Review of The Wax Pack

Balukjian, Brad. The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife. University of Nebraska Press, 2020. Pp. 280. Author’s note, prologue, epilogue, photographs, notes, $27.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo

Books about players dealing with life after baseball have provided some memorable reading. The genre has been blessed with Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times (1966), Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer (1972), Peter Golenbock’s Dynasty (1975) and We Played the Game (1994), edited by Danny Peary. How does an author come up with a fresh angle on such a heavily mined subject? Brad Balukjian took a novel approach — tracking down players he found in a randomly opened pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards.

University of Nebraska Press, 2020.

Balukjian’s upcoming book, The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife, alternately blends the “On the Road” feel of Charles Kuralt with the reminiscent formulas used by Ritter, Kahn and Golenbock. Balukjian’s book is result of six years of research, interviews and observations — backed by a grueling travel schedule of 11,341 miles through 30 states in 48 days — and will be released April 1 by University of Nebraska Press.

Balukjian chose the 1986 Topps set because it was the first year he collected baseball cards as a youth growing up in Rhode Island. In 1986, a pack of Topps contained 15 cards, and it was the beginning of the “junk wax” era of mass production, with multiple card companies vying for a chunk of the market. For transparency, Balukjian did open more than one pack, just in case his findings produced a majority of dead players. As it turned out, Balukjian’s pack included 14 players and a checklist. Al Cowens, who died in 2002, was the only player in the pack who was deceased.

Balukjian devotes a chapter to each player (the checklist is wisely saved for the book’s epilogue), meeting with most of them during a zig-zagging route in his 2002 Honda Accord that already had logged 154,029 miles. “It looks like someone passed out with a Sharpie in his hand,” Balukjian writes about the circuitous route he took (p. 5).

Not only were the logistics a challenge, so was the expense. “This was challenging financially because I was funding my own journey,” Balukjian, who earned a Ph.D. in entomology from the University of California at Berkeley and currently teaches biology at Merritt College in Oakland, California, said in a NewBooksNetwork podcast. The cost — Balukjian had a $7,000 budget — did not seem to bug him, however. Balukjian had to set up meetings with the former players. Some, like real estate agent Rance Mulliniks, were easy to find. “The easiest person’s phone number to get in the world is a real estate agent,” Balukjian said in the podcast.

Balukjian may normally write about scientific subjects, but he shows some pretty good literary chops in his descriptions. Mulliniks, for example, “was wonderfully pedestrian as a player but phonetically unforgettable.” (p. 10). Or, the greater San Diego area “is like a Bangles music video: satisfying, attractive and meaningless.” (p. 46). When looking for players, Balukjian confessed that at times, “you had to become like a stalker.” “And even when you found them, it didn’t mean they were going to talk to you,” Balukjian said. Silence was to be expected in some cases.

Carlton Fisk and his agent blocked Balukjian’s efforts with the same grit the Hall of Fame catcher used in preventing runners from scoring. Balukjian, however, devised a plan to catch Fisk at a posh country club in west-central Florida. An agent told him to call for a tour of the Founders Club, under the ruse that he was interested in buying some property there and wanted to see the bar at the clubhouse, where Fisk usually hung out. Remember, Balukjian was driving a beaten up 2002 Honda Accord. And, “let me remind you I’m currently eating my dinner at a Ruby Tuesday,” he writes (p. 122). That plan failed, but Balukjian later devised a hook slide of his own, got Fisk to autograph his card and wrote an entertaining chapter. Who needs quotes from a subject, anyway? It’s a lighthearted read.

Dwight Gooden was the only player who requested payment, but apparently Balukjian’s $700 — $500 for Doc, $200 for his son — was not good enough. The 1985 National League Cy Young Award winner was like his fastball during his prime — hard to find. “I’m standing in Doc Gooden’s living room, but he is not home,” Balukjian writes (p. 187).

Vince Coleman grew up in Jacksonville, but Balukjian is still looking for him. Balukjian tried connecting with Coleman in 2015 during spring training in Phoenix, where the former speedster was working as a baserunning instructor for the Chicago White Sox. “He was as cordial as a marooned crab,” Balukjian writes (p. 161). Balukjian wandered through Coleman’s old neighborhood, spoke to people at the church he attended as a youth, and even found the house he lived in as a boy. Small wonder that Balukjian’s chapter about Coleman is titled “Vincent Van Gone.” “I’m not disappointed, because I never expected much out of him to begin with. Expectations, after all, are a dangerous thing,” Balukjian writes (p. 165).

