“The Wax Pack: On the Open Road
in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife”
The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
Released April 1
The review in 90 feet or less
The premise, simple: After ripping open a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards, a guy spends 48 days during the summer of 2015 traversing America. It starts in the Bay Area, heads through Southern California, sweeping across the Southern states, a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, N.Y., left turn to Las Vegas and then to a cemetery headstone in Inglewood. That’s more than 11,000 miles through 38 states.
The goal, translucent: Interview every baseball player represented in that pack. If possible. A way to return to one’s baseball card-loving roots. Discover more about the person than just a set of numbers on the back stained in chewing gum.
The execution, perfect imperfection: Which makes this far more enriching than we could have ever imagined.
When your lineup is tracking down former Dodgers Steve Yeager and Rick Sutcliffe, former Angels Gary Pettis and Al Cowens, Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, former All-Stars Doc Gooden, Garry Templeton, Vince Coleman and Lee Mazilli, plus — and the real gems — Richie Hebner, Jaime Cocanower, Rance Mulliniks and Randy Ready, get ready for some mixed results and unexpected pleasures.
That’s the reality of how a fundamental idea evolves, against the grain, label up.
Just as how this college-prof-turned author may have thought that once he could finally get a publisher to bite on it, he could go around the country and connect with people in promoting it.
Things can just go sideways.
Balukjian, a 39-year-old director of the National History and Sustainability Program and biology teacher at Merritt College in Oakland, has done freelance pieces for several publications, but he need not worry about his writing skills here. The stories speak for themselves, and what becomes a cathartic trip for the soul also allows him to come to grips with some other things in his life.
This is definitely an adventure where we need to do little explaining and trust that the freshness of the ride will get one quickly immersed and unable to put it down until the journey finishes. But then again, we can’t help ourselves.
The guy gets to watch kung fu movies with Templeton, play Cards Against Humanity with Cocanower, go bowling and lift weights with Ready. And listen to those who definitely have lives on the other side of the diamond experience.
With Yeager in the leadoff role of this lineup, we find him back at his Jersey Mike’s shop in Granada Hills, doting on his wife, Charlene, and with his kids, trying to quit smoking (he eventually does), and admitting: “There might be some people that think I’m tougher than I look. Don’t let the facial expression get you. I can sit there and watch a game with my glasses on and look like I’m boring a hole through you, but I might not be … Ya know, if the kids do something good, I cry.”
By the way, in that ’86 set of Topps, it started off with Boomer as a Dodger, but he was done with the team by then after 14 seasons and starting a last go-around with Seattle as a 37-year-old backup to Bob Kearney and Scott Bradley. We still can’t even get our masks around that one.
Templeton, who Balukjian tracked down in San Marcos, confides in having a daughter in April of ’74, when he was 18, two years before his debut in St. Louis. He ended up gaining full custody during her high school years when she moved to San Diego and joined the rest of the Templeton family. But the more he reveals, the better this visit gets.
It’s not unlike what Balukjian uncovers when he get around to Cowens.
He rests in Inglewood Park Cemetery across the street from the Forum. Acacia Slope, Lot 432, Grave F. The headstone: “Cowens, Husband, Father, and Grandfather, 1951-2002.” With his nickname: Ace.
“I rest his baseball card on top (of the headstone) and take a picture,” writes Balukjian, after learning far more than he might have expected after locating Cowens’ closest surviving family members.
If it takes the right person at the right time to shuffle this deck, Balukjian and all his baggage brings it to us with honesty, humor, and an inquisitive nature that allows you to ride shotgun without sharing in the expenses. When it’s over, you might wonder why you never did this yourself. Maybe you will — aside from time, money and perhaps social distancing issues?
And when it’s done, Balukjian leaves us with this sort of epiphany:
Everything changes except for this one constant: As long as you’re breathing, you will always have whatever is right in front of you. Make it count.
A very cool author Q&A
From his home in Oakland, Dr. Balukjian, a self-proclaimed bug collector, took a semester off teaching at Merritt College in Oakland (you can see his RateMyProfessor.com scores when he taught biology at Laney College) so he could focus on this book promotion, but he really hasn’t been able to spring himself loose. As the director of the Natural History & Sustainability Program at Merritt, he is trying to help coordinate ways to keep students engaged with online classes through May.
