A good baseball book is more than just a baseball book. It’s an underdog story, like Moneyball; it’s a story about ingenuity, like The MVP Machine; it’s a peek behind the curtain, like Ball Four.
What makes The Wax Pack special, is that it’s a little bit of all those things and more.
Besides being a baseball book, it is tough to pin The Wax Pack to one genre. It’s a simple enough idea: one guy opens a pack of 1986 Topps, cracks his teeth on the gum inside, and sets out across America to find the men on the cardboard inside. What comes from the journey, however, is compelling and unexpected.
As fans, we have an idea of what baseball players are like based on their play, their interactions with the press, and their public appearances. But those impressions reveal a thin sliver of the character behind the individuals and, as Brad Balukjian details impressively in the pages of The Wax Pack, there is much more humanity to the guys we think we know. Immediately into the cross-country roadtrip, the story evolves and themes emerge that will carry over from player to player.
Rance Mulliniks, the first player Balukjian visits, sets the tone, discussing his family life almost immediately. It seems a little surprising to the author, and thus the reader, but maybe should not have been. Baseball is a game about fathers and sons (and daughters as well, but none of the characters in this book are daughters), it’s a game that’s shared among families. In catching up with players after their careers, careers that consistently kept them apart from their families, it only seems right that the reckoning involves the others in their lives, those who stood by in the lean years and those who have filled in the years after.
Those folks are the ones who make up some of the most meaningful parts of the book, such as Garry Templeton and his large family, Rich Hebner and the family he still leaves behind, or Dwight Gooden Jr. and the family he’s still trying to have. By weaving his own narrative into the book, including his own relationship with his father and his own frailties, Balukjian enriches the narrative and makes it feel more approachable and universal.
Another theme that permeates The Wax Pack is what the author calls the “accidental Buddhism” shared by pro baseball players. These guys, who plied their trade in an unforgiving profession constantly looking for the next best thing, some of whom literally lost their jobs due to duplicitous management, were forced to focus their energy only on what was in front of them, on the things they could control. It led to many mantras and even a career in sports psychology for Don Carman, who shared his wisdom gleaned from the game: “I don’t get to write the script. Whatever it is, I just get to respond.”
Koans like this, the unintentional Buddhist leanings of baseball players of yore, have a resounding impact today, as people around the world huddle at home in order to slow the spread of a pandemic. Balukjian, of course, had no intention of writing a book to comfort readers in a time of international crisis, but that’s part of what makes it so good, in my opinion. The Wax Pack gives us baseball, travel, and human connection—all things that have been robbed of us as we try our best to stay healthy and safe—and it gives us wisdom to keep going. These things might not always feel so important, but there is such depth and such humanity to the book that it feels like it could offer something for whatever else is happening in the world. It may not be a canonical title like Moneyball or Ball Four, but The Wax Pack is certainly a fantastic baseball book worthy of your time.
For more about The Wax Pack, take a listen to my interview with Brad Balukjian or visit his website. The Wax Pack is out on April 12, and now more than ever local bookstores could use your support. If you have an independent retailer near you, consider buying a copy from them (many are delivering right now!). Of course, Barnes and Noble and Amazon also might be an important source of employment in your area, and the book is available there as well.