What Happens to Baseball Heroes After They're on Topps?

May 27th, 2020

As a kid, author Brad Balukjian was obsessed with Don Carman, the Phillies underdog pitcher. Five years ago, Balukjian sought out the players in one pack of 1986 baseball cards, including Carman. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

America’s baseball heroes are immortalized, young and at their physical peak, on tiny cardboard squares known as baseball cards. But what goes on outside the borders of those cards? Brad Balukjian, a journalist and lifelong baseball fan, decided to find out.

“A baseball card is literally a two-dimensional flat piece of cardboard. I wanted to bring these guys to life in a more nuanced, three-dimensional way.”

Balukjian, who is also a biology professor and the director of the Natural History & Sustainability Program at Merritt College in Oakland, California, got his first pack of baseball cards at age 6 in 1986 in his childhood hometown of Greenville, Rhode Island. Immediately, he was hooked on the cards: the thrill of ripping open a wax pack—a term inspired by the cards’ wax-paper wrapping—discovering the players on the cards within, and consuming their stats. Because his favorite letter was “F,” his favorite team had the “F” sound in its name, the Phillies. And his absolute favorite Major League Baseball player was left-handed Phillies pitcher, Don Carman, who was once named the second-worst hitting pitcher of all time.

“My childhood heroes were the journeymen and benchwarmers, the underdog fringe players who needed to work like mad just to stay in place,” Balukjian writes in his new book, The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife. As a child, Balukjian struggled with a debilitating stutter, six years of orthodontic work, and a yet-to-be-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Always outside the mainstream, I identified as an underdog myself.”

Brad Balukjian as a kid, visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

Twenty-eight years after his first encounter with baseball cards, Balukjian—who’d since made a name for himself as a scientist discovering 20 new bug species in Tahiti—thought about his collection, which he estimates to be between 5,000 and 10,000 cards, tucked away in his mom’s storage space. It occurred to him that at 34, he was the same age when most of the players represented in those storage boxes began to retire from their playing careers. Balukjian could hardly believe he was that age, describing himself as “an eight-year-old stuck in a thirty-four-year-old’s body … still putting bugs in jars, still listening to eighties music on cassette tapes, and still loving baseball.”

Pondering what happened to his heroes after they retired, Balukjian came up with a plan: In fall 2014, he went on eBay and ordered about a dozen sealed packs of Topps baseball cards from 1986, and opened them, searching for a pack with a set of 14 players who would make for a good cross-country road trip.

While digging into all those old baseball-card packs, Balukjian even gave into the temptation to try the nearly 30-year-old gum. “I remove the calcified stick of gum with the caution of a bomb expert, place it in my mouth, and clench down on its powdered surface, splintering it into a thousand crumbs, which instantly dissolve on my tongue,” he writes in The Wax Pack. “It’s delightfully gross.”

The wrapper from the 1986 Topps wax pack that inspired Balukjian to travel across the United States, meeting former baseball players. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

Once he settled on a pack, Balukjian then planned to spend the summer of 2015 driving across the United States in his 2002 Honda Accord trying to meet each of the former players in his baseball-card pack, the “Wax Packers” as he calls them, to find out what fate befell each one. He would blog about his adventures each day of the trip and hoped the blog could turn into a book.

“A baseball card is literally a two-dimensional flat piece of cardboard,” Balukjian tells me, explaining the project. “I wanted to bring these guys to life in a more nuanced, three-dimensional way, beyond being these larger-than-life baseball players. What comes across in my book is that they are actually a lot more like we are than we realize.”

The biggest difference between us and the Major League Baseball stars of the ’80s is that most of us don’t retire from our dream jobs before age 40. “That’s something we can’t relate to, really, because what other profession are you done with by age 35—and you’ll never do it again?”, Balukjian says.

Still, Balukjian could relate to the way players don’t truly settle down until later in life. At 34, he was feeling like he had yet to reach some of the major milestones of adulthood. “These guys were in their mid-30s, and they could no longer play a game, so they had to grow up into the next part of their lives. Then there’s me in my mid-30s, and by society’s standards, I haven’t grown up. I’m not getting married or having kids. So what can I learn from these players?”

Former Dodgers catcher, “Playgirl” model, and “Major League” movie consultant Steve Yeager holds Balukjian’s wax pack at a Starbucks near the Jersey Mike’s sub shop he co-owns with his wife, Charlene, in Granada Hills, California. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

When he signed his book deal for The Wax Pack, which was published on April 1, 2020, there was no way Balukjian—or his publisher—could have predicted that the 2020 baseball season would be canceled because of a global pandemic. Balukjian had to call off the 40-stop cross-country book tour he had organized himself. Then, he and three other writers co-founded the Pandemic Baseball Book Club to host online events for about two dozen authors who put out baseball books this spring.

“Had you told me when I was 9 years old that one day I would be giving Don Carman homework assignments on how to write, my head would’ve exploded.”

Today, Balukjian connects the dots from his fascination with baseball and collecting cards to his obsessive-compulsive disorder, a diagnosis he didn’t receive until he was in college. As a kid, he was endlessly amused by studying the stats on the back of the cards, putting his collection in order, and hunting down specific cards from local dealers with his very patient mom.