Balukjian, who also once started a Ph.D. program in Environmental Science Policy and Management at Cal-Berkley in 2006, has this classic description of himself on his website:
Brad Balukjian is a doctor, but not one who can write you a prescription (unless you’re a sick insect). He hated school when he was little, but now loves it so much that after graduating from the 23rd grade, he has moved to the other side of the desk to teach natural history at Merritt College in Oakland, California. He has strong opinions about the value of education, exposure to nature, and utility infielders from the 1980s, and is pursuing a hybrid career of teaching, writing, and research to get the word out that science is accessible and (gasp!) fun. He chose this path because he never wants to stop learning and apparently has a strong aversion to money. This is his first time writing in the third-person.
Balukjian, who once had an L.A. Times fellowship that allowed him write science stories while he was given a desk in the sports department at the old downtown building, gives us more about this book, about this process and what he wanted to achieve:
Did you think going in, most of these ex-players would accept the premise of your journey/book project and cooperate, based on how you approached this as some sort of social experiment, trying to document history as well as find a human side to a cardboard photo?
The beauty of the pack of baseball cards is to get a random sample. My favorite players were the underdog guys. This was my secret way to write about them. You could never do a book about Don Carmen or Jamie Cocanower or Randy Ready. What I tried to reinforce to all of them was that I wasn’t a traditional sports writer and this would be interesting beyond the field. That helped me. What was so rewarding and pleasant is how open they were, willing to be vulnerable.
It was also very interesting how you could incorporate your own journey into this, not just do a collection of “Whatever happened to …?” pieces that otherwise didn’t have a common thread.
I always knew this book would be tough and ambitious. I didn’t set out to write a “sports book,” but I knew it would get shelved in “sports,” where there are all sorts of biographies or stories about a particular season or a particular team. It’s rare, unless you’re that athlete who is the focus, to have the narrator integrated into the story. This becomes a mix of memoir, and baseball, and travel, and the challenge is how to keep it to 15 magazine profiles stapled together.
If I just wrote about the baseball lives of these guys, it would be a fun idea, but the book dies with the gimmick. The only way I could see it working, and the only way I was interested in it frankly, was to have a narrative arc. Not to be self-indulgent, but have me as the connective tissue with all these players. You need narrative tension and conflict and characters. That’s why I like to read creative non-fiction that’s character driven, not data driven. You’re there not just to inform but entertain. If you look at the end of every chapter, and take the whole book as a journey, the metaphor of the journey is going down a highway and you find a place to exit. You want to keep the reader away from that exit. One of the compliments I’ve received about this is how it has a “binge quality” to it. People have said they don’t want to stop reading. If I can propel you from chapter to chapter and keep you from exiting, I know I’ve done my job.
With that approach in mind, how could you pitch your book to publishers who just wanted the “name value” of the players instead of having you somehow tied into it?
I ran into a lot of resistance from agents and and editors who know industry but wanted to take me out of it. “Why would anyone want to read about you?” I didn’t think they got it, or saw the vision. It was frustrating. The reason this took so long to publish was because of years of rejections. There were many times I could have quit but I never stopped believing in the vision and the premise. I’m glad I never change it. It made me realize how adverse the publishing industry is to a new writer. The big five publishers would say: Great idea, but we want someone with 100,000 Twitter followers. That’s just short sighted.
I realized at some point: My book was the Don Carmen or Jamie Cocanower of the publishing industry. A $2,000 advance doesn’t pay any bills. The only way to make this viable is to hustle and bust more, so I embraced that part of it, and it has helped me prove them wrong, that there is an audience for this. To me, the book reflects my philosophy, to be open and honest and willing to be vulnerable and take risks. So I wrote about my experiences with OCD and mental illness and to show everyone has something to deal with, it doesn’t matter who you are. Athletes, too. They may look to have charmed lives, but they deal with a lot of the same stuff. We have a lot more in common that we realize. That’s the great take-away. It’s redefining what heroism is. As a kid they’re larger than life baseball gods. But to be heroic as an adult, for different reasons, to be courageous enough to be vulnerable, that’s what makes them heroic now. Not what they did as players.
