Thursday, July 9, 2015

1986 Topps Baseball: One Card, One City at a Time

Brad Balukjian's on the road. As he's documenting at Wax Pack, Balukjian is driving 10,000 miles over two months to track down and interview the fourteen baseball players commemorated in a random 1986 pack of Topps baseball cards.

I love this project immoderately, especially in its blend of fame and obscurity, journeyman players rubbing elbows with All-Stars all randomly gathered in a pack bought and obsessed over by a kid chewing lousy gum. When I look back and consider my nearly-complete set of 1977 baseball cards—long gone, now—I think not only of the images on the front and the stats on the back, the cardboard and the white dusty gum, but the unglimpsed lives of the men and the supreme difficulty of playing baseball at the elite professional level. Balukjian plans to develop his interviews and cross-country experience into a book that explores not only baseball and baseball cards, but the flux and surprises of life after baseball, the void faced by stars and non-stars alike.

I recently tracked down Balukjian in Naples, Florida, where he's at the mid-point of his journey. I talked with him by phone about his project, his expectations and surprises, and the value and limitation of nostalgia.


How did this project get started?

I grew up loving baseball cards, and 1986 was the first year I remember collecting them. How many of us would go buy tons and tons of those Wax Packs at the store? I always liked the players who were not the superstars, the guys who were utility players or bench warmers or middle relievers. In my life, in general, I gravitate towards underdogs. And as a writer, I've had this hybrid career in journalism and biology; I did my PhD at Berkley in Entomology, and I'd previously worked in journalism, as well. I decided that I didn't want to give either one of those up, so I kind of now have this hybrid career where I teach Biology as an adjunct in Laney College in Oakland, and then I freelance, mostly about science. Obviously this is a total departure!

My interest in journalism is really in long form creative nonfiction, and I've always been thinking about book ideas and different possibilities. Several years ago when I was with my best friend Jesse, talking about baseball cards and growing up, we were getting really excited talking about that era, right around 1986, '87, and both of us, for some reason, remember Sixto Lezcano's 1986 card that we both had lots of copies of. And that got me thinking, What would be a way journalistically, what would be a forum, to research and tell the stories of some of these guys I grew up collecting who were not the superstars but who I really believe are the most interesting for a lot of reasons? They haven't been asked throughout their career as much so they weren't celebrities necessarily, and I think a lot of those guys because they maybe had to work harder or struggle more maybe had a different or a deeper perspective, or a more nuanced perspective, more humble, on the game and their place in the game. And from a more pragmatic perspective, they're more accessible. It's not like you're trying to get Barry Bonds to talk to you.

They're not cocooned by publicists.

Exactly, not having to deal with all that. And never having been stars, their egos aren't blown up, probably. And so this idea sort of popped in my head that the actual pack of cards, the Wax Pack, has fifteen cards, conducive to a book with fifteen chapters, and I really liked the random aspect of it. You know, who are you gonna get?

There have been thousands of major league players since the beginning of the game, but only a few dozen who we talk about all the time. The vast majority of players even at that elite level of the Majors, after the Minors, etc., play for a season or three and then we forget about them. I'm really intrigued with that idea of talking to those players who were up for more than a cup of coffee but who never made a long career out of it.

Yeah, but I knew that no publisher was ever going to bite on a book about Don Carman! But you can get away with telling Don Carman's story if it's packaged with this whole pack. I knew that odds are with a random pack of cards you're gonna mostly get guys who were not superstars.

What is it about underdogs that appeals to you?

[laughs] I guess I'm kind of a bleeding heart in general. In all ways, in politics, in baseball, in life. I'm always very empathetic, and drawn, to the underdogs. And I don't know if it's true, but maybe I've identified with underdogs, growing up and going through some tough things—I mean, not really tough but maybe I felt that kinship. That might have something to do with it. Or maybe I'm just naturally drawn to the less popular crowd.

I'm on the same page with you there.

Yeah, I've been very non-conformist in my thinking abut these things, that what I'm interested to do most of the crowd is not. I'm creatively much more interested in failure than success.

Why is that?

It tells you more about who somebody is and what their character is about when you see how they handle failure. Part of it is the underdog thing, that the team that loses is not as heralded or remembered. It's not as emotionally rich to write about winning. Winning seems much more one-dimensional to me. But losing, how you cope with that. I can get really philosophical or meta about it. I think a lot of our happiness in life is contingent on how we handle failure and how we view the prospect of failure. Because we're all gonna fail, no matter what. And what our expectations are: we put all of our happiness as contingent on success, and when we inevitably fail, we're not gonna do real well. [laughs] So I open my life to the possibility, and even the probability, of failure and not letting fear dictate my actions.

Speaking of expectations, have they changed since you've started the project? What's surprised you so far?

Yeah, it's funny, I signed with an agent and I had a whole proposal written that was ready to shop to publishers. My agent kept saying, "I think you should wait until after the trip to sell it." I was really frustrated with that but now that I'm halfway through the trip.... He actually called me today and I said, "You are completely vindicated! You were right. I was wrong." Because over the course of the trip the whole project is evolving in a way that I never could have anticipated.

In what ways?

Going in, I had these big thematic ideas that I wanted to explore. Some of that is still there. The two main ones were, one, what quality, what trait about these fourteen guys did they have in common that got them to the Major Leagues, because so many guys don't make it. The other one was, I'm really interested in what happens right when you retire. The bigger theme of the book is growing up. I'm now 34, pretty much the same age these guys were when they had to retire and quote-unquote grow up and stop playing a game for a living. As the narrator of the book I think out loud about being 34, still single, nowhere near married, no kids, and all of my friends are doing that right now. Do I need to grow up? Using this as a parallel.

