By Dennis Waszak Jr.
NEW YORK (AP) — 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.