But the players Balukjian did speak are what make The Wax Pack so compelling. Some of the players have inspiring stories; others tell tales that are melancholy or filled with anger and hurt. All of them are interesting, thanks to Balukjian’s ability to insert the reader into the conversation. Balukjian found that many of the players did not dwell on the past; their baseball careers were done when they were relatively young in life — the mid-30s may be old for baseball players, but life (hopefully) beckons for many years after they remove their uniforms for the last time. “Baseball players are accidental Buddhists,” Balukjian said in the NewBooksNetwork podcast. “Without even knowing it, they were really, really good at being in the present.”

Most of the former players were comfortable talking with Balukjian. He bowled with Randy Ready and watched him thumb through a dating app on his phone: “I’m on Tinder with Randy Ready,” Balukjian writes (p. 80). He watched kung fu movies with Garry Templeton, chatted with Steve Yeager at the Jersey Mike’s sandwich shop he runs in California with his wife, and went to the zoo with his boyhood idol, Don Carman. Rick Sutcliffe was talking with Balukjian when his cellphone rang. It was Ryne Sandberg, but Sutcliffe had carved out time for the author and sent his former teammate to voicemail. “Ryne Sandberg screened for me. Surreal,” Balukjian writes. (p. 226).

“I didn’t have any special résumé. I’m a fan of that era, and I’m a writer, but mostly I write about science, and I’m a biologist, so that was also a challenge, because I didn’t have an ‘in,’” Balukjian said in the podcast. “It wasn’t like I was already a personality in sports journalism, or I had connections, which I think is a testament to the fact that so many guys were so gracious to me.” Baukjian confesses early in The Wax Pack that “the fan in me is at odds with the journalist,” but he does a good job separating the two. “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 (best friend) ‘Jesse’ I have to pinch myself, “Balukjian writes (p. 220).

Balukjian’s writing reflects keen observation. He notes that in western Oklahoma, “diversity consists of blond, strawberry blond and dirty blond.” (p. 93). Or, “she stares at him with the compassion of a pitchfork.” (p. 174), Balukjian’s thoughts about his book are just as pointed. “This is not really a book about baseball. There’s plenty of baseball in there,” Balukjian said in the podcast. “But baseball is kind of a vehicle for some bigger themes that we get into.”

One theme was vulnerability. Players opened up about abuse from their fathers, failed marriages — “I’ve successfully completed two marriages,” Ready quips, quoting his dentist (p. 79) — and other personal demons. Jaime Cocanower talked about the struggles his wife had fighting breast cancer. Carman and Sutcliffe spoke candidly about their relationships — or lack of them — with their fathers. Sutcliffe’s father was a racer nicknamed “Mr. Excitement,” who ran off with another woman when the future pitcher was 11. “My dad was my idol to begin with. I wanted to be just like my dad. But I never looked up to anyone after what my dad did to me,” Sutcliffe tells Balukjian (p. 229). Carman said he never spoke directly to his father “his whole life.”  “And he spoke to me directly maybe twice, other than for, let’s say … Let’s just say ‘disciplinary reasons.’ We’ll use that.” (p. 142). That’s some pretty candid stuff to tell a guy who was a stranger an hour earlier. “What surprised me over and over again on this trip was how quickly, in the span of having just spent maybe an hour with some of these guys, how quickly they got very real and emotional, and showed a lot of vulnerability,” Balukjian said in the podcast.

The Wax Pack is a nice treat for baseball fans who collected cards as kids. Balukjian has done what most collectors can only dream about — making a pack of baseball cards come alive. It’s a great story, and one that comes with some sobering lessons. “Most people have one life to make it count. On my journey, I’ve learned that baseball players have two,” Balukjian writes. (p. 244). Or, as Carman, his boyhood idol, rationalized, “I don’t get to write the script. Whatever it is, I just get to respond. The only true freedom we have is the freedom to choose how we respond to a given situation.” (p. 144).

Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.

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