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

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com.

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