Book Excerpt: The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife

Howard Cole

With the sixth installment of our book excerpt series, we are proud to highlight the volume that everyone is talking about, "The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife," by Brad Balukjian, published in April by University of Nebraska Press.

Continuing as we have with the others in the series, we begin with an author-in-his-own words description of the book, and an introduction to the chosen chapter; in this case, about Rick Sutcliffe.

From Brad Balukjian:

“As a work of narrative nonfiction, The Wax Pack's overarching story line is my quest to find all the players in a single pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards on an 11,341-mile road trip. Unlike many nonfiction baseball books, I am very much an active character in the narrative and serve as the "bridge" between players. This excerpt, Chapter 16, picks up with me nearing the end of the journey and on the verge of meeting up with ex-Dodger Rick Sutcliffe in a suburb of Kansas City. This chapter works well as a stand-alone, with Sut taking me on a whirlwind tour around his hometown. While many of the players were settled in retirement, Sut was still active as an ESPN broadcaster, and I was fortunate to catch him mid-season. I was stunned by how much he was willing to share with me, a stranger, and grateful for how vulnerable he was willing to be. In many ways, this chapter is a microcosm of the bigger themes of the book - our relationship with fear, the loss of innocence, and the pivotal importance of our relationships with our fathers. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.”

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Excerpt begins here:

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Driving can be a meditative experience, especially when you’ve only brought six cds on a seven- week road trip and can’t stomach the idea of one more sing- along with Whitesnake. The plains of the central United States envelop the Accord as I press west past vast tracts of farm and pasture land, with only my random thoughts to keep me company. 

During the long straightaways, I text with Jesse and the Kid, our adventures with Rance in Visalia feeling like years, not weeks, ago. I even correspond a bit with Sophia back in Naples, who writes, “Sick of old baseball players yet?” and says she is thinking about visiting the Bay Area for work. A rainstorm appears out of nowhere and pummels my windshield, heavy drops of water exploding on my hood like minigeysers as I squint to see the road, slowing down to avoid hydroplaning. 

I’m tired, but I don’t want to sleep. I’m lonely, but I don’t want company. I want to get back to Oakland, but I never want this fantasy to end. There’s a part of this whole thing that still doesn’t seem real. Every time I scroll through my phone and see “Don Carman” and “Lee Mazzilli” right alongside “Mom” and “Jesse” I have to pinch myself. 

I’m now in the home stretch, having logged almost eight thousand miles to get across the country and now needing to get all the way back in just a few days. I’m due home in Oakland in a week, but first I’ll be stopping in Kansas City to see the penultimate Wax Packer, Rick Sutcliffe, a dominant pitcher of the 1980s who’s now a broadcaster for espn, and then on to California to resurrect Al Cowens, who passed away thirteen years ago. I worry that my leads on Al have run cold— his widow, Velma, hasn’t returned any of my recent calls, and his oldest son, Purvis, said he may not make it down from his home in Oregon as originally scheduled. Without their help, it will be just me all alone in the streets of Watts and Compton, where Al grew up, chasing ghosts. 

But Al’s apparition will have to wait. First, I’ve got to find Rick Sutcliffe.

I park in front of Dixon’s Famous Chili (Since 1919!) on Route 40 in Independence, Missouri, the hometown of Harry Truman and Rick Sutcliffe, known to most as “Sut.” A suburb of Kansas City, Independence touts itself as “the Queen City of the Trails,” the launching point for the California, Oregon, and Santa Fe Trails during frontier expansion in the nineteenth century. Right now it’s the launching point for home, as I have a straight shot from here back to California. 

From the looks of it, Independence peaked during Sut’s childhood in the 1960s. Next to Dixon’s is a storefront with a blank sign, and next to that is a place called Oddessy Martial Arts Supply advertising the following: pepper spray, stun guns, knives, and swords. 

Since I’m all set on swords, I sit with the Accord’s door open and wait for Sut to arrive. 

The 1984 National League Cy Young Award winner, Sut beat hitters before they even stepped foot in the batter’s box. At six feet seven on an already elevated pitcher’s mound, he could wither hitters with his mane of bright red hair and no- nonsense glare. Intimidation and a nasty fastball/slider/curveball made him the highest- paid pitcher in all of baseball in 1985. Following his retirement in 1995 at age thirty- eight, he went to the low Minor Leagues to coach and eventually found a second life as a broadcaster. Now he’s a staple on ESPN's Wednesday Night Baseball and Baseball Tonight. 