We connected your book to how we remember “High Fidelity,” the movie version with John Cusack as a record store owner trying to figure out his past by visiting past girlfriends. What was the best way to explain what you were trying to achieve to those who continued to try to pigeon-hole it into something it really wasn’t?
There’s the book “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” by Cheryl Strayed, which became a best-seller and then made into a movie (in 2014 with Reese Witherspoon). In the same way that book isn’t just about hiking, with how she wove her own voice into the story, this one isn’t just about baseball. In sports, there’s also “Stolen Season: A Journey Through America and Baseball’s Minor Leagues” by David Lamb (in 1991) as he goes around in his RV to minor league parks. “The Boys of Summer” (by Roger Kahn) would be the ultimate comparison. There’s “The Teammates” that goes into Ted Williams (2003 by David Halberstam) … It surprises me why sports, which is so rich in metaphors, can have this intellectual bias in the publishing industry that hampers it all. I can pitch a science book and it would be so much easier to get past the gatekeepers because maybe they understand and relate better to it? I wish there were more books like this in the sports world. It’s shortsighted to say there’s no audience for it.
From our Southern California perspective, starting with Yeager and ending with Cowens is very much a circle of life. What did you discover first about Yeager in tracking him down with the first of your visits?
He has a reputation, which is true, of being a confident, fun-loving guy, very generous to the fans, grateful for what they gave him. He is all of that. But what was unexpected to me was how he opened up about his father. I saw a side of him, a hurt that he may not show much, but he opened up about his dad as an alcoholic.
There’s no question that this recurring theme of father-and-son comes up with many of these players as a central theme. But it’s comforting to see how Steve didn’t repeat those mistakes of the past. I had fun as well spending time with his son and seeing the close relationship they have.
Was it a purposeful ending to have it with Cowens at the cemetery?
When I mapped everything out, there was this erratic look that started and ended in California. I didn’t do all of California at the same time. It made sense to revisit L.A. Knowing Cowens was the only one in this pack who had passed away, maybe it was thematically better to close there. Yeager was a great, outgoing type, so let’s put him at the beginning. But I don’t think I knew until I went to the cemetery at the end that the book would coalesce, and make a nice way to end it. I was weary of making it poignant without being depressing. I wanted the book to be tonally uplifting and sobering in certain places.
With Cowens, the unexpected theme was the role of grace has in baseball. We hear a lot Jackie Robinson coming into baseball in the 1940s, then more and more integration as we get to the ’70s and even ’80s. But hearing about what Cowens went through, and how bad it was …
The same with Garry Templeton, from Santa Ana, and what he told me about this tragic event in St. Louis with Whitey Herzog that ended up defining him unfairly. It was horrific what fans were yelling at him, but no one in the media reported it. He was so forthcoming and open and I appreciated that.
You end the journey by discovering a quote that will be attached to how you interpreted all this. “Everything changes except for this one constant: As long as you’re breathing, you will always have whatever is right in front of you. Make it count.” How does that quote resonate in a world right now where we have people who are reacting in different ways to a pandemic of life-and-death proportions?
This book to me is much more about how to live your life than how to play baseball. There’s the quotes from Don Carmen about how we might not be able to control thoughts and feelings, but you can control your behavior. What we always have is the present moment. In middle of this craziness, it’s important to remember — fear is a powerful thing but not something to give into. All our anxiety may be elevated, but what we don’t know we don’t know, it’s the future and we can’t control in. As much as we have a heavy feeling now, we need to be present and smart and accept that things may be crappy now, and that it’s OK to feel down and anxious. But that’s the present and we know it will change and be OK. What’s good to keep in mind is don’t get too far ahead of yourself and let fear creep in. I look at my situation: I could collapse in frustration that I’ve had a 40-stop book tour canceled. But I’m not going to change by investing my energy into that feeling. This could be interpreted incorrectly, but I think moments like this remind me of my own insignificance. Don’t descent into self pity.