“When I look back, there’s no doubt that my OCD had manifested in some ways that were healthy or positive,” Balukjian says. “I always liked counting, tracking, rating, and categorizing things. I think those traits also made me a scientist because the research is very detail-oriented. My dissertation was on describing all these different insects that I discovered in Tahiti. When you do that kind of taxonomy research, it’s essentially all about collecting and categorizing. You have a whole bunch of specimens that vary in different ways, and you have to put them in these discrete boxes to differentiate between them.”

Not only was Balukjian a natural scientist, but he was also a natural collector. Besides baseball cards and memorabilia, young Brad “collected stamps, wrestling figures, and even rocks and shells,” he says. “I was obsessed with buttons as a kid, all the different colors and designs. There was a store at the mall near where I grew up in Rhode Island called The Button Shop. Back then, I didn’t realize that most people would go to a button shop just to get buttons replaced. To me, buttons were collectibles, which had nothing to do with their functionality on a piece of clothing.”

Brad Balukjian appeared on a baseball card himself—when he was in Little League in Rhode Island. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

Balukjian grew up at exactly the right time to enjoy baseball cards’ peak. In the ’50s and ’60s, kids tended to see their cards as disposable paper playthings that they’d flick against the wall or attach to their bikes to flap against the spokes. But when Baby Boomers became adults, they grew nostalgic for the baseball cards they’d long since tossed.

By the end of ’70s, the value of a 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card was approaching $1,000—an astounding price back then. Suddenly, baseball cards became not just toys, but collectibles to treasure and trade, held in carefully organized card albums. In the late ’80s, the baseball card industry was a billion-dollar business, which kids imagined they could tap into by finding collectible treasures in the 50-cent wax packs they bought each week with their allowances.

“It makes a lot of sense that baseball cards were my toys because I didn’t really play,” says Balukjian, who never got into LEGO or building blocks. “My friends and I would trade cards. We’d have a whole bartering session where we would get out the price guide to come up with these blockbuster deals. It was almost like speculating in the stock market as little kids. You’re trying to guess which player is going to be big and what card’s value is going to go up and down. It was intense. We would get into these protracted discussions about whether you’re ripping me off or I’m ripping you off, etc.”

Former Chicago Cub Richie Hebner—who was the hitting coach for the Toronto Blue Jay’s Triple-A affiliate the Buffalo Bisons until 2016—invited Balukjian to chat with him in the dugout before a Bisons game against the Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

By 1991, when Balukjian was 11 years old, the cards had become so precious that makers stopped putting gum in the packs, lest it stain the cards. But sports cards manufacturers like Topps, Fleer, Upper Deck, and Bowman flooded the market with countless sets, and the oversupply caused the industry to topple from its towering height in a couple of years. Plus, kids had high-tech delights to distract them from this analog hobby, such as Nintendo Game Boys and surfing the internet. Soon, the stats that Balukjian loved to study and catalog became readily available online. By the late aughts, everything found on a baseball card could be called up on a smartphone.

Today, baseball-card collecting has been revived again by nostalgic, wealthy Gen Xers, through a strange brew of digital and analog. So-called online “card breaks” let spectators bid on rights to cards for certain teams, certain pack numbers, or certain divisions, and then watch on live video as a breaker opens 12 new boxes each containing 24 packs of baseball cards with 14 players each and rifles through all 4,032 cards, pulling out the rarest and most valuable, or limited-edition “hit cards.” Some bidders just trade their cards for more credits, hoping for higher and higher values. It’s a communal securities exchange that makes Balukjian’s preteen dealings look like small potatoes.

Now that baseball cards have become adult currency instead of boys’ treasures, Balukjian’s approach to baseball-card nostalgia in The Wax Pack is refreshing. For him, baseball cards aren’t about getting rich. By opening these 1986 packs, he was harkening back to a more innocent time, when he would fall asleep listening to Phillies games on a transistor radio or have his dad drive him to the team’s spring training so he could shake hands with his hero, Don Carman.

Young Brad used to fall asleep while listening to Philadelphia Phillies games on a transistor radio. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

As luck would have it, the Topps pack he selected from his eBay purchases happened to contain a Don Carman card. “I didn’t trade cards between packs, so I made sure to maintain the integrity of the pack,” Balukjian says. “I would’ve loved it to have Don Carman’s card, but there was no guarantee he would be in any of the packs I opened. It’s not like I kept opening packs until I got him.”

“I was blown away by how open the guys I spoke with were. You have to understand that these players, especially from that generation, were trained to never show any vulnerability.”

Because he was such a serious baseball fan in the ’80s, Balukjian automatically knew 13 of the 14 players. The pack contained several big names including Hall of Famer and Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, New York Mets star pitcher Dwight “Doc” Gooden, Mets base-stealer Vince Coleman, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Steve “Boomer” Yeager, and Rick “Sut” Sutcliffe, a dominant pitcher who played for multiple teams including the Cubs and Dodgers and is now an ESPN commentator. Several of the others had long, respectable—if less glamorous—playing careers including Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Rance Mulliniks, St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres shortstop Garry Templeton, California Angels center fielder Gary Pettis, Milwaukee Brewers and Padres baseman Randy Ready, Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Lee Mazzilli, and Pirates and Chicago Cubs third baseman Richie Hebner. The only player Balukjian vaguely recognized was a short-timer, Brewers pitcher Jaime Cocanower.

This particular wax pack also had the least number of players who had since died, with just one: Al Cowens, a right-fielder and home-run hitter who played for the Angels, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, and Seattle Mariners, who passed away from a heart attack in 2002.