A black Ford Expedition pulls up. The passenger- side window rolls down to reveal a pair of bloodshot green eyes. 

“What’s going on, man?” Sut says in a laid- back tone as I climb into the front seat. He’s wearing a baseball hat with sunglasses perched on top, a black golf shirt, and white shorts. The man once nicknamed the Red Baron appears to be graying, judging by the fringe of hair peeking out below his hat, although his goatee is still ginger. 

“Not much,” I reply, shaking his massive hand. “Are you happy to be home?” 

“Yeah, but it’s just for a day,” he replies. He tells me about his plans for tonight, which slightly exceed mine at the Comfort Inn in downtown Kansas City. “Kenny Chesney is hosting a dinner onstage tonight for his friends,” he says. “I met him when I was finishing up playing with the Cardinals.” Tomorrow, he’ll watch him perform live at Arrowhead Stadium. 

Sut’s carved out a morning for me during his hectic, in- season schedule; as an ESPN commentator, he’s responsible for about twenty- five games per year and another twenty- five appearances in the studio. He just got back from covering the Astros/Angels game in Houston. 

“So what’s your story?” Sut asks as we turn around to head toward his old high school, part of the tour of his hometown he has promised. Having been part of the media himself for the past twenty years, Sut isn’t like the other Wax Packers— he’s used to asking the questions rather than answering them. 

I tell him about my hybrid career as a professor and writer and remind him of the premise of the book. He chuckles, amused. “You look like you could still be in college,” he says. 

Before I can even ask any questions, he starts narrating as we drive the leafy streets of Independence. “My parents divorced when I was eleven. My dad was a race car driver, so they were gone all summer, and we always stayed with my grandparents on my mom’s side. When they got divorced, we just moved in with my grandparents,” he says, pointing out their old home. Even before his parents split, his life was full of disruption. “We moved around a lot as a kid with my parents [he has a brother and sister]. We bought a house, bought another house, then another one. . . . I think I changed schools like seven times. My friends were always changing. It wasn’t a lot of fun, really. I was always trying to fit in.” 

I instantly like him. He’s open, introspective, thoughtful. I ask one question, and he carries on for several minutes, but not in a self- aggrandizing way. 

Sut learned humility and hard work from an early age. When he was still a young child his dad put him to work in his grandpa’s landscaping business. “From the time I was eight till I was fifteen, I worked in the fields. You’d get there when the sun’d come up, and you’d roll sod in the field and stack it on a truck, then take it to a house, lay it in the yard, and then you drive the truck back to the field, load it and unload it as many times as you could that day. You’d get a little bit of rain, and some of these rolls would be thirty, thirty- five pounds,” he says. 

It’s a warm, sunny day, not overly hot. We park at Van Horn High School and vault out of the car for a quick visit. There’s a lot of activity for a school in the middle of summer, and just inside the lobby I spot an entire display case dedicated to Sut. His 1974 yearbook, a plaque, his Chicago Cubs jersey (number 40), and his Van Horn High jersey (number 17) are all behind the glass. We don’t linger long. Within just a couple of minutes, we’ve drawn attention to ourselves— it’s not every day the school’s biggest hero walks in the front door (who also happens to be six feet seven). As I take pictures of the case a woman walks over to chat with Sut, and as we walk out back down the steps he tells me she’s the girls’ basketball coach. 

“When you’re just walking around town do people recognize you all the time?” I ask. 

“Yeah, well, basically. You know, I don’t think there’s anybody in town yet that I’ve not signed an autograph for,” he replies. 

“How do you feel about all the attention and autographs?” I ask. Unlike the rest of the Wax Packers, Sut is still in the limelight. But his attitude is the same as it’s always been: it goes with the territory. “Sandy Koufax told me a thousand years ago when we went to lunch one day— it was my first year of spring training, and all these people were all over him for autographs— and he says, ‘I will worry about autographs when they quit asking me.’” 

Sut signs for free, and they still keep asking. 

