J. KEMPER CAMPBELL
“The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife” by Brad Balukjian, University of Nebraska Press, 280 pages, $19.95. (paperback)
Reading “The Wax Pack” by first time author Brad Balukjian would be an excellent way to begin spring by celebrating the beginning of a Major League Baseball season which was threatened by a prolonged labor strike. As readers of this space know, the reviewer often features books about baseball, road trips and memoirs. This book succeeds in all three categories.
Readers discover as soon as they open the clever, faux-wax paper cover that Balukjian’s tale will be an American odyssey. He will drive his 2002 Honda Accord 11,341 miles attempting to locate all 14 cardboard heroes included in a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards. Before the journey’s end, the author’s skill as both interviewer and writer turns each two-dimensional photo into a fully-developed player in the much larger game called life.
The inevitable joys and sorrows of the passing years are exposed as each player reveals his post-baseball fate. Since the reviewer’s own card collection was acquired during the 1950s, Balukjian’s quest included unfamiliar players like Randy Ready and Jaime Cocanower as well as stars like Garry Templeton and Carlton Fisk. All of them were memorable by the book’s conclusion.
People are also reading…
The author’s personal history is equally compelling as his obsessive-compulsive disorder and multiple insecurities are unveiled. Interaction for a portion of the trip with a pair of long-time buddies provides a comedic interlude reminiscent of another of the reviewer’s favorite books, Steve Rushin’s 1998 “Road Swing.” Balukjian also manages to explore the bonding role which baseball can play in familial relationships, including his own.
Eventually, the persistent author finds and talks with all but two of the retired athletes. Most are remarkably willing to candidly share their life experiences, both good and bad. He additionally visits and plays catch with boyhood idol, Philadelphia pitcher, Don Carman, who became a sports psychologist. Only one player, Kansas City Royals outfielder, Al Cowens, is deceased, but his forlorn gravesite in California is located and an interview with his son provides one of the book’s more poignant chapters.
Readers deciding to join Balukjian on his trek will be glad they did. They will probably find themselves motivated to review their own dusty stack of cards unless their mothers have thrown 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 ophthalmologist who enjoys living across the street from a retired Major League player.