‘The Wax Pack’ tracks down a set of baseball players after their final innings
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What if a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards came to life?
San Francisco-area college professor Brad Balukjian had that fantasy, and he made it happen. Balukjian hit the road in his modest Honda Accord, Whitesnake blaring, in search of what happened to all the pack’s players, who run the gamut from Hall of Fame inductee to relative unknown.
It’s fitting that his The Wax Pack: On The Open Road In Search of Baseball’s Afterlife has the same element of surprise as opening a fresh pack of cards. (For those who can’t wait, some of the players Balukjian pursues are Rick Sutcliffe, Dwight “Doc” Gooden, Garry Templeton, Lee Mazzilli and Carlton Fisk.)
Considering its inspiration was a pack of baseball cards, Wax Pack is a surprisingly intense book with an often-solemn tone. One of its pivotal scenes takes place in a cemetery, and Balukjian doesn’t shy away from racial issues. The book published earlier this year, well before protests were a news cycle staple.
More than anything, Balukjian wants his subjects to bare their souls. He scores plenty of interviews, but he does strike out a few times. Some players would prefer not to talk at all, much less reveal their innermost introspections. In perhaps the lightest moment of the book, Balukjian aggressively pursues an interview-phobic, notoriously sour Hall of Famer at his upscale golf club.
During one sad episode, a Hall of Fame-caliber player with a history of substance issues goes AWOL right before his scheduled interview, even though Balukjian agreed to pay him. Yes, Balukjian is a man on a mission.
When Balukjian does nab interviews, he doesn’t settle for canned quotes or get stuck on statistics. More often than not, the conversations are intimate, going deep on family and spousal issues. It’s heavy, poignant stuff, and there’s no shortage of tears in Wax Pack. In fact, at times, it feels like eavesdropping on a therapist’s appointment. At one point, one of the players confesses to wanting his father dead.
No one’s crying that their playing days are in the past. The players accept that they’re nothing more than temporary, fragile place holders until the next prospect lands. It’s all very Moneyball. That said, most of the Wax Packers, as Balukjian refers to them, are still affiliated with the game in some way.
Over the course of his epic road trip, Balukjian, a man who admits to being a sucker for the underdog, reveals his own story. He shares his imperfections, including his OCD and his flawed relationships with his father and his ex. He also touches on a new potential love interest.
It’s somewhat appropriate that the thoughtful Wax Pack arrived in this season of reflection. During these difficult days, it should be in your line-up.
(University of Nebraska Press, April 1, 2020)