After opening the packs, Balukjian had about nine months to research and track down the players, and convince each one to meet up with him in the summer. A handful of players—Fisk, Coleman, and Pettis—flat-out refused. Another, Doc Gooden, agreed to meet him for a fee, but never showed up. Still, Balukjian tells a compelling story of all his sometimes-comic and convoluted attempts to reach the onetime superstars, and he also visits their childhood stomping grounds and explores their life stories, which are so much more complex than their heroic images.

Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk wouldn’t talk to Balukjian, so Balukjian paid for his autograph at a meet-and-greet in Cooperstown, New York. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

To Balukjian’s delight, at least half of the 14 players in his wax pack welcomed him into their worlds and were genuinely warm and willing to talk about their lives and their struggles.

“I was blown away by how open the guys I spoke with were,” Balukjian says. “You have to understand that these players, especially from that generation, were trained to never show any vulnerability. So the fact that they were willing to open up to a stranger in that way about all the challenges they dealt with was the most pleasantly surprising part of this whole process.”

“Whenever there’s downtime in baseball, there’s opportunity for a player’s brain to start overthinking.”

What’s striking is that every single one of them comes from a hardscrabble background: Some spent much of their teen years doing backbreaking labor to help their impoverished guardians while others took to baseball to stay out of trouble in their economically depressed neighborhoods. The majority had a story that involved an abusive, alcoholic, or neglectful father.

“A lot of these guys used their difficult childhoods to push themselves,” Balukjian says. “They channeled the anger they had about their fathers or their home situations to make themselves more aggressive players.”

Several of them were injured so early in their careers that it derailed their stats and they failed to achieve the superstar potential the scouts saw in their raw teenage abilities. “Injury is such a part of the game,” Balukjian says. “There’s no way that the fans can know what’s going on behind the scenes of what they see on the field.”

Onetime Blue Jays shortstop Rance Mulliniks now lives a quiet life as a Realtor and a suburban family man in California’s Central Valley. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

On June 19, 2015, Balukjian reached the first stop on his trip—Visalia, California, in the Central Valley, which is 303 miles from his home in Oakland—to meet Rance Mulliniks, the then-58-year-old former shortstop and line-drive hitter who retired from the Toronto Blue Jays after his team won the World Series in 1992. This was the only time Balukjian brought friends on his road trip, brothers Adam and Jesse Brouillard.

Mulliniks, who was the type of journeyman player young Brad always admired, indulged the trio in a hitting lesson at his private baseball academy. Afterward, Balukjian was feeling so giddy, he wanted to “double down on the thrill,” so he took his pals to a local sports bar to celebrate. Balukjian ended up so drunk, he wandered outside and passed out under a freeway overpass for a few hours.

But Balukjian’s second meeting with Mulliniks, who is now a Realtor, was thoroughly wholesome, running errands with the onetime Blue Jay—including stops at the grocery store and his church—before joining Mulliniks’ second wife, Lori, and the couple’s adopted children for a steak-and-potatoes dinner at their suburban home.

During their two-day encounter, Mulliniks imparted some fatherly advice about relationships and shared how he came out of his 16 years in the league so emotionally unscathed. “I never really thought about who I was competing against on my team,” Mulliniks told Balukjian. “I said, the one thing I can control is that I can outwork everyone. Control what you can control.”

Former Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Randy Ready challenged Balukjian to a bowling match at Dallas restaurant/brewery/bowling alley Bowl & Barrel. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

In fact, the whole trip was so much about indulging a childhood fantasy that Balukjian admittedly adopted a father-son dynamic with many of the players, before meeting his own father in New York City and having a heart-to-heart with him. Wild nights were in short supply, but Balukjian watched kung-fu movies with Garry Templeton in his San Marcos, California, living room. In Dallas, he took Randy Ready bowling and, the next day, asked him to spot him at a gym. In an Ozark Mountains lake house, Balukjian played Cards Against Humanity, ate barbecue, and watched Fourth of July fireworks with Jaime Cocanower’s family and friends. In Naples, Florida, he took Don Carman to the zoo.

“Baseball players have reputations for being dogs. They have big egos, and I think a certain level of entitlement can develop, and that’s where masculinity becomes toxic.”

“In the book, I go in and out of all these different phases: stunted adolescence, innocent childhood, and almost-cynical middle age,” Balukjian says. “I hope that’s something people can relate to because it’s part of being human. Being with these guys who were my heroes as a kid, it evoked a lot of childhood fascination. I wanted to be honest with the reader about that. I’m in the story very actively, and I’m not an impartial narrator.”

The one player Balukjian thought he might have a crazy time with was then-66-year-old former Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager, a.k.a. “Boomer,” who was known for his big, swaggering personality. In 1981, the Dodgers won the World Series, and Boomer shared the Most Valuable Player award. A year later, Boomer posed for “Playgirl” magazine. Post-career, he served as a consultant on the “Major League” films. When he noticed his former teammate Richie Hebner in Balukjian’s wax pack, he said, “Tell Richie we need to go chase some nurses.”

Steve “Boomer” Yeager has been sober 31 years now. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

But Yeager turned down Balukjian’s offer to meet him at a cowboy bar in his Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth, suggesting they meet at a Starbucks instead. “I haven’t had a drink in twenty-seven years,” he explained. Yeager turned out to be more complicated than the media portrayed him: He survived growing up with an alcoholic father, as well as myriad injuries from home-plate collisions over the course of his 15-year playing career.

