and some of his kids, and hopefully get a feel for what it was like to grow up in that part of Los Angeles.

TCR: And since you're reaching the end of your trip, do you feel like you found what you were looking for?

Balukjian: For me, it's turned into something more than just the quest to find old baseball players. I see this as a love story -- that might sound weird, I don't mean love in the romantic sense -- but one of the questions I had in mind to answer was what enabled these guys to grow up. Literally growing up from childhood to becoming major leaguers, but then once they hit retirement, which for baseball players is like 35 years old -- how do you grow up, what do you do with the rest of your life when you no longer play a kid's game for a living? And the answer that I came up with in talking with them is love, in the sense of being completely present with what's right in front of you. I think the key to having been able to move on with their lives -- and also the key to having been successful in baseball as a player -- is to live in the present moment and love your life. If you have a bad game, the next day you forget about it and move on. And after your career ends, rather than dwell on the past, you live in the present moment and move on to the next phase of your life. And I found most of these guys were really good at that.