“The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Beyond” by Brad Balukjian, University of Nebraska Press, 280 pages, $19.95. (pocket book)
Reading “The Wax Pack” by first-time author Brad Balukjian would be a great way to start the spring by celebrating the start of a Major League Baseball season threatened by an extended labor strike. As readers of this space know, the reviewer often features books on baseball, road trips, and memoirs. This book succeeds in all three categories.
Readers discover as soon as they open the clever faux waxed paper cover that Balukjian’s tale will be an American odyssey. He will drive his 2002 Honda Accord 11,341 miles attempting to locate the 14 cardboard heroes included in a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards. transform each two-dimensional photo into a fully developed actor in the much larger game called life.
The inevitable joys and sorrows of the passing years are on display as each player reveals their post-baseball fate. Since the critic’s own card collection was acquired in the 1950s, Balukjian’s quest included unknown players like Randy Ready and Jaime Cocanower as well as stars like Garry Templeton and Carlton Fisk. All were memorable by the book’s conclusion.
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The author’s personal story is equally compelling as his obsessive-compulsive disorder and multiple insecurities are exposed. Interacting during part of the trip with a pair of longtime pals provides a comedic interlude reminiscent of another of the critic’s favorite books, Steve Rushin’s 1998 “Road Swing.” Balukjian also manages to explore the bridging role that baseball can play in family relationships, including his own.
Eventually, the persistent author finds and speaks with all but two of the retired athletes. Most are remarkably willing to candidly share their life experiences, both good and bad. He also visits and plays catch with childhood idol, Philadelphia pitcher Don Carman, who became a sports psychologist. Only one player, Kansas City Royals outfielder Al Cowens, died, but his abandoned grave in California is located and an interview with his son provides one of the most poignant chapters in the book.
Readers deciding to join Balukjian on his journey will be glad they did. They will likely find themselves motivated to revisit their own pile of dusty cards unless their mothers threw them away. However, readers who manage to finish the movie “Field of Dreams” without shedding a tear should probably decline the invitation.
J. Kemper Campbell, MD, is a retired Lincoln eye doctor who enjoys living across the street from a retired Major League player.