Balukjian’s first stumbling block was trying to reach Gary Pettis, a respectable center fielder who was drafted by the California Angels in 1979 and was known for stealing bases. Because Pettis grew up in Oakland, Balukjian managed to interview Pettis’ high-school coach and kid brother before he hit the road, but because Pettis is now the Houston Astros‘ third-base coach, Balukjian ran into a public-relations wall. “The team decided they weren’t going to have the coaches talk to the media at all,” the PR manager informed Balukjian.

Balukjian planned to attend the June 29 Astros home game against the Kansas City Royals at Minute Maid Park in downtown Houston. He splurged on a $15 pre-game behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium (opened in 2000), which included a chance to watch batting practice. Balukjian hoped to shout at Pettis from the stands, and even briefly pondered hiding out in one of the luxury suites and sneaking down to the dugout. “I seriously considered it,” Balukjian says with a laugh. “But I had to have some discretion. I really didn’t want to get arrested.”

Because former Angels center fielder Gary Pettis is the Houston Astros’ third-base coach, the team’s PR machine barred him from talking to Balukjian during the 2015 season. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

Before the game, he asked the PR guy to take Pettis his baseball card for an autograph with a note about the project. The card came back signed, but Pettis never called.

To reach Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, the former Boston Red Sox superstar known as one of the greatest catchers of all time, Balukjian would go to even more extreme lengths. A sports agent Balukjian is friendly with gave him a tip that Fisk can often be found having a post-golf drink at a posh, exclusive club in Sarasota, Florida. Balukjian drove his shabby Honda to the club and somehow managed to pose as a millionaire looking for a second home—but Fisk was nowhere to be found.

He caught up to Fisk—who hit 351 home runs in his career and was an 11-time All-Star—during the Baseball Hall of Fame Weekend at the end of July in Cooperstown, New York. Balukjian put down $69 to meet Fisk and get an 11″ x 14″ photo autographed. As a joke, when Balukjian finally encountered Fisk face to face, he handed him a signed 8″ x 10″ of himself with a comic note, and a “Missing You” card with his business card tucked inside, leaving the star stammering and looking bewildered.

When he was 13, Brad met Don Carman at the Phillies spring training. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

Fisk wasn’t the first MLB player to receive a greeting card from Balukjian. When he was 9 in the late ’80s, Balukjian purchased a birthday card for Don Carman, and sent it to the Phillies pitcher, hoping to get a response in the mail.

Because Carman was such an integral part of his childhood, when Balukjian left gregarious Randy Ready in Dallas and before he met the Cocanowers in Arkansas for the Fourth of July, he drove up to Oklahoma to see where Carman was raised. He visited Carman’s mother, who now lives in Weatherford, before exploring the desolate farm-and-oil-field town of Camargo, population 180. This is where young Don, a quiet and thoughtful kid Balukjian describes as “scrawny, sniffly,” was bullied by his peers and his family, which included five brothers and two sisters. Don’s father worked in the oil fields and only noticed his kid to discipline him.

“Other than him playing for my favorite team, I never understood why I liked Don Carman,” Balukjian says. “I’m a scientist, so I’m not someone who’s prone to say, ‘Oh, everything happens for a reason.’ But the way the whole Don Carman thing worked out, it makes me into a bit of a believer in fate. I was just so blown away when I met him and got to know how many parallels there are between him and me: being picked on and not fitting in as a kid; being a late developer; and being an underdog.”

About a week after he left Oklahoma, Balukjian connected with Carman, then 54 years old, in Naples, Florida, the upscale community where Carman now resides. In the book, Balukjian drops us into the middle of their conversation at the Naples Zoo while giraffes in the background snatch lettuce offered by children, but he doesn’t share their initial meeting.

Balukjian took his all-time favorite baseball player, Phillies pitcher Don Carman, to the zoo in Naples, Florida. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

“I was trying to not fan-boy out too much,” Balukjian says. “When I first saw him it was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the guy!’ I was trying to maintain my cool exterior, when in fact the little kid in me was so excited. It was a great moment. It was like, ‘Okay, this is actually happening.'”

Balukjian and his hero had a heart-to-heart outside the zoo gift shop, and Carman opened up about his brutal childhood in Camargo, where his family of 10 shared a two-bedroom house. Carman confessed he spent most of his youth in a heightened fight-or-flight mode. Then, the former pitcher told Balukjian a harrowing story about how when he was 15, his 45-year-old father, returning home from an angry search for one of Carman’s sisters, had a heart attack and crashed his car into a tree in their front lawn.

Carman turned his anxiety and trauma into aggression on the field, even after a car accident 1987 damaged his pitching hand, forcing him to go into physical rehabilitation. After that, gripping the ball caused him excruciating pain, but he always said he was fine. “My intensity came out of fear, fear of not making it, fear of having to go back to Oklahoma, which was the biggest fear of my life,” Carman told Balukjian. “Baseball was just all I could do.”

Carman showed Balukjian one of his jerseys at his home in Naples. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

Balukjian says that so much of what sets players apart in the Major Leagues is whether they have the mental wherewithal to focus, shut out pain, and silence the internal voices of doubt that nag them when things are quiet.

“Fans are a lot more similar to baseball players than they realize.”