But the thing that's emerged, that was unexpected, is that unwittingly this is turning into what I would call a love story. And I don't mean that in just the traditional romantic love. Because I'm really pushing the ex-players to tell me about their life off the field, beyond baseball, I'm getting a lot of really rich, really touching, sometimes painful but always poignant stories about different types of love, the love between brothers, the love between fathers and sons, the love between players and the game, the love between husband and wife. I'm almost thinking that the first line of the book will be something like, "I didn't set out to write a love story, but that's what happened." And I think that's something that has broad appeal to a general reader, which is my goal, not to write a baseball book but kind of a life book abut baseball. And I think that's a theme that's emerged.

Who were you most excited to meet?

Well, definitely Don Carman. I mean, there's no question! I'll even joke about it in the book, "Take this whole chapter with a grain of salt because I'm one hundred percent biased in writing about him." [laughs] But beyond that it's the least successful guys who were the most interesting, who I was the most excited about. You know, Randy Ready, Rance Mulliniks, Jaime Cocanower.

The other one is Gary Templeton, who was pretty successful, but I read so much about how the press, especially in Saint Louis, portrayed him as thoroughly difficult and all of these negative things, that kind of gave him a bad name. And so I went in expecting that, and I found him to be charming, outgoing, funny, friendly—outspoken, but in a good way. Maybe cocky, but again not in a way that I felt was at the expense of others. I mean, all these guys are supremely confident.

They have to be.

They have to be, it's a survival thing. Templeton told me—and I'll write at length about this—about what it was like to be an outspoken black man in baseball, especially in Saint Louis in the 1970s and how that affected his entire career. Given that context, you start to understand the bigger picture about why he was portrayed the way he was. How he felt singled out.The details of the story with [St. Louis Cardinals manager] Whitey Herzog when [Templeton] got in trouble and was hospitalized for "chemical imbalances" and all this stuff when he was really just angry! You know? He didn't need to be medicated.

Do you have a particular fondness for the year 1986 or was it, as you describe on your blog, the look of the cards?

It's the first baseball season that I remember, but you know the '86 set is based on the '85 season, and 1985 is actually my favorite year, in general. It was a great year in baseball; you had the great playoff series. But in general 1985, pop-culture-wise, was fun: Back To The Future, Wrestlemania, everything that optimized the 80s for kids peaked in 1985. And the economy was turning around, and people were feeling good and mousing their hair and...I mean, you can pick that apart but people were irresponsibly, irrationally exuberant. I'm interested in history and broadly in a lot of things, so for me 1985 was really fun year.

Baseball historian John Thorn said, "To me, the golden era of baseball is whenever you were 12 years old."

[laughs] Got it. I mean, that's exactly right. For me—and I fully admit my bias here, along the lines of that quote—my golden era I call the "26 Team Era," from 1977 to '92, rarely identified as an actual era, but if you look at it it's actually kind of an anomaly in baseball history because it coincides with the beginning of free agency and, basically, the beginning of the steroids era. And in those sixteen seasons you had amazing parity, like twelve different teams won the World Series, a real contrast from the 70s when you had the Reds, you had the A's, you had the Yankees. And the stability: in those sixteen years there was no expansion, and no teams moved locations. And then what came after, the crazy steroid stuff, the strike [of 1994], and more recently you've had the Red Sox and the Cardinals wining multiple times. That era, which is my favorite, is a cool part of baseball history.

What year were you 12?

I would've been 12 in '92, so right at the end of that. So maybe I'd revise that quote and say age 8!

The one word that hasn't come up in our conversation is nostalgia. The appeal of nostalgia is obvious, a part of the human condition, but what do you think are its limits?

Well, I think getting past the first, superficial level. I mean, I can have a conversation with people of my generation about Saved By The Bell or baseball cards or Hulk Hogan and it's gonna bring back a smile. But then do you go beyond that? Are you able to explore nostalgia in a deeper way beyond that fun memory that comes and goes. And that's what I'm trying to tap into. I've got your attention because we all remember Wax Packs baseball cards, but now can I hold it for the length of an entire book to tell you what is interesting about this thing from the past?

Nostalgia can cast the past in a golden light. Have you found your nostalgia interfered with or sullied at all by talking to these ex-players?

Well, there's always that part of me that has to grapple with, you know, the 8-year-old inside that's meeting these guys, right? There's that tendency to want to have the person like you, and not ask hard questions and to be a fan. But I've really worked hard, having the training in journalism, to try and not let that affect me. I'm sure it does, to some extent, but I know that my mission there, my obligation to the reader, is not fall into that trap. And so I try to ask harder questions, make sure that I'm being balanced, try not to be afraid to sometime push in an uncomfortable direction. A lot of these guys have had major tragedies in their lives.... If I was writing about Bill Buckner, I might not even ask him about the ground ball, but if I found out his dad died when he was ten, we'd spend a lot of time on that. And. like, Steve Yeager. He posed in Playgirl in 1982 and there was this huge uproar; I didn't even ask him about it. I'll mention it in the book, but he's been asked about it a million times. I don't even care what his thought is on that anymore. So, at the risk of alienating readers who want to know about those lightning-rod moments, I'm making the decision to avoid that a little bit. People have asked me to ask players about certain things, and I find that the players mostly are not interested in talking about those moments. They were there; they've talked about it a lot before. There's a bit of a disconnect between what the fans get excited about and what the players get excited about. Some fans may be disappointed about that, but that's what I'm realizing.

All images via Wax Pack.

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