How it goes in the scorebook
Batting through the lineup with a better than .500 success rate is impressive. But this is more about WAR: Winning Against Resistance. From publishers. From those of us who even thought, sure, it’s a nifty art cover, but what’s the end game?
It’s possible that, if not for a jacket in the shape of a giant pack of Topps baseball cards, this could be overlooked. Still, that is a brilliant emotional connection to the subject matter and resonates on many sensory levels with our nostalgic memories of baseball card collecting.
Of all the other books done with a baseball card theme, this may be closer to “Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards,” by Josh Wilker (2010). But this time, the cards – or the players connected to them – do all the talking.
Wilker even offers this blurb for the book:
“Brad Balukjian’s The Wax Pack swiftly and joyfully unfolds like a baseball-loving version of Almost Famous. Bursting with life, laughter, and heartbreak, it’s an absolutely essential work of baseball literature; a rollicking page-turner; and a deep, rewarding search for wisdom.”
A mother of invention: The PBBClub.com
Attn Milwaukee Wisconsin travelers:
More background to savor
== Balukjian writes for CNN.com: “There’s a lot we can learn from these ex-players, especially during a pandemic, a time when we find ourselves alone often with our thoughts. There’s less to distract us, more time to spend in the past (guilt) or the future (fear). It’s in times like these that we need to remember that the script was written for us — a horrific virus has unleashed its fury on the world, an act we had no control over.”
== A review in the San Diego Union-Tribune: “The pack, as all did in those days, offers a time capsule. More than that, each card — all these years later — serves as a doorway to the joys and struggles behind the blur of statistics. If it spurs a trip along memory lane, one suggestion: Skip the gum.”
== ViceSports talked to Balukjian after his trip in 2014: “The trip also allowed Balukjian to discover other side adventures. In Los Angeles, he attended a yoga class in Hollywood. At the famous Bar Marmont at Chateau Marmont, he crashed an Ivy League mixer and ended the night at the bar with what may have been a prostitute trying to solicit him. In New York, he reconnected with his father who joined him for part of the trip. While driving, he got obsessed with the Serial podcast. Most importantly, Balukjian discovered that people are really nice to you when you eat at a restaurant and have a notebook out. We should all be pretend food critics for that very reason.”
== From ShepardExpress.com, Balukjian admits: “I’m grateful to all the people and flattered by all the praise, because I’m not a sportswriter, I don’t really have any connections in that world, so these very big name people being willing to read a stranger’s book and write a blurb about it, I’m very flattered by that. I think, of the ones I saw, I was most flattered by Susan Orlean, who is not a baseball or sports writer at all, and she wrote The Orchid Thief, which got made into the movie Adaptation. She’s a runaway New York Times best-selling writer who does the style of writing I do, narrative non-fiction. I am most pleased with that, because I always wanted to get the point across that this is not a baseball book, it really has broad appeal to anyone interested in a good general interest story. It’s really about relationships and people and these bigger themes. I think the fact that she read it as a non-sports fan and had such high praise, to me was a really good sign.”
== A review by SportsBookGuy.com: “One last item that should be mentioned about the book – it begins and ends with descriptions of how the cards and bubble gum are packaged, complete with a short story of an employee who works in the factory that packages the cards. Anyone who has tasted the bubble gum – a term used loosely to describe that hard stick – can relate to Balukjian’s torture when he consumed the gum.”
== A review from USSportHistory.com: “Wax Pack is a nice treat for baseball fans who collected cards as kids. Balukjian has done what most collectors can only dream about — making a pack of baseball cards come alive. It’s a great story, and one that comes with some sobering lessons. “Most people have one life to make it count. On my journey, I’ve learned that baseball players have two,” Balukjian writes. (p. 244). Or, as Carman, his boyhood idol, rationalized, “I don’t get to write the script. Whatever it is, I just get to respond. The only true freedom we have is the freedom to choose how we respond to a given situation.” (p. 144).”
== A review and podcast from WaxPackHero.com