“If you have the right mental makeup, you can exceed your potential based on just your physical skills,” Balukjian says. “Baseball is individualistic in the sense that it features pitcher versus hitter. There’s a lot of lulls in the action. Whenever there’s downtime, there’s opportunity for a player’s brain to start overthinking, whereas in basketball, hockey, or soccer, you’re always moving. In baseball, there’s time for doubt to creep in.”

Before each game, Carman would study the scouting reports on the opposing team’s batters and carefully map out his pitching strategy for each. If Carman caught a player sneaking a peak at his catcher’s hand signals during the game, he would throw the ball to hit him, a rather brutal practice called “headhunting.” In the 20-30 second lag between pitches, you could see Carman thinking.

“If you don’t know baseball that well, it seems like nothing’s going on,” Balukjian says. “But there’s actually a lot of strategy and gamesmanship going into each pitch.”

Balukjian learned that Richie Hebner was having a rift with his brother Dennis in 2015. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

After he retired from playing baseball in 1995 at age 35, Don Carman slid into a deep depression that last two years. Fortunately, he had the support of his second wife, Kathy. Then his agent, Scott Boras, suggested he meet baseball psychology pioneer Harvey Dorfman, who wrote the textbook, The Mental Game of Baseball. Dorfman encouraged Carman to pursue psychology, and Carman got his bachelor’s and then his master’s in the subject. In 2015, he was taking classes toward his doctorate.

“When you’re that angry, what you’re really doing is feeling sorry for yourself,” Carman told Balukjian. “Anger and fear are not my motivators any longer. A big part of my philosophy is, I don’t get to write the script. Whatever it is, I just get to respond. I quote Viktor Frankl a lot to players, where he said, ‘The only true freedom we have is the freedom to choose how we respond to a given situation.'”

Today, Carman works as a staff psychologist for Boras, now a superstar agent, best known for landing Alex Rodriguez his $252 million 10-year contract with the New York Yankees in 2000. When one of Boras’ players hits a rough patch, Carman will fly to his location for an on-site therapy session. Because he works for their agent, they trust him.

Balukjian bonded with former Cardinals and Padres shortstop Garry “Tempy” Templeton by watching kung-fu movies with him at his home in San Marcos, California, outside San Diego. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

“In most other sports, succeeding at least 50 percent of the time is the cutoff for being good,” Balukjian says. “If you’re a quarterback in football, you want to complete 50 percent of your passes. If you’re a basketball player, you want to shoot higher than 50 percent in your shots. In baseball, if you get on base 3 to 4 times out of 10, that’s considered a fantastic player. So there’s just so much more failure in baseball than in other sports. In baseball, you only go to the plate a handful of times each game. It’s a higher pressure, higher stakes environment.”

These days, it’s becoming more acceptable for team owners provide mental-health resources to their players, and many teams have hired their own psychologists, mostly to protect their financial investments in high-paid stars. “I think there is a greater appreciation now that players are humans,” Balukjian says. “In the old sports paradigm, mental-health issues were dismissed, like, ‘Ahhh, just get over it.’ A lot of guys who could’ve probably benefited from therapy instead had their careers shortened by that approach. However, there’s a potential conflict of interest when the psychologist comes from the team because that psychologist could go to the management and say, ‘This guy’s got some issues.'”

Over two days, Carman opened up to Balukjian about his own healing journey, which made Balukjian feel more deeply connected to his childhood hero than he ever thought possible.

Former Brewers pitcher Jaime Cocanower invited Balukjian to celebrate Fourth of July at his lake house in Lowell, Arkansas, and opened up about his wife’s cancer diagnosis. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

As it turns out, Balukjian’s Wax Pack journey may have led to a lifelong friendship with Carman, as the two men have kept in touch. “Now, he’s trying to write a book, and I’m mentoring him about writing,” Balukjian says. “It’s very weird. Had you told me when I was 9 years old that one day I would be giving Don Carman homework assignments on how to write, my head would’ve exploded.”

Balukjian’s connection with Carman is the emotional core of a story that has a lot of heart-rending moments, including Jaime Cocanower expressing his fear around his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis four years prior (she remains cancer free to this day), and pitching superstar and ESPN commentator Rick “Sut” Sutcliffe, the 1984 Cy Young Award winner, showing Balukjian his hometown of Independence, Missouri, and opening up about how his parents abandoned him when he was 11. There are many stories of players who’ve healed from their past pain and moved on from their playing careers.

But not all of the Wax Packers have won conquered their personal demons. Mets superstar pitcher Dwight “Doc” Gooden, like Fisk, was a player Balukjian dismissed as a kid because he was too good. Doc Gooden won Rookie of the Year in 1984 at age 19, and in 1985, he won 24 games with eight shutouts, earning the National League Cy Young Award. He was one of only three baseball players to ever appear solo on the cover of “Time,” and a 105-foot Nike billboard featuring Doc once loomed over Manhattan.

New York Mets superstar pitcher Dwight “Doc” Gooden has long struggled with drug addiction. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

Little did young Brad know, the career of this Phillies foe would be derailed by drug and alcohol addiction. While 2 million New Yorkers cheered the Mets in the streets of Manhattan for their 1986 World Series win, 21-year-old Doc was hungover at home, recovering from a cocaine-and-alcohol bender with friends and groupies. Gooden lived through a particularly scarring early childhood in East Tampa, Florida: Before he turned 6, he saw his mom use a gun on his philandering father, and then witnessed his older sister get shot by her abusive husband (both lived to tell about it). Given his history of trauma, Gooden’s high school coach, Billy Reed, who was 83 in 2015, told Balukjian he didn’t think Doc had the wherewithal to handle sports-star fame in New York City.

