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Former ballplayers open up in ‘The Wax Pack’

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When I first heard about “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball's Afterlife” (University of Nebraska Press, $27.95) by Brad Balukjian, my reaction was pure and basic: “God, that’s a f---ing good idea.”

Even after a decade-plus of literary reviews, I can count on one hand the times that I was legitimately envious of the idea behind a book. Not necessarily the best books or the most interesting books, but the ones with an underlying premise that spoke directly to me.

“The Wax Pack” is one of those.

Balukjian, a lifelong baseball fan, undertook a simple, yet deeply fascinating adventure. He bought a pack of Topps baseball cards from 1986, the year he got into collecting. He popped the decades-old gum into his mouth and flipped through the 15 cards, regaling himself with ghosts of seasons past. And then, he packed up his life and embarked on an epic road trip, a cross-country voyage in which he hoped to make contact with the players he found when he peeled the paper from the titular wax pack.

The result is something unexpected, a thoughtful exploration of fandom that also serves as a glimpse of the different directions a faded athlete might go. And in the process of delving into this sports-loving memory hole, Balukjian himself becomes more present, undertaking an effort to look back at his own history.

The names on the list run the gamut. There’s a Hall of Famer (catcher Carlton Fisk) and a handful of notable names (Dwight Gooden, Vince Coleman, Garry Templeton, Rick Sutcliffe), but for the most part, it’s a collection of … guys. Men who were good enough to make the major leagues, but who perhaps weren’t destined to be among the legends of the game. It’s a chance to check in on the post-playing careers of people who bade farewell to the only job they ever wanted, a chance to think about who they were then … and who they are now.

It is a chance, as former Deadspin editor David Roth would say, to Remember Some Guys.

The cards in the pack are as follows: Rance Mulliniks, Steve Yeager, Garry Templeton, Gary Pettis, Randy Ready, Jaime Cocanower, Carlton Fisk, Don Carman, Vince Coleman, Dwight Gooden, Lee Mazzilli, Richie Hebner, Rick Sutcliffe and the late Al Cowens (the fifteenth card was one of the dreaded checklist cards that no one ever wanted and that inevitably appeared in just about every pack you bought).

As you might imagine, my envy regarding this idea raised my expectations; I wanted this wonderful idea to come to fruition. Happily, Balukjian doesn’t disappoint, presenting this blend of baseball and personal history with charm and humor, all of it infused with a love of the game and more than a little well-placed self-deprecation.

Over the course of his weeks-long journey, Balukjian drives across the country, trying to make contact with as many of these players as possible. Some of these efforts were more fruitful than others, leading to experiences bordering on the surreal – hanging out with Yeager at the sandwich shop he owns, getting a hitting lesson from Mulliniks and (my personal favorite) watching kung-fu movies with Templeton. He even got a chance to talk to his childhood hero, pitcher Don Carman – and they went to the zoo, because of course they did.

Other encounters never happened, due to scheduling or other difficulties – Coleman never happened, for instance. Nor did Gooden. Meanwhile, the meet-up with Fisk – such as it was – ultimately took place in an autograph line at Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame Induction Weekend.

But the majority of these men were generous with their time, even as they were varying shades of nonplussed by the whole thing. They were thoughtful with their answers, expressing a degree of honesty regarding their lives both inside the game and in its aftermath. Some stayed connected to baseball, while others moved in different directions, but all spoke with warmth about their time in uniform.

(Note: Balukjian even spent some time with a couple of the folks who worked in the Topps factory during the time when the ’86 packs would have made its way down the line. Specifically, there was one worker who almost certainly handled the very pack that would become the foundation of this book.)

“The Wax Pack” is “On the Road,” only with a lot more baseball and a lot less self-seriousness. It is a story that is two trips in one – a present day road trip, a trip down memory lane – with baseball at its center. In a way, it’s a meditation on time and how we mark its passage, as well as a consideration of why we choose those specific markers.

For what it’s worth, my personal baseball card journey began just a year later than Balukjian’s – I started with the 1987 Topps, with the classic wood grain border. Those early entries led to a several-year stretch where I was obsessed with the hobby before moving on to other interests (though my love of the game stayed strong and remains so to this day). Still, the fascination with cards never fully faded. I even bought a box online a year or so back to take that walk down memory lane myself. And before you ask, the answer is yes – I ate the gum. It was gross.

So yes – I think this is a brilliant idea for a book. And with “The Wax Pack,” Brad Balukijian has realized that idea beautifully. Anyone who has ever had a love affair with baseball cards – or just baseball in general – is going to be simply enraptured by this book, transported to that time when there was no thrill greater than feeling that wax crinkle as a pack was unwrapped, the stack of cardboard within rife with seemingly infinite possibility.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 March 2020 09:56

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