As we walk off the school grounds, a memory pops in his head: “I’ll never forget this. I was a sophomore, and there was a girl that would sit in front of me [in class]. There was this senior, a big bully, and she wouldn’t talk to him. Right as he’s getting off from class he spits in the back of her hair. I see him coming down the stairs. He was a bigger senior, a football player. I smoked him, just knocked him out.” For the first and only time in his young life, Sut found himself in the principal’s office. “He says, ‘You’re suspended for three days. I just want you to know I applaud you for what you did. But we have a policy, and it’s no fights.’” Sut has never understood cruelty. 

As good as he was at baseball and basketball, he had his heart set on playing college football. Just like Garry Templeton, almost every Division I football program wanted him, penciling him in at quarterback. “The day my senior year ended my goal was to play football at Missouri,” he says. But “it’s like God had another plan for me,” he adds.

Baseball players, already extremely superstitious, are known for their faith, often pointing skyward after a big hit. Even as the game’s front offices have evolved to embrace data (the current analytics revolution is all about science trumping instinct), the men who play the game still trust their gut. 

“So how did that go down, playing baseball instead of football?” I ask as we drive toward Independence’s town square.

“I got drafted in the first round by the Dodgers,” he replies. “It’s kind of funny, the day of the draft, ironically, I also had to register for the military draft. I was working at a dog kennel cleaning cages every morning, five days a week. The lady that owned the dog kennel came out and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a phone call, it’s your grandma.’ I pick up the phone, and she goes, ‘You’ve been drafted,’ and I’m like, right when I think my life can’t get any worse . . . so I say, ‘What is it, army? Navy?’ and she goes, ‘No, you’ve been drafted by the Dodgers!’”

We turn onto a side street. I look up at the sign: Rick Sutcliffe Drive, which takes us to a baseball field without any grass in the infield. “This is the ballpark where our school played,” he says, resuming his story. Although his grandpa was “a carpenter with a first- grade education,” he shrewdly steered the Dodgers to offering an $85,000 signing bonus. “He says to me, ‘Do you know how much money that is? I had the best year I’ve ever had in my life, and I made just under $6,000 this year.’” 

Sut paid his dues over the next several years, spending most of the next five seasons in the Minor Leagues, poking his head up to the Majors for a single game in 1976 and two more in 1978. His breakout party was 1979, when he won seventeen games en route to the National League Rookie of the Year Award. But the success was short- lived: the sophomore slump bit him hard in 1980, resulting in exile to the bullpen, where he languished through 1981. His manager, the voluble Tommy Lasorda, promised Sut he would get to start a game late in the 1981 season but never followed through. Their relationship soured, culminating in an infamous confrontation right before the season’s end: “He just snapped, said, ‘You don’t even fuckin’ belong in the bullpen,’ then he kind of came at me. That’s when I grabbed him and put him up against the wall and said, ‘If you weren’t so fuckin’ old . . .’ You know, I cleaned off his desk,” Sut says euphemistically. 

Although he is known as one of the kindest and most generous men in the game, Sut’s temper could be extreme. 

“The funniest part was he had all these Frank Sinatra albums and pictures on his office wall, everything signed ‘to Tommy, love Frank,’ and I snapped and said, ‘I’m gonna throw that chair right through that fucking wall.’ I’m about to throw it, and standing in the door is Dusty Baker, and he grabs the chair and he’s laughing and he says something like, ‘Kid, you’re in enough trouble. You don’t need Frank pissed off too.’” 

A few months later, he was shipped off to Cleveland, where he began anew, bouncing back to win the American League era title. 

And then the year that changed it all: 1984. The Cubs began the season with expectations for yet another season in the doldrums but surprised everyone with a strong start. Sut was traded from the Indians to the Cubs on June 13 and immediately put them over the hump, going 16- 1 with a 2.69 era after joining the team and leading them to the playoffs for the first time since 1945. Only a startling comeback from the San Diego Padres kept them out of the World Series. 

Decades of pent- up frustration were released in Chicago as the Cubbies became rock stars, with Sut as their lead singer. “It was like I was one of the Beatles,” he says. “I got rushed by people.”