Dwight Gooden on the April 7, 1986, cover of “Time.”

“There should be another word for what New York City is versus the other cities in the country,” Balukjian says. “The media spotlight there is incredibly glaring, and reporters and cameras are always in your face. New York sports reporting is somewhat sensationalist. There’s just so much more attention all the time on everything you do.”

Balukjian caught up with Doc Gooden’s oldest son and manager Dwight “Little Doc” Gooden, Jr., in the home he shared with his father in Westbury, Long Island, New York, paying $200 for that access. But Gooden missed both interview times Balukjian scheduled with Little Doc, as well as a meet-and-greet event at a Yonkers restaurant Mets fans paid $100 a pop to attend. The unspoken assumption was that Gooden had relapsed. A documentary about Gooden and Mets and Yankees right fielder Darryl Strawberry, “Doc & Darryl,” was filmed around the time Balukjian was trying to reach Gooden, and it also hinted Doc’s troubles were far from over. In 2019, he was arrested on a D.U.I. and other drug charges.

St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets left fielder Vince Coleman, on the other hand, had rejected Balukjian flat out before the trip. Balukjian sought out Coleman—who was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1985 and who signed a four-year $11.95 million contract with the Mets after the 1990 season—at the 2015 Chicago White Sox spring training in Glendale, Arizona, where he was serving as a base-running coach. Balukjian, having done his research about “Vincent Van Go,” had read how the famous base-stealer loved the sweet potato pies his Uncle Carter used to make.

Vince Coleman was sometimes called “Vincent Van Go,” thanks to his base-stealing skills. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

“When I saw Vince Coleman walking down the field, I yelled out, ‘Uncle Carter’s sweet potato pies,’ and it was the last thing he expected to hear,” Balukjian says. “I actually got his attention, and then he walked over to me. I had a letter ready that explained the project, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m writing this book. Hopefully, we can find some time to talk.’ He wouldn’t even take the letter. He just looked at me and was like, ‘Nah.'”

“It’s not like Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and then everything was hunky-dory.”

However, Balukjian did visit the player’s childhood street in Jacksonville, Florida, located in a working-class African American neighborhood that the NFL alone has mined for 21 pro ballplayers. Like Gooden, Coleman’s career is marked by public scandals, which is probably why he was not eager to chat with Balukjian.

The most disturbing story in the book reveals that three African American Mets players, Vince Coleman, Doc Gooden, and Daryl Boston, were accused of raping a white woman who came back to Gooden’s rental home in Port St. Lucie, Florida, where the Mets trained, in spring 1991. Looking back, we can see how far women’s rights have come in the past three decades. Back then, feminists were struggling to get date rape acknowledged, and to get the public to accept that, yes, a woman could willfully go into the house of a successful, handsome ballplayer and still get raped.

In his 2013 autobiography, Doc: A Memoir, Gooden asserts that the encounter was consensual, saying that in Port St. Lucie, “at night, we’d go out drinking and looking for women, and women would go out drinking and looking for Mets. The hookups were never hard to come by.”

Lenny Dykstra, Dwight Gooden, and Darryl Strawberry of the New York Mets watch from he visiting-team dugout during a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium in 1986. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

While #MeToo and #BelieveWomen have brought justice to rape victims who were dismissed in the past, it’s also important to factor in the racist history of lynching: From the days of slavery to present day, white women have weaponized their image as the embodiment of pure, delicate femininity and lied to bring harm upon black men.

A January 12, 2020, Slate article takes a deeper look at this particular case, as well as the frat-like culture of the late ’80s and early ’90s Mets, which generated multiple accusations of sexual harassment and assault against black and white players alike. Coleman, Gooden, and Boston were never charged by Port St. Lucie police. The alleged victim in the case, who went by the pseudonym “Cindy Powell,” never revealed her real name and committed suicide in 2012.

“When you read that Slate article, it definitely cast more doubt on the players’ side of the story, and I think you’re inclined to believe the alleged victim,” Balukjian says. “The piece does not paint Vince Coleman and Dwight Gooden in a good light. At the very least, these guys were engaging in pretty unsavory behavior, considering they were all married at the time. Even if it was consensual, they were up to no good.”

The Slate piece also paints a vivid picture of how lecherous womanizing and a sense of masculine entitlement dominated ’80s Major League Baseball clubs, while baseball groupies were approaching the men in every city. Even though many of the players had married young, they rarely resisted indulging their own desires.

Balukjian and Jaime Cocanower toured the “Warhol’s Nature” exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

“Jaime Cocanower’s wife, Gini, talked with me a lot about that,” Balukjian says. She was one of the few wives to stay with her husband throughout and after his playing career, and she advocated for him fiercely with the Brewers management. While Jaime remained faithful to her, she told Balukjian that most of the other players were, indeed, cheating on their spouses back home.

“In the old sports paradigm, mental-health issues were dismissed, like, ‘Ahhh, just get over it.’”

