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What Happens to Baseball Players When They Leave the Game?

Writer Brad Balukjian opened a pack of Topps baseball cards from 1986 and decided to track down the players. A story about life after baseball quickly became about fathers, sons, and retribution.

Flickr/tcp909 (CC 2.0); Topps via Ebay

Like all great sports books, Brad Balukjian’s The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife , out now, isn’t about sports. It’s about what happens when a baseball player steps away from the game and into a strange, new world that’s normal to nearly everyone else. Also: fathers and sons. 

Balukjian, a biologist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in Slate, Rolling Stone, and The Los Angeles Times, bought a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards in 2014. He opened up an eBay-purchased pack and followed up with these 14 cardboard gods nearly 30 years later. 

Seriously. After tracking down the players on the Internet, in the summer of 2015, Balukjian crisscrossed the United States, heading to San Marcos, CA, , Naples, FL, and Kansas City. He wanted to learn how these players transitioned to a new life “at a still very young age, which is something that no other profession — other than maybe like a mathematician has to deal with — where your skills are gone by the time you’re 35.”

Yes, The Wax Pack is a poignant, riveting travelogue about what happens when athletes leave a closed-off world of privilege and enter reality. But as Balukjian spends time with Randy Ready (a veteran utility man) and Don Carman (the unforgiving competitor turned sports psychologist) and Rick Sutcliffe (the former Cy Young winner), we see how their fathers shaped the men’s professional careers and their relationships with their children now. (Balukjian also contributes, setting things straight with his father.) It’s one layer in a rich character study of heroes becoming mortals. 

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And, like sports, there are winners and losers. Fatherly talked to Balukjian, 39, who directs the Natural History and Sustainability Program at Merritt College in Oakland, CA, about The Wax Pack’s unexpected theme, what his conversations taught him about fathers and sons, and how it made him seek resolution with his own dad.  

On your trip, when did you realize that fathers would be a main theme? 

I would probably say around Randy Ready. I stayed true to the chronology [of the trip], so it’s good luck it worked this way. Rance [Mulliniks’] dad was sort of this wonderful, attentive father he idolized, which sort of sets you up for this false sense of like, “Oh, this is going to be good.” And then you get [Steve] Yeager and his revelation about his dad getting wasted in the clubhouse. Then we get to Ready’s story. I knew his dad had died when he was fairly young. My thoughts going into that chapter were this is really about Dorene [Ready’s first wife] and the heart attack, but then, by surprise, the stuff with his dad came out. That anecdote about how his dad built him a pitcher’s mound and he threw one pitch and then never again. Then he told me about the last time he saw him. His dad wanted to hug him and he was like, “No, guys shake hands.” He never got a chance to hug him.  

Then Randy Ready has six kids who are all boys, which is too, too crazy. It’s almost like the universe is saying, “Okay, your dad didn’t get it right. I’m going to give you six chances to get it right.” That’s when I really started to see, “Oh, there’s something here.” And it kept going from there. By the end, I had become numb to this theme, unfortunately, because it’s come up so many times, the trauma around the father relationship. 

Was there a moment that prompted you to talk to your dad, whom you felt didn’t approve of your approach to life? 

The dynamic that I described with my dad is something that I’ve carried for a long time, that’s always been there as an adult. He’s never going to be the one to reach out to talk about the elephant in the room. I’m going to have to be the one to talk about this. I don’t think my dad was particularly bothered by having this sort of barrier in our relationship. And so I just saw it as an opportunity. Quite honestly, I felt like I needed to say it. Sometimes in life you feel compelled to say something, you have to get it out even if it’s going to cause difficulty. I’m just a very honest person and I didn’t like carrying this feeling around with me anymore.

I really wanted to get across in that passage — just like I did to my dad — it wasn’t about getting his approval or his reaction. In fact, even though I knew, in all reality, it wouldn’t even necessarily change our relationship that much. And it hasn’t, because he is who he is. He’s not going to suddenly, at age 71, now become this open book type. Then he kind of surprised me when he said, “I already know all that.” But I just needed to go through the process of saying those things to him, because I didn’t want him to think that the choices that I make in my life are a rejection of him. I still love him. I still respect him even though I disagree with him. And I didn’t want him to think that with all these things I’m doing in my life, I’m not trying to punish him. I’m not trying to say I don’t want to have kids because you messed me up with your divorce. It’s just this is who I am. And it means a lot to me that he still accepts me and loves me and all that despite those differences.

At least I know that he knows. We’ve talked about it. We’ve had that moment. It was really bizarre to me when I had him read the book. I was really nervous to hear what he thought. In journalism you’re working with subjects who know literally that you’re writing things down and taking all these notes, but they have no idea until they read what you wrote how you’re actually portraying it. He doesn’t know that as those things were happening, that this is necessarily what I was thinking. So, he told me, and it was a classic reaction from my dad, or a lot of our dads from that era: “Oh, it’s a great book. I loved it.” Very effusive, but never once brought up the stuff from that chapter. I know that he appreciated it. I know that he liked it and was proud of it. I could force him to talk about it, but I don’t want to do that.

My dad is 74 and he’s very much from that generation of stoicism. I’ve had heart-to hearts with him about certain things. The fact that I felt better about it, I think that’s good for me. But it’s also good for him, because he knows. It’s out in the open. It sounds like it’s very much the same thing.

