In Brad Balukjian’s debut book, The Wax Pack, he delivers a unique work full of nostalgia and ingenuity
Of the thousands of men who have played Major League Baseball, only a few are able to attain that rare sort of immortality that comes with being truly great by becoming a legend, a Hall of Famer, an icon. Yet, to even make it into the Major Leagues at all, one has to be one of the best in the world, an unbelievably talented player in any other context, even if they are only marginal in that specific context. Each of these players has a unique story, not only compared to the fans who can only dream of achieving the same athletic success these players have but among themselves — each having taken a similar, though nevertheless divergent path to reach their goal of making the big leagues. In Brad Balukjian’s debut book, The Wax Pack, he focuses on these stories, highlighting over a dozen former major leaguers as he catches up with them to reminisce about their memories of the game while giving readers an update on where they are now.
The concept of The Wax Pack is a creative and appealing one. Balukjian bought an old pack of Topps baseball cards from the 1986 season and decided to track down each of the players from the pack. Throughout the course of the book, Balukjian drives over 11,000 miles across the country, from the Bay Area to Florida to New York and then back to California again.
The Wax Pack uses a pack of baseball cards as a mechanism for revisiting baseball history
Each chapter focuses on a different player from the pack, recounting his journey to find them. He then meets with them, spending some time with the player and oftentimes their family, conversing with them about their career and what they have done now that their time playing baseball has ended. Balukjian does a great job as an interviewer, bold enough to ask difficult questions of these men regarding their relationships and inner lives while also being affable enough to put them at ease enough to get good answers. In the process, he shares a number of unique experiences with them: he gets a personal hitting lesson from Rance Mulliniks, plays Cards Against Humanity with Jaime Cocanower, and tosses the ball around with Don Carman after they go to a zoo together.
Just as entertaining is when he is not able to meet the players he seeks out to find. He spends a day with Dwight Gooden’s son, while perpetually finding Doc out of reach a few days after wandering around Jacksonville, Florida in the hopes of tracking down Vince Coleman. Perhaps the single most amusing section of the book details his attempts to track down Hall of Fame catcher, and renowned curmudgeon, Carlton Fisk. He is so devoted to this pursuit that he pretends to be a prospective homeowner near a Florida country club where Fisk is known to golf and then pays to get his autograph at a Hall of Fame event before being tersely rebuffed by a representative of Fisk. No reader can doubt Balukjian’s devotion to seeing the journey through.
While most of these players, apart from Fisk and Gooden will not be known to most readers who did not closely follow baseball in the 1980s, many of these players nevertheless were well-decorated in their time. Steve Yeager was co-MVP of the 1981 World Series, Rick Sutcliffe won the NL Cy Young Award in 1984, and Vince Coleman led the National League in steals for six consecutive seasons. It speaks to how short the memories of many sports fans are, and of just how outstanding one has to be in order to be remembered by future generations, that most of these players — along with their contemporaries also profiled here — have since faded into relative obscurity. Part of what makes this book so enjoyable is the recognition that each major league career, no matter how quickly forgotten it may be, is an interesting story. Thankfully, he is able to capture those with great skill.
Despite its concept, The Wax Pack is not just a collection of profiles. Balukjian also writes about his own history as a baseball fan and his own personal memories of watching these players. For example, he writes at length about Don Carman, who was his favorite player growing up, and his writing about Carman is predictably infectious even if his love for the pitcher is itself a bit of a mystery. The book also functions as a memoir of his time on the road with Balukjian taking in the country and writing about the different locales he visits upon his trip. In the process, he also meditates on the loneliness of such a long, strange journey, past romantic failings, and his relationship with his father. These asides never go on so long that they overstay their welcome, and they help make the reader feel like a partner on this road trip alongside the author.
As a professor of biology at Merritt College in Oakland, Balukjian is not a sports writer by trade. Yet his writing is more than capable throughout and especially impressive considering the number of styles he juggles in his debut book, from personal writing to road travelogue to more traditional sports profiles. There are moments when the memoir elements threaten to become overwhelming, but with his tendency to hop from topic to topic that reality never actualizes. Instead, it adds a unique dimension to the book, making it more than just a number of scattered essays about long-retired ballplayers.
Balukjian knows he is not a traditional reporter and he uses that to his advantage by avoiding the sterility that often plagues the work of more established writers. While not everything he does works, it’s nevertheless easy to appreciate the attempts to blend a variety of styles and concerns that don’t ostensibly go together as it shows an ambition that goes beyond the inherent adventurousness of the book’s concept.
The Wax Pack is ultimately a very promising debut by Brad Balukjian. If he ever decides to take another break from teaching in order to write a follow-up, it will certainly be worth checking out — one that, if this work is any indication, will be overflowing with ingenuity and passion.