“When I met these guys, I wasn’t going to ask them, ‘Hey, how many times have you cheated on your wife?’,” Balukjian says. “I’m sure that it happened all the time, and it’s not something that speaks very well to baseball culture. Even the single baseball players have reputations for being dogs. They have big egos, and I think a certain level of entitlement can develop, and that’s where masculinity becomes toxic.”

Balukjian found that most of the players he met saw their first marriages fall apart after their decade-plus playing careers came to a close. And usually, whether the player had cheated or not had nothing to do with the marriage ending.

“I don’t know how much the wives knew about the groupies,” Balukjian says. “But when the men were done playing, suddenly, they were no longer surrounded by groupies. It must’ve been a hard pill for these guys, with all their ego and pride, to swallow. I’m sure their wives put up with way more than they should have. Even Rance Mulliniks, who by all accounts seems like an honorable, straight-shooting guy, got divorced, and it wasn’t because he was philandering. It’s just that you’re consumed by this game for so long, and then it’s over, and you’re trying to step back into a home situation that you’ve never really been a part of.”

The day after Randy Ready was traded from the Milwaukee Brewers to the San Diego Padres in 1986, his ballerina wife, Dorene, suffered a debilitating heart attack. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

It’s true that many of the players in The Wax Pack blew it with their first wives and missed the childhoods of their first-born children. But in baseball’s afterlife, several became devoted fathers to their second set of children or doting grandads to their children’s children.

“The book is about demystifying these heroes that we have these little monuments to in the form of baseball cards,” Balukjian says. “At the end, I talk about how baseball players have two lives. There’s that first life, the James Dean life that maybe we don’t experience, but then they come back to Earth and have a second life that’s the same life that we live. They just start it a little bit later.”

Another reality baseball cards obscure is the amount of blatant racism that African American players faced in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. “It’s not like Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and then everything was hunky-dory,” Balukjian says.

Today, Balukjian writes, there are even fewer African American players in Major League Baseball than there were in 1986. “The pack had 14 players,” he tells me. “Five of them were black, and no Latino players. But if you were to open a pack now, you’d probably get five Latino players and maybe no black players. The demographics have changed dramatically.”

An injured knee and encounters with racism prevented Garry “Tempy” Templeton from thriving in the MLB. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

Garry “Tempy” Templeton, who was 59 years old in 2015, was one of the Wax Packers who saw his potential as a No. 1 draft pick diminished with an injury. After the shortstop tore the cartilage in his left knee in 1974—his first year in the minors after signing with the St. Louis Cardinals—he struggled to play through the pain. Then, once he was in in “the bigs,” the African American player was beleaguered by the snarky casual racism of white teammates and the sports media who labeled him as “lazy.”

In 1981, Templeton made headlines when Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog gave him the green-light to take it easy on his sore knee in a home game against the San Francisco Giants. When he was at bat, the ball bounced on his third strike, making it a live ball, but Tempy barely tried to run. The media focused on Templeton’s behavior after he got booed by angry Cardinals fans, shouting at the crowd and making vulgar gestures at them, but few reported that the fans were throwing ice and yelling racist slurs at him.

The next season, Templeton was shipped to the San Diego Padres. Balukjian writes that Templeton had been singled out for being “too honest, too raw, too black.” The player told Balukjian, “Back then, most black guys didn’t speak up, because they wanted their jobs, and they didn’t want to get labeled. So best to keep your mouth shut.”

The late Al Cowens’ cousin, former minor-leaguer Billy Cowens, signed Balukjian’s card for the both of them. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

Another player who made a splash in the ’70s and also felt punished for his blackness was the late Al Cowens. Balukjian wasn’t sure he’d learn much about Cowens, as his widow, Velma, wasn’t interested in talking about her husband. (Both Templeton and Cowens, unlike most of the other players in the book, stayed married to the wives they married young.)

At the end of his trip, Balukjian returned to Los Angeles County, stopping by Centennial High School in Compton to see if he could find anyone who knew the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners right fielder. Luckily, Balukjian was instructed to go to an alumni meeting, where he encountered a woman who knew Cowens’ first cousin, Billy. He called Balukjian the next morning.

The cousins—who often told the media they were brothers—got into sports so the Los Angeles gangs would leave them alone. Billy was drafted by the Cardinals in 1974, but never made it out of the minor leagues. He said while traveling in the South with his team, he ran into a landlord who not only refused him a room, but showed him a KKK hood. He told Balukjian that in the ’70s, the black players “had to be much better” than the white players to get any accolades.

The day Al got drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1969, he was shot in the stomach by a friend’s brother, and as he started his career, his coaches warned him not to slide into base headfirst. Despite this restriction, he was a rising star. In 1977, Cowens hit 23 home runs, had a .312 batting average, and was the runner-up for the American League Most Valuable Player. But Al, whom everyone described as kind and quiet, didn’t let such near-misses get him down.

Balukjian paid his respects to Al Cowens at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California, at the end of his trip. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

That changed two years later, when white Texas Rangers pitcher Ed Farmer hit Cowens in the face with the ball, shattering his jaw and forcing Cowens to take three weeks off to recover from reconstructive surgery. That same game, Farmer hit another African American Royals player, Frank White, breaking his wrist. The following year, 1980, Cowens, then playing for the Detroit Tigers, sought revenge on Farmer when he ran up to the pitcher’s mound and punched him in the face. He was suspended for seven games and a warrant was even issued for his arrest, but Farmer eventually agreed to drop the charges. Cowens, demoralized, spent the rest of his career with the Seattle Mariners.