That’s a great way to put it: the generation of stoicism. That was another thing that was fun with this book. My dad wasn’t one of the Wax Packers, but he kind of is. He’s the same age as all these guys.

Rick Sutcliffe tells his daughter every time they talk that he loves her. Don Carman is doing a 180 from what his dad did. It seems like we’re getting away from that stoic attitude. I know I’m trying to do that. 

That’s one of the positive things from the book: the father-son relationship works in multiple directions. It’s not only the World War II generation to the Baby Boomers, it’s now the Baby Boomers to Generation X making the adjustments. And I would argue Generation X to Millennials, we’re doing it even better. To me, the book is largely about vulnerability and celebrating vulnerability and really redefining what heroism is.

As a kid these guys were my heroes, but it was a very asymmetrical relationship, where they’re larger than life and on a pedestal. And now I get to meet them as an adult where we’re more on the same level, and are they still heroic? The answer being yes, but for entirely unexpected reasons. Right now, their heroism is more about their vulnerability, which takes courage. Real courage and strength is more about that than it is hitting a guy with a baseball or the sort of aggression that typified the older school view of masculinity. 

When you’re an athlete your heroism is contained to a stage with a certain number of conditions. It’s all enclosed. Here, you’re being swallowed by real life. To step up every day is heroic. 

We’re all a lot more similar to these guys than we ever realized. There’s really not that much separating us from them, other than their skill when they play baseball. They’re dealing with the same shit we deal with. 

I don’t know if it’s possible to be a major league baseball player, where you’re required to have this focus on one thing and you’re away for so long and be a good father. I hope I’m wrong. 

It’s not conducive to fatherhood. There are so few players that are bachelors or don’t have kids. Just go down the list. You have Randy Ready, who said when he retired, “Okay, it’s time to go home and learn everyone’s name.”

You’re going from this very cloistered existence into something else. 

I use this analogy of baseball players having two lives. That first life, a baseball player, is completely unrealistic. I was in spring training and I was just watching these guys mill around in the dugout, on the field. It’s just so much fun. You’re surrounded by all these other guys that have similar personalities — competitive and fun and young. You have everything taken care of in terms of your day-to-day and your structure and you go out and you play a game. Your family is far away. 

We talked before about how stoicism has segued into men being more sympathetic. In the book, you wrote how Don Carman and Rick Sutcliffe “weaponized” their anger toward their fathers. If you were to write a sequel to the book 20 years later, do you think you’re going to see players using that lack of love or support from a father as fuel for athletic performance?

No, I think it’d be different. I think that’s kind of the neat thing about this concept of the pack is that you would get different teams coming out depending on the era. So, the father-son theme might not be quite the big issue now, but there’s going to definitely be other common issues. It’s also created a bit of conflict or confusion for me in analyzing that thing you just pointed out. It’s traumatic and it’s sad that these guys dealt with this kind of abuse and, yet honestly, it did probably help them become better baseball players.

So how do you square that? You don’t want anyone to go through that. Yet would Don Carman have made the major leagues if he were not so angry? He didn’t have the natural skills, but he had the work ethic and he had the ambition and the drive. The same with Sutcliffe. Would he have been so intimidating if he wasn’t so angry? 

What’s the biggest lesson you got in observing those dynamics about fatherhood? 

If you have kids, everyone has the opportunity to be a hero. Whether you take the opportunity or not, that’s on you. The first thing is being honest with yourself, understanding yourself, understanding the present moment. And then as Don Carman kept reiterating, [realizing] how important your behavior is, your actions. We put so much emphasis in our society on our thoughts and our feelings, which are important, but really the thing that you can control is your behavior. To see how many of these men very consciously changed or behaved in a way where they said, “I’m not going to do what was done to me and I’m going to cultivate this very loving, compassionate relationship with my kids.” I’m not a parent, but I know that when you’re a parent, your kids are just completely vulnerable and sort of at your mercy. You have so much power to shape that person. To see the way these guys have approached fatherhood—spending time with them; telling their kids they loved them — that was very uplifting. 

After going on this trip, do you have any inclination to be a dad?

Well, I wouldn’t say it’s changed my feeling about it. Right now, I’m not looking to have kids. I don’t rule it out either. I think that everyone needs love in their life and connection. That’s a universal human instinct and need. What that connection and love looks like, what the label is, varies from a best friend to family to a romantic partner. You need to find that however you can. To me, the romantic relationship is one. And the kids’ relationship is one of those. If you have kids for the right reasons, then I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. The father-son or parent-child relationship is truly unique because of that asymmetry. I’ve always been surprised as an adult that as angry as I’ve gotten with my parents, they never seemed to be quite as angry with me as I am with them. And I think that’s because they know what it was like to hold this little eight-pound infant. They can remember what it was like for me to be so powerless and helpless. Kids can’t look at their parents in the same way.

I think if I was a father I would enjoy and get a lot out of that. But I think, like everything in life, everything is a choice. And so, when I think about having kids myself, it’s a choice that comes with tradeoffs. And the question is, do I want to trade off a lot of the freedoms that I have not having kids, for having them? I don’t know. I’ve not decided for sure that I do want to make that tradeoff. 

But one of the things I love that comes out of the book from all these guys is the importance of agency. Everything is a choice, and your behavior is what you have control over.