The owner of a popular downtown bar called Murphy’s set Sut up with a key to an apartment above the bar, complete with a deck, pool tables, and big- screen tvs. Whenever celebrities— think Bill Murray, Huey Lewis, Mark Harmon (remember, this was the 1980s)— came to see a Cubs game and needed a place to hide out, they’d call Sut and ask for the key to the apartment. 

When the big money started rolling in, Sut gave it right back. In his early years with the Dodgers, he visited children’s hospitals and got inspired, vowing to make charity work part of his mission. Once he was financially set, he and his wife, Robin, started the Rick Sutcliffe Foundation, setting aside $100,000 every year for the mentally disabled, the elderly, sick children, and the homeless. That altruism runs in the family. As we ride, Sut talks repeatedly about how proud he is of his only child, Shelby. “Our daughter, she works for World Vision,” he says, referencing the Christian organization dedicated to humanitarian aid. “Even after she graduated from Harvard Medical School and all of the opportunities she had, she’s, you know, she’s adamant about trying to help those kids over in Africa. And our son- in- law, he’s a preacher, and he got assigned to San Diego. His church is there, and we have a two- and- a- half- year- old grandson.” All good, I think. But did it have to be San Diego? 

Shelby takes after her dad in other ways as well.

When I ask Sut about what set him apart as a player, he says, “Brad, there were guys that threw harder, that were a lot more talented. But I’ll go on the record and say, I don’t know that anybody was ever more prepared.” He pauses to lasso his thoughts, then continues: “It’s kind of like my daughter. You’d love to have her as a student. She got all As, went to TCU [Texas Christian University] and Harvard. But she told me, she goes, ‘Dad, these kids in school, they’re a lot smarter than I am. But I learned how to study. I know how to prepare.’” 

Sut’s phone rings. I glance at the screen— Ryne S. 

“Wait,” I begin, “is that who I think it is?” Ryne Sandberg, Hall of Fame second baseman, Sut’s ex- teammate, and one of the greatest Cubs of all time? 

Sut lets it go to voice mail. “Sorry, dude, can’t take it,” he says out loud. Ryne Sandberg screened for me. Surreal. 

“I want to show you the house,” he says, picking up the phone and calling his wife. From his side of the conversation, I can tell that Robin wasn’t expecting company. “She’s like, the laundry’s everywhere, the maids are coming, I’m not dressed,” he recaps. “It’ll be okay.”

The downstairs of the Sutcliffe home is a shrine of hardware. Among the accolades are a replica of the 1981 World Series trophy won with the Dodgers; his 1984 Cy Young Award, which I find surprisingly unimpressive; and even an Oscar, given for his performance in the 1984 season. There’s a framed Sports Illustrated cover from 1984 picturing the National League’s dominant pitchers— Sut and fellow Wax Packer Doc Gooden, all of nineteen years old. One wall is covered with framed photos of Sut with celebrities from all sides of sports and entertainment— Dale Earnhardt, Charles Barkley, zz Top, and many others. 

But only one memento is meaningful enough to make the more heavily trafficked upstairs part of the house: the Buck O’Neil Legacy Award, given for outstanding support of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located here in Kansas City. O’Neil played for the hometown Kansas City Monarchs, became the first black coach in Major League Baseball in 1962, and was key to establishing the museum, which Sut counts as one of the most important sites in all of baseball. “It’ll change you,” Sut says of visiting the museum. “It’s one of those moving experiences where you just don’t realize how tough it was and how wrong it was.” 

Sut has always remained true to his midwestern values— decency, hard work, integrity. He’s never understood the cruelty that humans are capable of. Every time he looks across the kitchen table and sees the O’Neil Award, he’s reminded of why his work is so important and why it can never stop.

Sut has perfected the art of the comeback. Hamstring and shoulder injuries nearly ended his career twice— first in the hangover season of 1985, then again in 1990. Both times he was left for dead, and both times he came back, winning the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 1987 and 1992. In 1992, when he was coming off a subpar year with the Cubs and seemingly winding down at age thirty- six, the Baltimore Orioles took a chance on him, signing him as a free agent. After two bad years in a row, the team looked to the opening of their new ballpark at Camden Yards as a fresh start. 

“I was not gonna sign with Baltimore,” he says as we pull into a greasy- spoon diner called the Big Biscuit. The clatter of silverware and lively buzz of conversation, punctuated by the occasional yell from the kitchen, fills the restaurant as our waitress hurriedly seats us. 

