Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Review: The Wax Pack (2020)

By Brad Balukjian

"The Wax Pack" starts with an interesting concept from an unusual baseball author.

Brad Balukjian doesn't have the standard biography. He has a Ph.D. in entomology from the University of California at Berkeley, and currently teaches biology at Merritt College in Oakland, California.

Balukjian admits he's always been a bit of a nerd, probably in part because he's been diagnosed with OCD. He's been a baseball fan for much of his life, and had the thought of seeing what some of his childhood heroes are like now.

Here's the concept - he bought an unopened pack of baseball cards from 1986, opened them up, and tried to figure out a way to meet everyone in that particular pack. Balukjian admits he actually bought a few different selections and picked one, if only so that most of the guys on the cards were still alive about 30 years later.

The 15 cards became 14 players, thanks to the inclusion of a checklist. Balukjian hopped in his car and drove across the country and back to chase them down. The list included everyone from Carlton Fisk to Jamie Cocanower, which you must admit covers a wide range of talents and careers. Al Cowens was the only one of the 14 who has passed away, and Balukjian checks in with a family member and a gravesite there. The author also looks up his favorite player of all time, Don Carman, as well as an old girlfriend and his father along the way as well. When you can see middle age, as Balukjian was at the time this was researched, you start feeling a little more nostalgic.

Balukjian takes a different approach than most journalists would use. He's more interested in the roots of the players and how they are handling life after retirement from playing than the details of their careers themselves. At the front end, he discovers several who came from divorced families, perhaps showing that athletics can be a refuge for the kids in such situations. There was still plenty of games of catch along the way between fathers and sons, though. At the other end, a good-sized number stayed close to the game.

Balukjian makes a a not unexpected but interesting discovery along the way - the level of cooperation to the idea is more or less inverse to the level of stardom that the player obtained. In other words, Cocanower couldn't have been nicer, inviting the writer to the house for a July 4 picnic. Meanwhile, Fisk was totally uncooperative, and Balukjian ended up getting into something of a shouting match with Fisk's agent over the phone. Rick Sutcliffe, a former Cy Young Award winner and television analyst, scores points as the most down to earth of the bigger names of the 14. Good for him. Vince Coleman never was located and Gary Pettis wasn't allowed to do interviews in his role as a coach for the Astros. No one said meeting everyone in the pack was going to be easy.

With that covered, the key question remains: Does it work? That may depend on your viewpoint, Mr. or Ms. Reader.

It's interesting to read about the players who were willing to sit down and talk at length about their lives. They all have a story to tell, partly because they are exceptional simply to play in the major leagues (and, of course, be on the front of a baseball card). But at times this has something of a "What I did on my summer vacation" feel to it. It's more of a journal of the trip, and the personal side of it gives this a less-than-traditional tone.

The early reviews of this book have been rather glowing. Even George Will was willing to supply some happy words for the sake of publicity. I'm not quite ready to go that far. The book held my interest, but I'm not sure I'll remember much beyond the idea for any length of time - well, except about Fisk's prickly personality.

You might find Balukjian better reading company for a long trip like this than I did. Therefore, by all means feel free to take a look at "The Wax Pack." If you like the concept, you'll be willing to go for the full ride.

Three stars

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Sunday, February 9, 2020

Review: The Game (2018)

By George Howe Colt

It seems difficult to grasp the idea that one of the most famous games in college football history - and one that doesn't date back to antiquity - took place in the Ivy League.

In 1968, Harvard and Yale both went into their season-ending rivalry game with undefeated records. It looked bleak for the host Harvard team as it trailed by a good-sized margin. But the Crimson scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to earn a 29-29 tie. The school newspaper came up with a headline later that summed up the game perfectly (from the school's standpoint): "Harvard beats Yale, 29-29."

That's the starting point for George Howe Colt's book, "The Game." But, naturally, it's a lot more than that.

Begin with the fact that Colt has an interesting group of people that were involved in the game. Some of our best and brightest come out of Harvard and Yale, two of the top universities in the country. So we know from the start that they will have a lot to say, and that they will say it well.

Then we mix all that with the times. You might have heard about the Sixties, when many of our certainties turned to mush. It was a time of movements - the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the anti-war (Vietnam) movement. They were pushing America in different directions.

You can imagine how that all went over at Harvard and Yale, the most conservative of our educational institutions. They had been happy in the past to teach the children of alumni and top prep school graduates to move into the useful places among the elite of society. All of a sudden, that wasn't good enough. The schools had to reach out to those who didn't fit the old stereotypes, and slowly include them. That meant everything from the start of a black studies program to taking the initial steps of making women full partners in the experience.

But all of that, as of 1968, had to take something of a backseat to the Vietnam War. The students at both schools were looking at the military draft once their undergraduate education was completed, and thus their concerns and questions about America's participation in the conflict in Southeast Asia were immediate. Could anyone concentrate on a mere football game under those circumstances?

Indeed they could. Harvard and Yale still could have an impact on the national sports media in those days, perhaps out of habit. The idea of those teams playing for a conference title while both of them were unbeaten was too irresistible to ignore. Part of the attraction was that the Bulldogs had two stars on offense that were almost too good to be true. Brian Dowling was the All-American boy as a quarterback, a kid out of Cleveland who hadn't even lost a game since he was in seventh grade. Fullback Calvin Hill could have played anywhere in the country, and a coach once said he could have played at any of the 22 positions on the field. Hill became a first-draft draft choice of the Cowboys and had a fine pro career; you may have heard of his son, basketball Hall of Famer Grant.

Colt takes us through the season nicely, introducing us to the players and their circumstances along the way. The Harvard team is a bit more anonymous because of the lack of star power, unless you could a future movie star - Tommy Lee Jones. (Meryl Streep also has a cameo role in the book as the girlfriend of Harvard player Bob Levin.) The coaches - John Yovicsin of Harvard and Carm Cozza of Yale - also receive their share of attention.

Finally, the game arrives, and Colt - who was there and still has the ticket stub - makes the game come alive nicely. He combines observations of film with personal recollections. It's striking just how much had to go right, in the form of breaks like fumbles and officials' decisions on 50-50 calls, in order for Harvard to pull off the miracle. He ends the book with a non-football event, the student strike at Harvard in 1969 that could be described as a university having a nervous breakdown. The epilogue brings us up to date on what happened to the rich cast of characters after graduation.

The author has a trick, or at least a technique, up his sleeve along the way. Until that epilogue, the story is immersed in the time it happened. The interview questions must have been more "What was it like?" than "What does mean?" It really adds to the feeling of the reader of what it was like to be a part of that turbulent era.

There will be those who don't want to go back and read about any Ivy League football game from more than 50 years ago. That's their loss. "The Game" is a rich mixture of sports and culture that has plenty to teach us about both.

Five stars

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