Balukjian learned that by the end of his life at age 50, Al Cowens felt especially embittered by his experiences with the MLB system. He believed that it was designed to exploit the players, taking advantage of their youth and athletic gifts, pushing them to use amphetamines and steroids, and then coldly discarding them when they no longer made the team owners money. In the last year of his life, he was on a crusade to warn young people about it.

“The players are expendable pieces on a chessboard,” Balukjian says. “But that sentiment also brings up questions about agency, which doesn’t absolve the owners of the things that they did. Sometimes, it’s not as simple as the player being a victim. For example, with football, the NFL buried all the information it had about the risk of concussion. But that information is out there now, and if you’re still playing football, you know what you’re signing up for. Even former professional football players, even some of the ones who suffered brain injuries, say they would go back and do it all over again the same way. That’s how much they loved playing the game.”

Onetime Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe did well as a baseball player and has set up a charitable foundation. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

If they resented being wrung out and tossed aside by Major League Baseball owners and management, a number of the Wax Packers Balukjian met have let it go. Several were back working for MLB teams as coaches, instructors, and trainers for major and minor leagues. Still, they each had to grieve their glory days in their own ways before they could go back to baseball.

“A lot of them are still involved in the game in some way, because it’s what they know,” Balukjian says. “But it’s like Randy Ready told me, ‘There’s a transition where you’ve got to get the player out of you.’ The sooner you can detach from the player you were, the better you’re going to make that transition to coaching.”

Also, ordinary people might be inclined to tell ballplayers to go cry into their piles of money, but Balukjian says that most of the MLB players of this era did not walk away rich. Templeton and Cowens, for example, did not land anything remotely close to the multi-million dollar contract Vince Coleman scored in 1990. “Most of them were definitely not that high-paid,” Balukjian says. “These guys played in the ’70s and ’80s before the money got insane. Some, like Carlton Fisk and Dwight Gooden, made a ton of money, and some, like Dwight Gooden, blew it. But most did not make that much to begin with.”

Sutcliffe, still an ESPN commentator, showed Balukjian his home in Independence, Missouri. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

Some of the Wax Packers are even paying their good fortune forward through charitable works and donations. Sut and his wife, Robin, for example, launched the Rick Sutcliffe Foundation, which gives $100,000 a year to the mentally disabled, the elderly, ill children, and the unhoused. Al’s cousin Billy Cowens, meanwhile, regularly volunteers with the MLB’s Compton Youth Academy, where inner-city kids get free baseball coaching.

Rance Mulliniks and several other Wax Paxers spoke to Balukjian nostalgically about the bonds they had with their teammates, which is something anyone who’s been on any sort of team can understand.

“I think the escapism of sports-fan culture can turn into longing like, ‘Oh, my life sucks. I wish I could be rich and famous like those guys,'” Balukjian says. “In reality, you already know what it feels like to be a baseball player. If you’ve ever been on a team—and I don’t just mean a literal sports team—if you’ve ever been in an office that had a team that worked together, you’ve experienced the kind of camaraderie that makes baseball special. The players who weren’t able to adjust to regular life were the ones who got attached to the baseball part, or got caught up in their own egos, but didn’t put enough value in the camaraderie part.”

Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Lee “Maz” Mazzilli was known for his good looks. (Courtesy of the Topps Company)

For baseball-card collectors, Balukjian also takes readers inside a now-closed Topps factory in Duryea, Pennsylvania, and explores not only the process of packaging the 1986 cards he bought, but also the friendships the workers had there.

“The book is about demystifying these heroes that we have these little monuments to in the form of baseball cards.”

“The reach baseball has goes far beyond the guys who appear on the cards,” Balukjian says. “Just as the players had camaraderie with their teammates, a similar camaraderie existed between the people who made the cards. It goes to show you all the ways this game brings people together.”

Ultimately, Balukjian’s summer road trip revealed hard truths about fandom and elevating these talented but ordinary men to a god-like status where they become flattened into two-dimensional characters by posters and glossy photos; boxed in by the borders of baseball cards; or represented by coveted totems like signed baseballs, signed bats, and signed jerseys.

“Fans are a lot more similar to baseball players than they realize,” Balukjian says. “I feel closer to the guys because I have more in common with them than I knew. Fan culture can be excessive when it’s overly sycophantic to the players, when they’re lionized like gods or comic-book superheroes. That’s fine when you’re a little kid, but as an adult, fandom should be more about who these guys are as people. You can certainly respect their on-field accomplishments. But we need to remember that the men playing the game are just people.”

Balukjian and his father had dinner with Mazzilli at Ruby’s Oyster Bar and Bistro in Rye, New York. (Courtesy of Brad Balukjian)

(Read all about Brad Balukjian’s adventures uncovering the stories of these 14 baseball players from the 1980s in “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife.” If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)

3 comments so far

  1. Len Brown Says:

    I used to write the backs of the Topps Baseball Cards back in the 1960s and 1970s. Had a great job there for 40 years till retiring to Austin Texas. Worked with Sy Berger, a great guy. Great article….really enjoyed reading it. Would love to see more articles like this.

  2. GEOFFREY EDWARDS Says:

    The story today is Topps Project 2020, never has there been anything like it. Love your concept. Card collector for 65 years.

  3. Joan Says:

    Lisa,
    What a great story! I will miss reading your stories!


Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.