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Joy, Pain, Failure, Acceptance: Brad Balukjian’s “The Wax Pack”

In which a writer’s rubber hits the road to discover his heroes are human.

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This is either a close-up lens or REALLY GIANT baseball cards
Kris Connor/Getty Images

In 2014, Bay Area adjunct professor Brad Balukjian had a goofy notion – what if he could get an unopened Topps baseball card pack from 1986 (the year he started buying them), and meet all the players in it? Actually drive around America in his near-dead old car and interview these total strangers? That’s exactly what Balukjian proceeded to do, and it’s the subject of his new book The Wax Pack.

Right off, I’ll share something an old friend once told me – you can judge a book by its cover. Overrated books have annoying covers, while neat covers often indicate that the marketing department was inspired by what’s inside. (Just like John Williams scores are generally better for the more inventive movies he’s worked on.) The Wax Pack has a positively great cover, looking exactly like an old card pack, right down to the waxy sheen.

(Which, it seems, even old-timey cards had as well, as our own Ryan Hamilton described a few weeks ago.)

How many of those 1986 ballplayers does Balukjian manage to track down? Most. Generally, the ones who refuse are either big baseball names (Carlton Fisk) or deceased. One who’d struggled with addiction issues has a relapse the very day Balukjian is supposed to meet him.

The remainder are either tolerant of the quest or genuinely touched by it. For the most part, these weren’t names most modern fans are familiar with, they’re players who were good enough to have a few MLB years yet never got mentioned much on ESPN. One of the first he runs into, Rance Mulliniks, happily has Balukjian over for family dinner and either doesn’t notice / doesn’t comment on the fact that Balukjian is completely whomped from overindulgence on alcohol and girl-chasing the night before.

Ah, yes, the girls. Ballplayers are known for liking the ladies, and not necessarily the ones they married. Balukjian took this trip as a single man in his mid-thirties who had hoped to, by that point, be “ready for what you’re supposed to do next – marriage, kids, etc. But I was wrong. Expectations can be a dangerous thing.” So there’s a lot of girl-chasing in The Wax Pack, much of it successful, to a point. Balukjian ends up demonstrating Tinder to a player in his sixties, one whose first wife suffered unimaginable medical tragedy.

Tragedy and family loss are repeated themes in the book – some of which involve Balukjian himself, which may be what motivated him to make the trip. (He didn’t even get an advance on this thing.) As Balukjian wrestles with a Bay Area resident’s discomfort in less temperate climates (newsflash, much of America is hot and/or humid & has large unpleasant insects), he reveals enough of his own pain and past failings to give me the sense that this trip was partially about breaking the speed of the sound of loneliness. Out there running just to be on the run.

It’s not that the book isn’t funny; it frequently is. Some of the players have wildly amusing stories you’re sure they’ve told before, which doesn’t make them any less funny. Balukjian’s observant comments on various American regions are good, too. (One frequent target is San Diego.) A detail that blew my mind: “Driving can be a meditative experience, especially when you’ve only brought six CDs on a seven-week road trip and you can’t stomach the idea of one more sing-along with Whitesnake.” (Although I once went from San Fran to Portland with nothing but a convenience-store cassette single of “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Kids, ask your parents what a cassette is.)

Still, many of the profiled players came from emotionally distant, even borderline abusive homes. One describes witnessing the death of his father in childhood and being absolutely terrified to look. For fear that cruel father might not actually be dead. Even the players from happy families often had that one coach/manager/owner who tried to make them feel worthless, or told them to shut up because of their racial background.

We’ve all heard athletes, actors, artists, etc., talk about how overcoming obstacles gave them their drive to succeed. Good for them. Many who try harder don’t have those outcomes. And some who achieve success don’t always find it fulfills what drove them to achieve it.

Balukjian discovers that a lot of former players, who are happy to talk with him, weren’t very interested in reliving their glory years. He asks Don Carman, a sports psychologist (for super-agent Scott Boras!) why that is. “Self-preservation,” Carman answers. “Because 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 again.” Lee Mazzilli says “in my mind I think I can still do it. I think an athlete always has that competitive edge in him... You never lose that.”

Balukjian’s visit to the Hall Of Fame (in another failed attempt at contacting Fisk) summons these thoughts:

I think about who’s missing, or rather who would be in my Hall of Fame. I’ve learned that the real greatness of a game that supposed to be all about numbers has nothing to do with numbers, that all the home runs in the world can’t replace the strength demonstrated when you’re honest with yourself and deal with what’s right in front of you...

Yes, baseball is a game about failure, which you often can’t control, but, more importantly, it’s about how you respond to that failure, which is always in your grasp.

Is that passage a little like Gandalf’s speech in Fellowship of The Ring? Sure. Are there worse things a writer might subconsciously refer to? There absolutely are.

Bottom line: Balukjian meets some neat people in The Wax Pack. And some jerks, and some bores. His telling of their stories is never boring – nor is it when Balukjian uses their example to reaxamine his own shadows. Some of these men appear to be genuinely happy, and not in an “ignorance is bliss” fashion. More of a well-learned contentment. Balukjian’s portrayals of them have a roundness and depth to their characters which isn’t always achieved by authors writing about athletes.

(Especially not by college professors; occasionally, “educated” people have been known to regard sports/sports fans with a little disdain. Then again, it’s not like adjuncts are members of the ivory tower elite; Balukjian’s actually been the union rep for underpaid teachers in one of the nation’s most expensive real-estate markets.)

It’s an entertaining, sometimes emotional read. And fairly cheap in a digital edition. But then you wouldn’t get to see the hardcover with its neat throwback-Topps faded glow. (As always, check and see if your library has e-reading available.) In his epilogue, Balukjian does eventually meet a woman who worked at that old Topps plant, and she enjoyed the job. Unfortunately, his 30-year-old bubblegum stick that came with the pack is now crumbly dust. Sometimes, it’s the sugar-coated memories which turn out to be the least real.