1986 was the year that I discovered baseball, so the premise of The Wax Pack immediately appealed. Brad Balukjian buys a pack of baseball cards from 1986, sealed in the old style wax wrapper, cracks it open and begins a journey to track down the random mix of major leaguers that he finds inside. One of them is a Met, the World Series winning team that I watched on Channel 4, a then still relatively new TV channel that had made a name for itself by broadcasting “minority sports”.
The author’s aim is to find out what happened after baseball. He has a pack of cards that cover unspectacular journeymen to Hall of Famers and he wants to find out what they did next, how they coped with the end of a career that is inevitably short. Again, it is a premise that appeals to me, it smacks a little of The Boys of Summer but less formal and more free form, because my relationship with baseball is not so simple as a love of the game, in fact for large periods the game itself has been mostly absent.
I have always been a fan of baseball stories as much as, to be honest more than, the actual three hours or so of gameplay. I quickly fell for Gary Carter, Daryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden as they won the World Series, but I also idolised Roy Hobbs, Crash Davis and Ricky Vaughn from the big screen and revelled in the stories of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays and Tinker to Evers to Chance. In The Wax Pack Brad Balukjian has added to those stories, added to a fascination that has never left me despite living over three thousand miles from my nearest MLB stadium.
When writing a road trip book there has to be a balance to the narrative. Long hours are spent journeying (especially when driving around a country as vast as the USA), relatively fewer focus on the purpose of the journey, in this case 13 somewhat random baseball players, and the author’s personal story also inevitably bleeds into the account as it intersects with the interviews. Balukjian manages this well, revealing enough of himself to be engaging but without distracting from the main participants.
He also homes in on the individual stories, not being trapped by the mundane questioning of modern media savvy sports stars, but digging underneath to the real people and their authentic struggles. It is a fascinating insight into the human endeavour and the openness and honesty of the retired players is at times startling. This is a real tribute to the author who shows a genuine compassion for his subjects whilst continuing to pursue the difficult topics, the impacts of parents, both absent and present, the predictable temptations of being a ball player and the difficulty with coping both with the pressure of the game and the absence of it.
The only very slight niggle is when the author, maybe buoyed by the openness of some of his other interviewees, is a touch harsh on Carlton Fisk, the Hall of Famer, who didn’t feel so strong a need to join in his project. It is the one moment when his humility drops a little and a touch of petulance sneaks in, but I suppose when your self-funding stretches to a hefty fee for a few seconds at a signing event rejection can sting.
It certainly doesn’t detract from what is a thoroughly entertaining and insightful read though and I’m sure The Wax Pack will appeal to all baseball fans.
The Wax Pack is published on 1 April 2020 by University of Nebraska Press. I was provided with an ebook by Netgalley in return for this honest review.