Brad Balukjian has done what most collectors have only dreamed about — making a pack of baseball cards come alive.
Balukjian’s upcoming book, The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife, mixes the “On the Road” feel of Charles Kuralt with Lawrence Ritter. The book is the culmination of six years of research, interviews and observations that will be released April 1 by University of Nebraska Press.
The book is also available for pre-order in hardcover and via Kindle on Amazon.com.
Balukjian’s book examines the 14 cards — plus a checklist — he pulled from a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards. Balukjian devotes a chapter to each player (the checklist is wisely saved for the epilogue), meeting with most of them during a whirlwind 48-day cross-country tour during the summer of 2015 that put 11,341 miles on his 2002 Honda Accord as he traveled through 30 states.
“This was challenging financially because I was funding my own journey,” said Balukjian, who earned a Ph.D. in entomology from the University of California at Berkeley and currently teaches biology at Merritt College in Oakland, California.
It was also challenging from a logistics standpoint, as Balukjian tried to contact players to set up meetings. He could not connect with Al Cowens, who died in 2002, but he did get in touch with his family.
Some players, like former player-turned-real estate agent Rance Mulliniks, were easy to find.
“The easiest person’s phone number to get in the world is a real estate agent,” Balukjian said in a NewBooksNetwork podcast released Thursday.
In other cases, “you had to become like a stalker.”
“And even when you found them, it didn’t mean they were going to talk to you,” Balukjian said.
Case in point. Carlton Fisk and his agent blocked Balukjian’s efforts with the same grit the Hall of Fame catcher used in preventing runners from scoring. Balukjian, however, devised a hook slide of his own and wrote an entertaining chapter. It’s a lighthearted read.
Dwight Gooden was the only player who requested payment, but apparently Balukjian’s $700 — $500 for Doc, $200 for his son — was not good enough. Gooden was a no-show — at his own home. And Vince Coleman grew up in Jacksonville, but Balukjian is still looking for him. Balukjian tried connecting with him in 2015 during spring training in Phoenix, where the former speedster was working as a baserunning instructor for the Chicago White Sox. “He was as cordial as a marooned crab,” Balukjian writes in The Wax Pack.
But the players Balukjian did speak with are the heart and soul of The Wax Pack, as each former athlete has a compelling. Some are inspiring; some are melancholy. All of them are interesting because Balukjian puts the reader into the conversation. Baseball players are typically finished with their careers by the time they reach their mid-30s, so they have to find ways to carry on after the cheering stops. Most do not dwell on the past.
“Baseball players are accidental Buddhists,” Balukjian said. “Without even knowing it, they were really, really good at being in the present.”
They were comfortable in their own skins, too, and most embraced the visit. Balukjian bowled with Randy Ready and watched him thumb through a dating app on his phone (“I’m on Tinder with Randy Ready”) watched kung fu movies with Garry Templeton, chatted with Steve Yeager at the Jersey Mike’s sandwich shop he runs in California with his wife, and went to the zoo with his boyhood idol, Don Carman.
“I didn’t have any special resume. I’m a fan of that era, and I’m a writer, but mostly I write about science, and I’m a biologist, so that was also a challenge, because I didn’t have an ‘in,’” Balukjian said. “It wasn’t like I was already a personality in sports journalism, or I had connections, which I think is a testament to the fact that so many guys were so gracious to me.”
Baukjian confesses early in The Wax Pack that “the fan in me is at odds with the journalist,” but he does a good job separating the two.
His observations are also keen.
Balukjian notes that in western Oklahoma, “diversity consists of blond, strawberry blond and dirty blond.” Or, “she stares at him with the compassion of a pitchfork.”
Balukjian’s observations about his book are just as sharp.
“This is not really a book about baseball. There’s plenty of baseball in there,” Balukjian said. “But baseball is kind of a vehicle for some bigger themes that we get into.”
One theme was vulnerability. Players opened up about abuse from their fathers, failed marriages (“I’ve successfully completed two marriages,” Ready quips) and other personal demons.
“What surprised me over and over again on this trip was how quickly, in the span of having just spent maybe an hour with some of these guys, how quickly they got very real and emotional, and showed a lot of vulnerability,” Balukjian said.
Fishing, Balukjian writes in The Wax Pack, is not about catching fish. To be sure, tracking down the players in his pack of 1986 Topps cards was the lure. Talking to those players in real life and learning who they were away from the field was the hook.
The cards/players Balukjian writes about from the pack included:
More stories from the book and the struggles to get it published were discussed in my chat with the author on the New Books Network podcast below.