“I mean, I was a thirty- six- year- old guy coming off surgery. I didn’t need to be in the American League,” he says, ignoring his menu. (The American League is known for having more offense.) “But I fly to Baltimore to meet with Johnny [Oates, the manager, who had been Sut’s catcher his rookie season], and Johnny walked me out to the mound and said, ‘Nobody knows, but you’re gonna throw the first pitch ever at this ballpark.’ And Brad, something just came over me, you get those tingles and goosebumps, and I walked off the mound, looked at my agent, and said, ‘Let’s get something done. I’m gonna play here.’” 

Unlike Tommy Lasorda, Oates was true to his word. Two weeks before the season started, he announced that Sut would be his Opening Day starter against the Indians. “I said, ‘Johnny, you need to let Mike Mussina pitch that game. He’s a lot better than I am,’” Sut says, sipping some coffee. “And Johnny goes, ‘I know that.’ And then he goes, ‘[Ben] McDonald’s better than you too.’ But he told me, ‘The reason you’re starting Opening Day is I wanna line you up against everybody else’s ace, knowing you can hold your own, and I’m gonna put Mussina and McDonald up against their three and four guys, and that’s how we’re gonna succeed.’”

Sut more than held his own. He shut out the Indians on Opening Day 2– 0, the first of sixteen wins he racked up that season. Baseball bard Thomas Boswell wrote in the Washington Post: “Sutcliffe is an anachronism— a pitcher who’s all heart. He always takes the ball. He never confesses an injury. He pitches until his arm falls off. Then he expects you to wait until he’s healthy and can ring up some more big numbers. Of course, nobody waits. And he returns.”1 

He played two more seasons, then shut it down in 1994 at age thirty- eight. Out of the game for a year, he got restless, wanting to give back. When Larry Lucchino, president of the San Diego Padres, called and offered him the Padres pitching coach job, Sut’s response nearly floored him: “I don’t want to go to the big leagues. I want to go to rookie ball.” It was the equivalent of getting offered a full ride to Harvard and opting instead for Bunker Hill Community College. Sut reported to Idaho Falls, Idaho, as the team’s pitching coach on a $15,000 salary for the 1996 season. “Honestly, Brad, I never enjoyed having a uniform on more.” A couple years later, he joined the Padres and ESPN broadcasting teams and never looked back. 

But his biggest comeback was yet to come.

“So, uh, you probably read it was seven years ago now I got diagnosed with colon cancer,” he volunteers. “I had a routine colonoscopy. I didn’t want to do it, but Robin forced me to. I had had no issues,” he says. My thoughts drift to Gini and Jaime Cocanower. 

Doctors removed a single cancerous polyp, and Sut endured chemo and five days a week of radiation. He ended up having to wear an ileostomy bag for eight months. “Radiation was the worst. That was unbelievable. I literally spent, a lot of times, half a day just sitting in a bathtub because the radiation was around my rear end,” he says. 

Sut faced his fears head- on. Before he got the biopsy results, he gathered Robin and Shelby together at home. “Somehow we ended up in a closet, and I said, ‘If it’s [the cancer] all over, I’m just telling you right now, it’s not gonna be a lengthy deal.’ We all started bawling, and I looked at my daughter, and I said, ‘Hey, I know where I’m going. I know where I’m at. I know I have been so blessed. I’ve done more things than most people get to do, and I’m adamant about you introducing your mom to your stepdad.’” 

It thankfully didn’t come to that— Sut remains cancer- free— but he was ready no matter what the test results. 

“I’ve got to run pretty soon. Have a tee time at 11:15,” he says as I finish my Chicago omelet, in honor of the Cubs. 

Still, I feel like something’s missing. 

We get back in the car and head back to Dixon’s Famous Chili to retrieve the Accord. 

“Tell me a little more about your relationship with your parents,” I say. He had mentioned that they divorced when he was fairly young, but he had hardly spoken of them since. Everything was about his grandparents.

“Um, I don’t know if my dad is dead or alive,” he says softly. “He took off when I was eleven, never sent child support or alimony or anything. My grandparents raised me. My grandpa has always been my dad,” he says. 

