A twist of fate, a stick of stale chewing gum, a cross-country road trip and a pack of baseball cards opened in a way no one has before. Such is the vision of Brad Balukjian’s Wax Pack.
I’ve reviewed three memorable, sports-related road trip books over the past few years. The first was Dylan Dethiers’ 18 in America about an 18-year old playing 18 holes of golf in every state in America. It’s a fantastic coming of age story written by a young man whose view on life, and golf, are well beyond his years. The second was I Don’t Care If We Never Get Back written by two Harvard grads who, in one summer, set out to attend 30 games in 30 ballparks in 30 days. Also, a fun read. Those books, along with Brad Balukjian’s recently published and similarly introspective Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife share far more in common than a sports-obsessed somebody driving around the country on a limited budget in a broken-down vehicle seeing the sights. These men are all in search of something and have decided to take you along for the ride. In doing so, they use their favorite sport as the backdrop to help them find what they are looking for, which is quite often something within their very selves.
If you were a baseball fan growing up, you reminisce fondly of the days you’d run to the local grocery, asking your mom for spare change so you could have a pack or two of baseball cards. You would then run home to see which stars emerged. “Each pack was a kid’s version of a scratch-off ticket, a chance to find a favorite player waiting inside. But even at a young age I was not content to just let my cards sit in an album. I wanted, needed, to know everything I could about the players themselves, to connect with them in some way.”
Balukjian’s “zealotry for baseball” gave him an idea unlike no other before it. The brainstorm of this middle-aged, baseball fan who refuses to grow up (just ask his ex-girlfriends) is that he wants to travel the nation and meet every baseball player that he randomly pulls out of a single pack of baseball cards. Hence, Wax Pack was born.
Wax Pack turns out to be far more than one man’s search for the players he once admired. It’s a journey to prove he’s not as crazy as he thought… although definitely as obsessive. Brad’s Pack trek goes on to prove that pro ball players have problems just like the rest of… except for one major league difference.
On his journey from California to the other coast and back, he gets marital advice and hitting tips from Rance Mulliniks, talks sobriety with Steve Yeager, racism with Garry Templeton, heartbreak with Randy Ready and long, lost birthday cards with Don Carman. He gives orchids to Carlton Fisk and talks the difficulties of being Dwight Gooden’s son with Dwight Gooden’s son. He shares numerous touching tales with these former big leaguers, some who were anxious to talk about their former lives, others not so much.
What we end up finding out right in the middle of Wax Pack, which is something he’d probably never admit, is that our protagonist is just as interesting as any of former big-leaguers he purports to explore. He’s an obsessively-compulsive (diagnosed as such), relationship-challenged, sports fanatic… but who amongst us isn’t?
The good news is, for a guy with a background in etymology, Balukjian can actually write. He takes you on his trip, telling you how he unsuccessfully stalked Gary Pettis and played cards against humanity with Jaime Cocanower. You’ll also find out how a rat changed the way baseball was televised forever and why Don Carman is his favorite baseball player. Unlike the rest of us who relished the stars, Balukjian’s “childhood heroes [were] the journeymen and benchwarmers, the underdog fringe players who needed to work like mad just to stay in place.” This should come as no surprise as this is Balujkian’s story as well.
The author puts on his journalist’s cap and delves deep into the psyches of the Wax Packers, as much as they’ll let him, sharing stories neither you nor I know about them for they weren’t listed on the back of any baseball card. Some stars opened up, others were far more reserved, if they even fielded his calls at all. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lesson learned. Balukjian insists on reading in between the stat lines. It’s the only way he’s ever looked at a baseball card.
His book takes place in multiple contexts: the glory days of baseball, the post-strike depression and, as the title suggests, its afterlife. You are re-connected in captivating prose with one man’s love for the sport. What we discover in Wax Pack is not only the author’s attempt to get to know each of the players in his mystical pack of cards but also his discovery a bit about himself in the process, which is what I suppose writing a cross-country memoir is supposed to be about. He’s not afraid to ask players tough questions about their careers and uncover any longing they still have for the sport.
“It’s your dream, and then it’s gone, it’s like, okay, I woke up, and I don’t get to go back to sleep and dream again,” Don Carman told him. “I think the hardest thing for any player is to say no more,” confided Lee Mazzilli.
Some of the players he planned on interviewing for Wax Pack were cordial, more than willing to talk openly about their past. Others were more standoffish. Sometimes, as was the case with Garry Pettis, Carlton Fisk and Vince Coleman, our author had to get a little inventive to get some face time. In other words, spoiler alert… he didn’t end up meeting up everyone in his Wax Pack. Sometimes, life just doesn’t work out like that. That’s just another lesson to be learned. The best laid plans of mice and sports fans.
“A player’s baseball life is built in the James Dean mold – live fast, die young. It is marked by dramatic peaks and valleys, the home runs and the strikeouts. That life brings incredible fame, even for the most marginal of Major Leaguers. But it’s a mirage that comes at a steep cost – broken marriages, estranged children, substance abuse. Once the novelty wears off, what it feels like to be a Major League ballplayer isn’t that much different from what it feels like to play softball on your Sunday morning beer league team.”
As you probably could have guessed, Balujkian’s love for baseball runs steep. “No matter how much baseball changes what always remains the same is its unique role as a catalyst for building relationships. No other sport has the kind of down time that baseball has, the pauses that lead its detractors to call it boring but that are actually its greatest strength, providing the time needed to build relationships with the people around you. Which is why Don Carman, standing on the dugout steps of Veterans Stadium, could not for the life of him understand why thirty-five thousand people had given up their Sunday and paid good money to watch him throw a baseball.”
Balujkian parallels the rise and fall of the sport with the indelible pieces of cardboard that at one point in our nation’s history, almost every kid in America kept in a shoebox that hopefully his mother never threw out. (Seriously, what mom does this?)
Despite waning interest, the baseball card industry once accounted for $1.5 billion in annual revenue. For closure, the author travels to the old Topps factory in Duryea, Pennsylvania to meet the woman who sealed the wax pack he opened years later to allow fifteen different stories to unfold. We’re better off for it. I’m pretty sure Balukjian is too.
Times change, as do sports and their fans. Wax Pack is a nostalgic reminder that one never truly loses one’s love for baseball, that moving on is inevitable and that never growing up is perfectly okay too.