Part Travelogue, Part Memoir, Part Investigative Journalism, This Baseball Book Defies Definition

Brad Balukjian’s debut, “The Wax Pack,” is as much a meditation on OCD, love, our relationships with our fathers, and the postmortem malaise of retirement, as it is about baseball.

By Greg Larson

September 7, 2020

THE WAX PACK

On the Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife

By Brad Balukjian

At times, Brad Balukjian wants you to believe he’s only a journalist. The Wax Pack author seems to think we’d prefer him as an objective chronicler of facts, detailing his journey to find an often-elusive group of former baseball players.

When he meets Don Carman, his childhood favorite ballplayer, the author informs the reader, “For the first five thousand miles of the journey, I’ve managed to maintain professional distance, working my way into the lives and psyches of the Wax Packers while remaining objective.”

Even with the qualifying clause, the author is wrong. He does in fact have amazing skill in finding people and discovering what makes them tick, but at no point is this delightful memoir anything close to objective. And his readers couldn’t be happier.

Most baseball fans will love The Wax Pack for gems like the author acquainting former journeyman Randy Ready to Tinder, or the behind the scenes story of Garry Templeton’s infamous 1981 suspension (hint: race had a lot to do with it), or the author spending Fourth of July at former Brewer Jaime Cocanower’s barbecue. Some readers will be tickled to the point of tears as the author pursues the very private Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, and others will be turned off by the author’s relentless effort to make good on his book’s sparkling premise:

What if I opened a pack of baseball cards from 1986 and tracked down every player inside?

Regardless, it’s precisely because of Balukjian’s tenacity and totally subjective experience that this book works: even when he’s ostensibly chasing former ballplayers, trying to discover who they are beyond the confines of baseball, he’s really up to something else.

When Balukjian can’t secure a meeting with former Gold Glove outfielder Gary Pettis, the author instead meets up with his ex-girlfriend for the first time in nearly a decade. He says, “In an alternate universe, we are married with an eight-year-old daughter. We live in Santa Barbara; she’s got her own bakery, where she goes every morning at 5:00 a.m. following a run in the dark, coming in to kiss me on the forehead before leaving for work.”

The author and Wax Packer Randy Ready at the bowling alley.

In another chapter that isn’t what it seems, the author gets in touch with Wax Packer Lee Mazzilli (Wax Packer is the author’s affectionate name for the players, based on the wax coating on old packs of cards). The real drama of the chapter lies in the author’s relationship with his father. He goes as far as taking his father on the journey for a few days, even inviting him to the interview with Mazzilli. Baseball fan or not, the closing scene of this chapter details an exchange between father and author that will pound your heart as Balukjian says everything you’ve never said to your own father.

If it weren’t for the author and his story, the men he chronicles would be a random group of former ballplayers, held together by nothing more than a thin layer of wax casing. And therein lies the beauty of The Wax Pack. The problem with many baseball books is that they float lazily on the surface, operating in the comfortable space of statistics, trite attempts at philosophizing, and funny clubhouse anecdotes. Seen from that superficial vantage point, this book is a fun summer romp about what life is really like after the majors. But Balukjian prefers to dig deeper, weaving in his struggles with OCD, intimate relationships, and imposter syndrome throughout. Through the process of unearthing his own story, both for the reader and for the Wax Packers, he creates a secret fraternal order between himself and the players he befriends.

In a later chapter, the author hunts for clues about the most elusive Wax Packer of all: himself. As he steps into the quaint lake town of Greenville, Rhode Island, he says: “If I had a baseball card, this is where the writer would go to find my story.” So that’s exactly what he does, and that’s exactly what this book is: Balukjian is both author and subject, investigating himself through the prism of former ballplayers — men he researches with the persistence of a journalist and illustrates with the love of a fan.

Despite Balukjian’s perfunctory protests, there’s nothing objective about The Wax Pack. It’s the engrossing adventure of a determined man who wants to track down his childhood heroes, and in doing so uncover who he really is. Nothing could be more subjective — and thank God for that.

Greg Larson is the author of “Clubbie: A Minor League Baseball Memoir.”

THE WAX PACK

On the Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife

By Brad Balukjian

Illustrated. 280 pp. University of Nebraska Press. $15.99

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Author, Yogi, and Lead Crypto Game Writer in Austin, TX. Greg-Larson.com

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Greg Larson

Greg Larson

Author, Yogi, and Lead Crypto Game Writer in Austin, TX. Greg-Larson.com

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