One Pack. No Turning Back.
Number of miles driven today: 302
Total miles driven on road trip: 7,588
Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? Dunkin' Donuts.
Starbucks' record (# of days Starbucks was more common): 20-14-2
Dunkin' Donuts' record: 14-20-2
Cheapest gas I saw today: $2.69
Number of states visited overall: 21
Number of red states visited overall (as of 2012 presidential election): 10 (Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina)
Number of blue states visited overall: 11 (California, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts)
Best baseball-related item spotted in downtown Cooperstown: A hat that read "I love Kent Tekulve"
Number of professional wrestlers spotted in downtown Cooperstown: 1 (Ric Flair)
Number of young attractive women surrounding Flair: 3 (Wooooooo!)
Several people have asked me how I've managed to get access to the players in the wax pack, considering I am just another guy without any special connections. The answer is lots and lots of research, networking, and Googling. But many times it's come down to a simple phone call. Now it does help to have certain writing credentials (having been published in places like the Los Angeles Times and National Geographic doesn't hurt), but I am certainly not a sportswriter and do not have an overwhelming journalistic pedigree.
In a way, this project has been the truest test of these ex-players' character precisely because I am a no name writer. You can tell a lot about how good a guy somebody is based on their reaction to a request from a complete stranger who is providing no obvious benefit other than a small ego boost. If Bob Costas approached one of these players, they would know that Costas' name alone would pay big dividends in media attention. But Brad Balukjian?
Which makes it that much more impressive how cooperative and generous most of the players in the pack have been. Mulliniks, Yeager, Templeton, Carman, Cocanower, Ready, Hebner, and Mazzilli all gave me quality time. Gooden was willing to as well, but personal issues and bad timing interfered. Pettis was limited by his manager A.J. Hinch's policy of not having assistant coaches talk to the press. I am scheduled to meet with the last two players in the pack, Rick Sutcliffe and the family of the late Al Cowens, down the home stretch of the trip.
That leaves two: Vincent Van Go (Vince Coleman) and Carlton Fisk.
If you've been following the blog, you know the almost comical lengths I've gone to in search of Mr. Van Go. His elusiveness and propensity for batshit crazy/delusional quotes ("I prefer cyclones to earthquakes because I know I can outrun a cyclone;" "the infield grass in Shea Stadium is keeping me out of Cooperstown;" "home runs are overrated") has made him an almost mythic creature in my eyes, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. The legend of Van Go continues to grow with each rejection and missed turn I take.
Fisk is another story.
I didn't have any expectation but failure for Fisk at the outset of the project, due to his reputation for being a recluse and a bit of a grouch and because his status as a Hall of Famer means he likely gets more requests from the media than the other players in the pack. In the very first draft of the book proposal, I titled the chapter about Fisk "Chasing Carlton" and anticipated that it would be more about the hunt than the catch.
On the field, there can be no doubting Fisk's accomplishments. Off the field, he is known for having the disposition of a marooned crab. Someone recently told me that he even turned down the aforementioned Bob Costas recently for a reunion special on the 1975 Red Sox (Costas, along with Michael J. Fox and George Stephenopoulos, form my triangle of impossibly likable short-statured TV personalities)
So I wasn't surprised when I reached out to his agent several weeks before the trip began and received this answer: "Thank you for your interest in Carlton. Unfortunately, he is going to pass at this time."
I reset, launching Operation Chasing Carlton in Sarasota, Florida, where I posed as a prospective home buyer in order to gain access to the $25,000 a pop exclusive golf and home resort where he regularly plays. It worked beautifully, except for the fact that Carlton was not there that day.
I had a trump card, however. Thanks to several of you, I was notified that Fisk would be signing autographs (for a hefty fee, of course) at the Hall of Fame Induction weekend in July.
If you can't beat 'em, pay 'em.
And so, I found myself in downtown Cooperstown today, standing outside the Tunnicliff Inn among a horde of fellow jock worshippers, waiting for my number to be called. Cooperstown on induction weekend resembles a WalMart Supercenter in North Dakota on a Sunday afternoon--in other words, not exactly a bastion of diversity. Two blocks of Main St. were completely roped off for the masses to roam, a surprising tide of bright orange and yellow as the Houston Astros' Craig Biggio turned out to be the crowd favorite among this year's inductees.
A sweaty, breathless white man appeared every few minutes in the Inn doorway, addressing the crowd like an auctioneer teetering on a coronary, trying desperately to maintain some semblance of order.
I had paid my $69 to get Fisk's autograph. But this was not going to be your run-of-the-mill Sharpie job. No, no, no. I had bigger plans for Carlton.
As a Hail Mary/last word/harmless prank, I had decided that in addition to having Carlton sign my 1986 Topps card, I would give him my autograph. For free. Personally inscribed. (Carlton charges extra for inscriptions.) And, knowing that he is an avid orchid collector, I bought him a card with an orchid on the front (see photo above) and wrote him a message inside. (I had purchased the card at a floral shop and asked for any card picturing an orchid; the one I selected happen to say "Missing You.") Here is what my handwritten message said:
I know you like orchids, which is why I picked this card. Steve Yeager, Garry Templeton, Rance Mulliniks, Randy Ready, Jaime Cocanower, Lee Mazzilli, Rick Sutcliffe, Richie Hebner, and the rest of the wax pack miss you, as do I--would have been great to have you as part of the project (not sure why you turned us down). But it's not too late--give me a call if you're so inclined.
I slid my business card inside.
For my autograph, I blew up and printed out an 8x10 glossy (see photo above) and wrote: "Dear Carlton, All the Best!, Brad Balukjian" adding "1998 Wheeler School Tennis Coach's Award" in the spot usually reserved for players to write "HOF 2000" or "World Series MVP 1986."
The drenched auctioneer finally called my number, and I entered the dank lobby of the old hotel with several other Fisk fans. I was directed to a small room with several long tables set up along the perimeter. Behind the tables sat a cheerful Jim Rice, an old Joe Morgan, my man Carlton, and what I believe was Wade Boggs, although I couldn't quite tell if it was really him or a wax likeness borrowed from the Wax Museum down the street. He looked like he had done everything a scalpel and a bottle of red hair dye can do to preserve his appearance exactly as it was in 1986.
Carlton looked good, fit in a white polo shirt, and even--gasp!--smiling. He obliged fans' requests to take pictures with him after they forked over their price of a lobster tail/filet mignon dinner, even making small talk ("You really ran across the Golden Gate Bridge?" he asked the woman in front of me, reading her t-shirt).
When my time came, I steeled myself. Go time.
I slid the '86 Topps card in front of him, and while he brandished a blue Sharpie, I sprang into action.
"Carlton, since you're probably so tired of everyone asking for your autograph, I thought I'd give you one of mine," I said, unsheathing my autograph like a glossy Excalibur.
"And since I know you love orchids, I got you a card," I said, dropping the "Missing You" missive in his wooden lap.
The girl seated next to him, presumably one of his representatives, giggled. He looked up at me, slack-jawed, baffled.
"Um, good!" he said.
I collected his autographed card, thanked him, and spun away, glancing back to see him flip open the card to scan the message inside.
My lasting image of Carlton Fisk is of him seated at a table watching my business card tumble out of the card, my blown-up autographed face staring at him from below.
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Day 37: Greenville, RI to Cooperstown, NY, 7.25.15