Sunday, August 30, 2020

"The Wax Pack: On The Open Road In Search of Baseball's Afterlife"

With this continuing pandemic going on all around the world, I had to find ways to pass the time while in my house. I watched plenty of TV and movies, and read and re-read lots of books. But I received a book to review that I really enjoyed reading, and naturally it was on baseball: "The Wax Pack: On the Open Road In Search of Baseball's Afterlife" (University of Nebraska Publishing) by Brad Balukjian. The book is based on a concept I can relate to, as Balukjian took a pack of baseball cards from 1986 from Topps, and decided to check out the post-baseball lives of the 15 men he unwrapped. I grew up collecting baseball cards, and I thought it sounded like such a great idea. 

But a lot of people in the publishing world weren't so taken with it, as Balukjian was rejected 38 times before he finally found a publisher. Balukjian actually opened the pack of cards thirty years after it first came out, chewed on the gum enclosed inside (which wasn't a pleasant experience) and decided to see what became of the players who were in his pack. The players range from a Hall of Famer (Carlton Fisk), highly decorated pitchers (Dwight Gooden and Rick Sutcliffe), infielders who made their mark (Garry Templeton, Randy Ready, Rance Mulliniks), and guys who never really made it in the game (Jaime Coconower). 

Balkujian starts in California where he lives (he's a writer and a biology teacher at Merritt College in Oakland) and criss-crosses the country to find all the players. (One he could not visit was Al Cowens, who died in 2002.)  He did this in 2015 and drove over 11,000 miles to speak with all his subjects. He would cross 30 states in 48 days. Previously he did nearly a year of research in contacting the 14 former big leaguers, following up with emails and phone calls. He met with all but two (Vince Coleman and Carlton Fisk with the only ones who declined to participate). 

In his interviews with the players, he made it clear that he was more interested in them as people than as ex-ballplayers. Many of them opened up to him about their personal lives, like the divorces they went through and the relationships that broke apart in their lives. Balukjian also retraces his own past, reconnecting with an old girl friend, and is very upfront about his lifelong battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Brad Balukjian has written a very different type of baseball book, one that I found fascinating, especially about how most of these former heroes view their lives after baseball. It was a very enjoyable read, following him on the road, and one very much worth your time to read, whether we are in a pandemic or not.

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