Many baseball fans — including myself — are missing baseball during the current public health crisis. Fortunately, a number of new books about the sport have been released recently, including Brad Balukjian’s “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife.”
Balukjian was scheduled to visit M & M Bookstore in Cedar Rapids as part of his book tour, but of course, that trip has been postponed. Happily, however, we still can read about his 2015 trip to visit the former Major Leaguers represented in a single pack of baseball cards from 1986. “The Wax Pack” offers something even avid fans rarely think about: a glimpse into the post-baseball lives of players who were not necessarily superstars but whose combination of grit and talent was enough to take them to the highest level of the game.
Balukjian, who has written quite a bit for various magazines, had long been hoping to land on a topic for a book-length work. His baseball fandom — and love of trading cards — eventually pointed the way.
“I stumbled on the idea of just thinking about how the packs I bought as a kid ... how the actual physical packs evoke or made me think of a book. You have 15 cards in a pack and maybe 15 chapters in a book,” Balukjian explained by phone from his home in Oakland, Calif. “And the idea (was) that what was great about the pack was that you got this sort of random sample of guys. So I thought if I ever wanted to write about what happened to the players that I grew up collecting, a great way to get at that would be to use the pack as a device to get a random sample. I thought it sort of captures the thrill and the fun of opening those packs — the thrill of the unknown — and kind of being constrained by whatever guys happened to be in there.”
So, he opened a pack of cards from 1986 and set out on a road trip to visit the players. Along the way, he considers his own life, as well.
“The idea itself — writing a book based on a pack — you could write so many different types of books with that conceit. I wrested for a while with how I wanted to approach the idea. At first, I thought maybe I would write a book (about) the 1986 season told through the perspective of these different players. But ultimately I felt like, the vision that came out was more personal. I wanted the book to really go beyond baseball and to appeal as broadly as possible, even to non-sports fans,” he said. “So I thought if I could intersperse my story with the players’ and create this overarching narrative, this story where I’m kind of the connective tissue between all these players, I could address issues beyond baseball ... and talk about our relationship with fear and relationships and the different struggles we all deal with, that it would make for a more compelling book and one that non-sports fans could appreciate.
“I would say this book has more in common with ‘Killing Yourself to Live’ (by Chuck Klosterman) or even ‘Wild,’ that book by Cheryl Strayed, than it does with baseball books. Ostensibly, ‘Killing Yourself to Live’ is about rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s really about bigger themes. ‘Wild’ is not really about hiking, it’s about bigger universal themes.”
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Among those universal themes is a deep interest in — and affection — for the underdogs of the world. He identifies with those who have had to overcome adversity in pursuit of reaching a goal or finding justice and fairness in the world.
“I know what it’s like to be an underdog ... I’ll never forget that ...,” he said of his childhood challenges. “When you go about that kind of adversity early on ... that builds in a lifelong humility that is only there from that experience. It’s an acquired humility, and I’m grateful for that because it keeps me from getting too far over my skis. ... That’s something that’s consistent across my career and my life — I’m always wanting to fight for the underdog.”
It’s easy to imagine a follow-up to “The Wax Pack.” After all, there are plenty of unopened baseball packs from many different years that could reveal more and more stories of former players. But Balukjian is unlikely to pursue the project further.
“I think the appeal of the book is the novelty. Sequels are usually not as good as the originals, right? So I don’t think I could do something as well. It’s a pretty unique book, I think.”
He is eager to head out on the road to promote the book, but is resigned to the idea that it may not be possible until next year. In the meantime, he’s made some online connections with other authors of baseball-themed books.
“One of the nice things that’s come out of all this is that several of us in the same boat came together and we formed this group called the Pandemic Baseball Book Club — people who have baseball books that have been affected ... and we are basically helping each other promote our books ... It’s been really cool to not only meet other baseball writers, but become friends and help each other.”
Readers can learn about this season’s crop of baseball books at PBBclub.com.