Thursday, April 30, 2020

Howie Balaban Book Reviews: The Wax Pack

The Wax Pack - Brad Balukjian
University of Nebraska Press
280 Pages

Subconsciously, I suppose I am missing baseball more than I realize. Last week in this space I discussed a bit of baseball history after reading the excellent biography on Oscar Charleston. Today, another baseball book takes the mound. Just recently released, The Wax Pack is a book that will pitch a perfect game for many of its readers. (And as far as book covers go, this one is just gorgeous!) Told expertly by Brad Balukjian, this story isn’t so much a book about baseball, but is, I feel, a book about life’s chapters. Or to keep up the baseball metaphors, a series of baseball games.

The premise of the book is simple: Balukjian decided several years ago to buy an unopened was pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards he found on eBay. He chose 1986 because that was the first year he remembered collecting cards. Then, he set out to hunt down each player he pulled from the pack and write about them. However, knowing these are players from a 34-year-old card pack, he chose a different angle: what is life like when playing a game for a living is no longer an option? After all, the media that follows teams and their players has already reported on their careers. This is about the stuff that wasn’t reported.

In a wonderful twist of fate, Balukjian pulled a Don Carmen card. Carmen happened to be his favorite player at the peak of his collecting, so the enthusiasm that oozed from the pages of a fan meeting his childhood sports hero was palpable. (Imagine if you will Charlie Brown going on the same quest and lucking out by pulling a Joe Shlabotnik card. I applaud any of you who get this particular reference.)

The card collecting boom from the 1980s to the early 1990s was one I participated in by going to a local card shop almost every weekend. Living in Virginia Beach around the corner from the Virginia Beach Farmer’s Market, I was able to walk to a place called “Who’s On First?” and spend my weekly allowance on a bunch of my favorite players and several stars of the game. I even occasionally “gambled” with the store owner. We’d each buy a pack and whoever wound up with the pack that had the player with the highest career batting average would keep both packs. When my family moved away, he gave me an 11-by-14 glossy print of Frank Thomas, already matted and suitable for framing, as a way of saying thanks for being a good customer. Generally speaking, card collecting was a blast.

I was actually jealous reading Balukjian’s reaction to getting his wax pack in the mail, even though he already knew that most of the cards underneath the wrapper would likely be “commons” because that is just how baseball is. (Anyone who ever had a subscription to Beckett Baseball Card Monthly could tell you about commons.) Balukjian lucked out in his pack, as all but one had careers of 10 or more years in the Bigs. He also drew a Hall of Famer (Carlton Fisk), and woulda-coulda-shoulda been a Hall of Famer (Dwight Gooden), a few former All-Stars (Vince Coleman, Garry Templeton), and a former Cy Young winner (Rick Sutcliffe). The rest of the pack featured the abovementioned Carmen, Rance Mulliniks, Steve Yeager, Gary Pettis, Randy Ready, Jaime Cocanower, Lee Mazzilli, Rich Hebner, and Al Cowens. That comes to a total of 14 players. The 15th card was every collector’s nightmare: a checklist.

Of the 14 players Balukjian sought out to find at the start of the book, he successfully interviewed 9. An interview was set up for Gooden, but circumstances didn’t allow it to take place. He struck out in every possible way he tried to find Coleman. Fisk’s segments in the book – he’s one of only a pair of “Wax Packers” to earn two chapters – include attempt one and a second, much more humorous (and downright bold) attempt during a Hall of Fame Induction Weekend in Cooperstown, NY. Pettis, a member of the Houston Astros coaching staff during the author’s adventure, was completely unavailable. The last non-interview was for Al Cowens, the only player of the pack no longer alive.

Yet for each failure, there was success. While not actually speaking to the players, Balukjian did manage to talk to people who know them now, or knew them then.

Along the way, as I read this book, I saw parallels to my own life with many of the players. For many of them, playing was life to the point that it took them significant time to find what the book’s cover calls “Baseball’s Afterlife.” In their own way, most of the players who were interviewed have succeeded in life after the game. Some work at jobs almost anyone can get, proving that athletes are just like us at their core. Some are still around the game full-time. Some have had multiple marriages and some have familial issues.

However, what is important to note is that they have lived. Just because one door closed on them, they did not eternally sulk. Rather, they found another one to open.

What I found fascinating was how each player opened up about their lives during baseball and after, and how a common theme was the differences. For instance, the players who had divorced their wives from their playing days understood how and why their marriages ended. In short, being away from home for roughly half of each year, away from wives and children, makes it difficult to be husbands and fathers. This theme made me appreciate the monotony of everyday life, and it helped to humanize the athletes we all look up to in our own way. Furthermore, it was also evident that the players whose own fathers were not ideal served as prime examples of what NOT to do, and whenever Balukjian got a chance to talk to those players’ kids for the story, it showed through with admiration and affection.

In a handful of chapters, I found myself relating to the players themselves, rather than the author. Oddly, one of the players I felt an immediate connection to was Rick Sutcliffe. When he was offered a job at the Major League level after his playing days ended, he told the story of how he requested going instead to Idaho and a low-level minor league team. I immediately thought of my newspaper career and how the most fun I’ve ever had reporting was in small towns. As a managing editor of a weekly in suburban Des Moines, and as a reporter here in Western New York, I always felt I was doing a community service. It was a joy to “be there” and then tell a story about it. In short, it was about “heart” and never, ever, about the money.

I also found myself nodding with the back-and-forth written about Jaime Cocanower and his wife Gini. This chapter, called “The Battery,” showed how marriages can last when the couples in them work together, like a pitcher and catcher. Support each other when necessary, back off if needed, and remember to have fun. (The fun part is nailed here as Balukjian met up with the Cocanowers on July 4th Weekend for a barbecue and even played a hysterical game of Cards Against Humanity with them.)

Another thing to note was that in the chapter about Coleman there was a story from his playing days about him not knowing who Jackie Robinson was. This reminded me of a scene in the movie Little Big League when a young player looks to a veteran and says, “The Dodgers played in Brooklyn?”

Stuff like this is too common in baseball, and with a game that has such a history, I wish that players who are entering the Majors had some sort of “Baseball History 101” by the time they got to Triple-A. (This isn’t necessarily part of the book, but the book made me think of this.)

Wrapping this up, I’ll mention this: I’m turning 40 in July. Most of the players were done with their playing careers before that age. (Fisk played a bit longer.)

Supposedly, life begins at 40, if the funny gifts are to be believed. But if life is like a baseball game, then maybe 40 is just a line of demarcation in a series of games. The Wax Pack showed me that.

I was never an athlete, so I can’t say that I know what it must have been like for the players featured in Balukjian’s quest. However, I can say that the job and career I once had and took pride in will likely never return in a way that will allow me to re-enter that field. In my own way, the game I played told me it was time to go. So I have decided to “play a new game.” I’m going back to school starting this summer to work my way toward certification in a new career. I’m still writing the book I introduced on this site last year (it’s a slow process and much more intensive than I ever dreamed it would be). I started working out again.

If there’s another game on the horizon, I want to be ready.

Howie Balaban would love to find the time and money to do a hockey version of The Wax Pack. However, he knows if that ever were to happen, every former NHLer would just laugh at his lack of skating ability.