After buying a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards on eBay, Balukjian gags on the ancient gum, then proceeds to drive across the country tracking down each of the 14 players depicted on the cards. Whatever happened to them in their post-baseball life?
He logged 11,341 miles in 48 days, staying at fleabag motels, flirting in skanky bars, stalking players who refused to meet with him, and forging surprisingly deep connections with those who did. During his journey, he reflects on love, lust, his own struggles with obsessive-compulsive order, and the fleeting nature of life.
JULIA SCHEERES: The one thing I do like about baseball is it’s very calm. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of testosterone, you know, running into each other and grunting and tackling. The body-on-body contact doesn’t happen in baseball. How did you get to like baseball and not another sport?
BRAD BALUKJIAN: A lot of kids imprint on the sports their dads like, and from an early age my dad would show me how to read the box scores in the newspaper. I'm sure he’s the person that brought the first baseball cards to me. And he took me to baseball games. Fathers and sons is one of the big themes in my book, and people often ask why the father-son relationship is so integral to baseball. I think a lot of it is that, in my dad’s generation, men were just not willing to be as vulnerable with talking about their feelings, so playing catch or going to a baseball game was a nonverbal way to express love. At a game, you’re sitting there side by side not looking at each other, and we all know that eye contact is something that makes you feel vulnerable and sort of puts you emotionally on the spot, and yet you could sit side by side with your dad for three and a half hours and never look at each other but be watching this game. And so all those hours growing up playing catch and playing Wiffle ball was a way for us to bond and communicate.
Talk about the commonalities that you found with these retired baseball players. They were once your idols and you looked up to them, but now you’ve grown up. How has your perspective changed? What were the most surprising things you found?
I think anyone who grew up with any kind of hero, you know, whether it’s a musician or actor or athlete, can relate to this story. They always say be careful about meeting your heroes because they’ll probably disappoint you, right? And so I was aware of that the whole time and kind of scared about that. When I went and met these guys, there was a part of me that was always in awe of the fact that I was a little kid on the floor of my bedroom organizing their baseball cards and now they’re here in front of me. I think as a culture we tend to worship and really fetishize these athletes as these larger-than-life people, but when I met them I made it clear that I really wasn’t interested in reliving their glory days. I wasn’t going to ask them questions about all their home runs. What I really wanted to know was who they were as people, and what they did when they stopped playing in their mid-30s. To their credit, they were generally very open and willing to let their guard down and trust me and confide in me, and when they did that and they showed me their flaws and their warts, a lot of things came out. Their fathers being abusive, drug or alcohol addiction, strained relationships with their own kids, health issues. It really humanized them in a way that I didn’t expect where I now felt closer to them. By the end of the book, I idolized them less but respected them more.
I talk in the book about my own challenges with OCD and what it’s like to live with an anxiety disorder, and draw parallels to the ways these guys had to manage their own fear and anxiety to be successful in baseball and in life. I never expected this connection. Even the biggest stars deal with the same insecurities that we all deal with on a daily basis, and you know, just because you’re a big star and you are on TV doesn’t mean you’re not terrified being up there. In this book you get a realistic, nuanced view of who these guys are as people, and that made me feel closer to them. Taking them off the pedestal is actually a healthy thing for everyone.
You worked on this project for several years, and you probably had certain expectations of what the book was going to be about. What do you feel like the biggest takeaways were by the time you finished it?
One of the motivations I had for writing a book based on a pack of cards was that my favorite players were always the guys that were not the star players. They were the underdog types.
And why was that?
Because I identify as an underdog myself. When I was a kid, I was a late bloomer and got picked on and bullied and never felt like I fit in, and so I think in a very subconscious way when I saw the guy on the field that was struggling, I identified more with him. So I knew that with a pack of cards, just by chance most of the guys were going to be more of the underdog guys because they are more common. And so I knew that writing this book I would get to write about these underdog guys that, without the device of the pack, I would never get to write about because publishers would never greenlight a book about old obscure baseball players.
But what I found was that the guy in the pack who was the least successful baseball player, a guy named Jaime Cocanower, was the most well-adjusted and happiest guy in his post-baseball life. And so to me one of the things that was satisfying about writing the book was it felt like vindication for the underdog.
One of the things that I love about this book is it’s the little book that could. The people who picked it up, the University of Nebraska Press, is a small press, and you got a low advance, and then it was largely on you to do the marketing. Now you’re an L.A. Times best seller. Can you talk a little about that journey? I think it’s so inspirational for anybody who is a would-be author.
It’s funny how the book became the very underdog that it celebrates. In my writing career, I’d always done short stuff. I got my start as a fact-checker for a travel magazine named Islands, and I would write 300-word pieces in the front of the magazine. And then when I started freelancing the longest story I wrote was probably 1,500 words. But I always wanted to have the space to go long, to write in the in the way that I was trained as an undergrad at Duke University, which was the New Journalism, creative nonfiction. But the publishing landscape has changed so much since I graduated in 2002. It’s much harder to get paid to write those types of longform magazine stories, right? So books are the last place where you can have the space to practice that type of writing.
I wanted to write something in that New Journalism vein, which meant me being in the story as a character even though that’s something that’s not done much anymore. And so when I was trying to sell it and got rejected 38 times, one of the common reasons was well, we don’t publish this kind of book. They wanted to take me out of the story or to just focus on the baseball.
Did you ever consider, if this publisher says, “If you rewrite the book in this way, we might be interested,” did you ever stop and think, “Oh, I’m going to try and do it that way”?
I would always stop and think about it, but maybe it’s just me being stubborn, but I always was like, if I can't do it the way I want to do it, then I’m not interested. I’m not willing to follow the trend or do what other people want me to do if I don’t believe in it, even if it makes more money or it’s easier to sell. And so I basically stuck to my guns and said, “No, I want to do it this way.” And I truly believe that it’s a better book the way that I did it instead of what they were proposing. It took so long to get published because of all that rejection and going through a couple of different agents and ultimately, I ended up not even having an agent. The University of Nebraska was willing to take a chance on it, which I’m always grateful for.
Even still, when I went to visit the team at Nebraska and asked them how many copies they thought we could sell, they said a few thousand, and seemed skeptical when I said I thought we could sell 10,000. We’re now up to around 14,000, and the book’s been out for four months.
How did you do that?
Nebraska’s PR team has been helpful, sending out review copies and finished copies and supporting my efforts, but I knew right from the start that I was going to have to do the lion’s share of the marketing work. They told me right off the bat that the advertising budget was minimal. So it’s been straight-up exhausting hustle on my part. It started nine months before the book came out, cold emailing people like Susan Orlean and George Will asking them if they would blurb the book. I was floored by their generosity to even answer those emails, and then even more floored when they liked the book and gladly blurbed it. I used those blurbs to get more attention from prospective reviewers, and then used those reviews to get attention for other media coverage. It’s a very iterative process of momentum. But it’s also a ton of work. I wrote individual emails to hundreds of librarians, sportswriters, and booksellers asking if they would give me a chance. And I also benefited from hiring a sports publicist, who got me in touch with several writers. One story from the AP went viral and pushed me to the L.A. Times best-seller list. Of course, your book has to be good to sell well, but being good alone is no longer enough. There’s no doubt my book would not be as successful if I had not treated promotion as a full-time job. I personally don’t think writers should have to do as much heavy lifting as we do on promotion, because that is not what we are trained to do, and the writing itself is a full-time job, but the state of the industry mandates that investment.
Julia Scheeres is the New York Times–bestselling author of Jesus Land and A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown.