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How a random pack of old baseball cards made the LA Times bestseller list

How a random pack of old baseball cards made the LA Times bestseller list

A few years after starting to cover baseball as a full-time beat writer many years ago, I ran into an old mentor at the ballpark I hadn’t seen in a long time and asked if he wanted to join a few of us for drinks after the game.

He’d be there, he said, but he didn’t drink anymore. Couldn’t. Not like he used to. Not after all those years covering baseball finally taught him what he didn’t want to know — just in time for a columnist job to come along and save him. 

“This beat will expose your demons,” he said. “Whatever they are.”

It’s a haunting truth for any of the countless, often faceless, people who ever have subjected themselves and their families to the lifestyle of baseball’s traveling circus, whether as one of the stars of the Big Top, one of the carnies, or even one of the media clowns.

And whether Brad Balukjian sought that particular truth when he set out on a seven-week, cross-country journey to track down the stories of 14 players from a single pack of 1986 baseball cards, he found it along with chapter after chapter of surprisingly candid interviews, emotional revelations and sharply written observations in "The Wax Pack," which reached the Los Angeles Times bestseller list last week.

RELATED: Even Giants legend Willie Mays can’t catch ‘em all — just ask the Cubs

“The reality is everybody has something,” said Balukjian, who joined the Cubs Talk Podcast to talk about the book. “Whether it’s physical, mental, [you’re] famous, not famous, none of us get off without having something to deal with, and so that’s kind of what I wanted to tap into in the way that I approached the book.”

The book, which features a Hall of Famer (Carlton Fisk), two Cy Young Award winners (Rick Sutcliffe, Dwight Gooden), a one-time All-Star (Lee Mazzilli) and Balukjian favorite Don Carman, is like 14 mini-biographies woven through an autobiography you don’t see coming as it unfolds across 11,000 miles of highway and 123 cups of coffee in the summer of 2015.

On his website, the author said the book in part turned into a “meditation on the loss of innocence [and] what it means to grow up.”

It’s also about fathers and sons, strength and frailty, success and failure, humor and a lot of very personal, sometimes odd details.

We learn, for instance, that both Steve Yeager and Garry Templeton abruptly stopped drinking once they finished big-league careers that included a lot of it.

“One of the themes in the book is about the importance of behavior vs. thoughts and feelings,” said Balukjian, who centers much of the book’s thematic wisdom in the chapter spent with his childhood idol, Carman — now a sports psychologist who works for agent Scott Boras.

“Don Carman makes a big point to say you can’t control your thoughts and your feelings. you can only control your reaction to them. What these players were really good at was … essentially knowing that all they can control is their behavior. Someone like Yeager and Templeton recognizing their own demons, or their potential to be consumed by drinking, made that decision that, ‘OK, I’m just going to stop.’”

As much as anything, the book was the result of an inspired concept and a labor of love — emphasis on labor during a process to find a publisher that consumed the lifespans of two book-agent relationships and included 38 rejections over five years.

“The idea using a pack to get a random sample came to me very quickly and suddenly,” said Balukjian, who already had a fascination with typically lesser-light players and a desire to take on a where-are-they-now project. “It just seemed like it was this device that captured the excitement of the unknown that we all remember from opening packs as kids.”

But that might have been the only part that came easily during a project he pulled off with a 13-year-old car, a tight budget and a list of players that included one who had died too young (Al Cowens) and another who proved nearly as elusive (Fisk).

“For Fisk — well, for any of the guys — I decided I was still going to try to find them and tell their stories,” said Balukjian, who devoted two chapters to stalking the Red Sox and White Sox legend, including an undercover operation at a Florida country club.

“I found out from a source where he golfs at this really exclusive resort,” said Balukjian, who then posed as a wealthy snowbird looking for a home on the golf course. 

“It may not have been the most well conceived plan thinking that I could pass myself off as a multimillionaire coming in with a 2002 Honda Accord with 100,000 miles on it and peeling paint,” he said. “But it was one of the more fun chapters. The book has a lot of heaviness and some very somber moments to it. The Fisk chapter was a sort of fun diversion.”

Balukjian did not find Fisk at the resort. In fact, attempts by the Cubs Talk Podcast to have Fisk on with Balukjian also were unsuccessful.

Which is not to say the author did not get his face time, however brief. And it’s definitely worth reading about.

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Cubs, MLB persist as high-profile COVID-19 cases reported across baseball

Cubs, MLB persist as high-profile COVID-19 cases reported across baseball

A reporter asking Cubs manager David Ross about the COVID-19 news out of Atlanta on Saturday used the word “shocking” to describe it.

But there’s nothing left to shock us about this pandemic — not spiking coronavirus infection rates across large swaths of the country, a national death toll of 132,000 or even one of the biggest stars in the National League being stricken with what looks like a tough case of the virus.

Freddie Freeman’s case — which prompted the Braves first baseman’s wife to take to Instagram to plead for Americans to take the virus seriously and to wear masks — is a sobering reminder the needle baseball is trying to thread during a pandemic and potentially instructive for the Cubs and other teams.

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Most of you might know by now... Freddie tested positive for Covid-19 last night. He has had body aches, headaches, chills and a high fever since Thursday. He is someone who literally never gets sick and this virus hit him like a ton of bricks. We’ve been really strict for the last 4 months. Haven’t gone to a grocery store, haven’t gone out to dinner once, haven’t seen our friends and only allowed family at our house and we still got it. So far, Charlie, Carol and I are ok. We appreciate all the messages and prayers, please keep them coming for healing and protection for the rest of our family. 🗣Please take this virus seriously, wear a mask when in public and wash you hands frequently.

A post shared by Chelsea Freeman 📍OC & ATL (@chelseafreeman5) on

It’s also especially personal to Cubs such as Ross and right-fielder Jason Heyward, both former Freeman teammates.

“It definitely hits closer to home,” said Heyward, who texted with his former roommate.

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But shocking?

If anything, the shocking part of Saturday was that the Cubs played a baseball game — albeit, a short intrasquad game that featured scoreless pitching performances by Kyle Hendricks (three innings) and Yu Darvish (two), and double to the left-center gap off Darvish by Javy Báez.

MORE: Why the Cubs were ready for an intrasquad scrimmage on Day 2 of Summer Camp

For an hour or two of practice before that, and the hour or so of “game,” it looked almost normal.

Then the masks were back, the players washing and scattering and planning to try to make it happen without incident one more time on Sunday. Then Monday. Then Tuesday and so on.

“We all know some of us are going to test positive coming into this,” Heyward said.

In fact, that’s the most shocking part of MLB’s startup of summer training camps this week: Only 1.2 percent of the first 3,185 intake tests of players and other personnel produced positive results — a clear victory for league-wide discipline and apparent respect for safe practices.

On the other hand, those results didn’t include all of the intake testing done during the week. They also didn’t include the positive tests of players and staff that teams already were aware of — including at least 12 from the Phillies more than two weeks ago.

And a cautionary detail of Freeman’s case is that he reportedly tested negative during intake testing — before getting hit “like a ton of bricks” by the virus Thursday, according to his wife’s Instagram post.

“Literally, we just take this thing day to day,” Ross said. “We’re all to some extent worried what the next day may bring. So, this is an added stress to the season. 

“All the guys are on board with following the protocols and understanding that’s what it takes to keep everybody safe as possible.”

The Cubs have done as good a job of respecting protocols and preparing for this moon shot of a 60-game MLB season this summer as anyone in the game. They didn’t have a player test positive during intake testing.

“We know it’s going to be very different this year,” Hendricks said. “But we’re embracing all the changes, following everything we can follow and just lucky we can be playing baseball again.”

But even while the Cubs experienced what Hendricks called their “a little sense of normalcy with everything that’s going on” during a drama-free day of baseball under a sunny sky at Wrigley Field, the Phillies added ace pitcher Aaron Nola to the COVID-19 injured list, the Yankees reported that former batting champion DJ LeMahieu was one two Yankees to test positive, and the Dodgers announced that former Cy Young winner David Price had become the sixth known player to opt-out of the 2020 season (after reconsidering the health risk to himself and family).

And even before the Freeman news broke out of Atlanta — which also included three other positive tests and a coach (former Cub Eric Young) opting out — the Royals announced that the American League’s most decorated catcher, Salvador Perez, also had tested positive.

Does all of it mean baseball can’t pull off the next 15 weeks or so of training, regular-season and full schedule of playoffs?

Maybe not. But it's at least a stark reminder that MLB had a tenuous grasp at best on controlling its ability to make it happen, that every day of this process is a high-alert stress test with no assurances under conditions of perfect behavior league-wide.

And then it starts over the next morning.

“The pandemic is in control,” Cubs president Theo Epstein stressed when talking about baseball’s undertaking a few days ago.

That’s why on a Saturday when new infections in the country topped 50,000 for the third consecutive day, news out of Atlanta — or New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia or any other stricken baseball locale — was anything but shocking.

Maybe baseball can navigate this shaky moment during the startup and avoid enough of the growing spread of this virus to have more days like the Cubs had on a beautiful Saturday afternoon at Wrigley.

Maybe even enough of those days to reach October — maybe even enough to turn this “new normal” into something truly shocking.

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Why the Cubs were ready for an intrasquad scrimmage on Day 2 of Summer Camp

Why the Cubs were ready for an intrasquad scrimmage on Day 2 of Summer Camp

The American flag waved in the breeze over an intrasquad scrimmage Saturday at Wrigley Field. It wasn’t the production the venue had come to expect on Fourth of July.

“This is one of those days that screams America’s pastime,” Cubs manager David Ross said.

Without fans in the stands, the whirl of the press box ceiling fans filled the silence between pitches. But any kind of baseball on the holiday was a victory during the coronavirus pandemic. It was just the second day of Cubs Summer Camp, and already the team had advanced to game simulations. Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks each took the mound, Darvish for two innings and Hendricks for three, with half the Cubs donning white jerseys and the other half blue.  

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"There's no substitute for live looks," Ross said.

The fact that Darvish and Hendricks were ready to throw multiple innings bodes well for the Cubs. From examining the results of a shortened 1995 Spring Training, some in baseball are concerned that this season’s schedule could put pitchers at higher risk for lower-body soft-tissue injuries.

“Overall as a group, we did an unbelievable job talking to individual guys of staying on routine, staying on programs,” Hendricks said of the pitching staff. “A lot of guys threw a lot throughout the quarantine. I feel really good where I’m at as far as schedule-wise. I think I can say the same for most guys around here.”

Hendricks stayed in Arizona after Spring Training shut down, which even gave him opportunities to throw to live batters before reporting to Summer Camp.

During the hiatus, hitters also faced restricitons when looking for batting practice. Ross said everyone on the team at least had a tee and a net to hit into, but several found opportunities to stand in against live pitching in Arizona, including Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora and Ian Happ.

“I think more than we were expecting, as players,” Jason Heyward said. “And I don’t say that in a way of not wanting to work, but just given the situation, we all want to be careful. I’m just happy guys found a way to do that.”

Heyward said during the break he only had one day of live batting practice before returning to Chicago a little over a month ago. But he settled in quickly on Saturday, hitting a hard ground ball into center field for the first hit of the game.

Technically, the two-and-a-half inning scrimmage ended in a scoreless tie. But it had some quirks.

“The pitch counts will be limited per inning,” Ross said before the game, “so we may clear the bases if we need to.”

They did. Hendricks loaded the bases in the top of the second inning. But he was saved by the pitch count as Anthony Rizzo stepped up to the plate.

“I put up a zero, so that’s what I’m going to take from it,” Hendricks said, laughing. “I wasn’t wanting to get off the field there, no. I’m sure (Rizzo) wasn’t either.”

Light-hearted boos sounded from the first-base dugout as the Blue team jogged in to grab their gloves.

“I think everybody had fun out there” Hendricks said.

 

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