His dad was a race car driver who went by the moniker Mr. Excitement. After he ran off with another woman, Sut and his siblings moved in with their grandparents. His mom remarried but died young, at fifty- five. 

The more we discuss his dad, the more the hurt creeps back into his voice. I share Don Carman’s story with him, about how Don still carries that trauma. I want Sut to know that his experience is sadly common in the baseball fraternity. 

“I’m seventeen, eighteen years old, at my first big- league camp, and there are all these great players, Hall of Famers [Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, etc.], and I wasn’t in awe of any of them. I wasn’t afraid of any of them,” he says. Just like Carman, Sut weaponized his anger. On the mound, the cheerful gentle giant transformed into a warrior, the hurt and pain from childhood channeled into every fastball. 

“My dad, being Mr. Excitement, the great racer, my dad was my idol to begin with. I wanted to be just like my dad,” he says, some moisture appearing in the corners of his eyes. “But I never looked up to anybody after what my dad did to me. I know what a piece of shit is. I know what not to be.”

With Shelby, Sut has done everything his father never did for him. He clears his throat. “I tell her every time I talk to her that I love her,” he says, pulling back into Dixon’s. Excitement, after all, is overrated.

Over a thousand miles later, Las Vegas gleams in the desert like a neon warning sign, a symbol of humanity’s brutal dominion over nature. It is at once the loneliest and most connected place in the country. It was not on my original itinerary, certainly not in the last days of a forty- nine- day sprint across more than eleven thousand miles, when I figured I’d be dragging to the finish line. 

Except here I am, standing on Las Vegas Boulevard, developing a kink in my neck from staring up at the Stratosphere Tower, a 1,149- foot poor man’s Space Needle at the end of the Strip. 

I plop down my credit card for $180 (so much for cheap Vegas hotels) and haul my suitcase up to the room. I have no interest in gambling, but the nightlife, the promise of adventure, calls to me like an old friend.

Speaking of old friends, my phone chimes with a text. It’s Jesse, the same Jesse who was there almost seven weeks ago as I passed out on the side of the freeway in Visalia.

“Any shenanigans?” he asks. 

“Getting ready in the hotel,” I type, adding, “it’s on,” our signature phrase for mischief. I peel off the T- shirt I’ve been wearing all day and unfold the ironing board from the closet. 

I stand shirtless in front of the bathroom mirror. My trim torso is now interrupted by a bloated gut, all definition gone from my abs. Small bulges of fat hang over the crease where my upper thighs meet my hips. I probably haven’t gained more than ten pounds, but on my slight frame, it shows. I suck my stomach in, trying to remember what it used to look like. 

Memories of past debauchery in Vegas flood back: waking up next to a woman I didn’t recognize in a motel I didn’t remember entering; trying cocaine for the first time in a hotel bathroom with people I had just met; having sex in a stairwell railed out of my mind. In our twenties, Vegas was the ultimate escape. But what is it now? 

I finish getting dressed, rub some gel into my hair, and check myself in the mirror. My eyes are bloodshot and ringed with dark shadows. Who am I kidding? 

I laugh and throw down my room key, face- planting dramatically on the bed, rolling around and laughing harder. The thought of going out right now, doing a bunch of shots, getting hammered, and hitting on girls couldn’t be less appealing. 

“Fuck that,” I say out loud. All I want to do is lie in this bed and read my research notes on Al Cowens, the last of the Wax Packers, write in my notebook, and fall asleep with the lights on. 

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be back in California (but not San Diego, thank God). I’ve got one card in the Pack to go, and in just under seven weeks, I’ve managed to retrace much of my life, from fishing in Greenville to driving in ocd- addled circles in LA to seeing the woman I once thought I’d marry. I’ve redefined what the word “hero” means to me and created some new villains in the process. And I’m not done yet.

Tomorrow, crossing the Golden State border, I’ll recognize home; but will home recognize me?

Brad Balukjian is a biology professor at Merritt College in Oakland, CA, where he directs the school's Natural History and Sustainability program. He still has his childhood baseball card album full of underdog players from the 1980s, such as Don Carman and Lee Mazzilli, both profiled in The Wax Pack. For more, go to waxpackbook.com.

Howard Cole has been writing about baseball on the internet since Y2K. Follow him on Twitter.

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