Bay Area writer Brad Balukjian traveled the country to track down the players inside one random 1986 pack of baseball cards to ponder the sport’s soul.
The idea itself is a slam dunk…well, er…a home run: open a sealed pack of Topps baseball cards from 1986 and track down each player inside to see what their lives are like after baseball. The ever-random draw of the cards would decide who was on the list—forgotten bench warmers, Hall of Fame legends, local fan favorites—as a means towards late inning introspection.
Part where-are-they-now investigation and another part American road odyssey, Brad Balukjian’s The Wax Pack: On the Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife goes deep into the post-career identity of players while often pulling back the curtain on much of the surface mythology within our great American pastime.
And it certainly helps that Balukjian—a biology professor at Merritt College and a lifelong baseball fan—drew a genuinely compelling pack, which included former All Stars like Rick Sutcliffe & Garry Templeton, fallen phenoms Dwight Gooden & Vince Coleman, as well as obscure bench warmers such as…well, you wouldn’t know them anyhow. Better yet, Balukjian also extracted Hall of Famer and notorious curmudgeon Carlton Fisk (yeah, that player Matt Damon and Robin Williams muse about in Good Will Hunting), who becomes the white whale of the author’s quest and sparks some tense yet hilarious Jackass-meets-Curb Your Enthusiasm scenarios during attempts of an interview.
Just as ESPN’s new Michael Jordan doc is filling a void for basketball fans right now, Wax Pack is a worthy chronicle for our present situation. It’s the right book not only for the indefinite postponement of the season, but for a reconsideration of player values in the wake of the Houston Astros extensive cheating campaign of the past few years.
So we caught up by phone to talk with Balukjian about stalking Carlton Fisk, baseball as buddhism and why the legendary pro wrestler The Iron Sheik is…a big fan of his book?
To start, do you mind just quickly rehashing your initial inspiration for the project and then also your motivation to actually get out and pursue it?
I’ve always wanted to write a book that allowed me to do the kind of narrative non-fiction that I had trained to do back when I was in college. As a writer, that is the sort of journalism and storytelling that I have always wanted to do.
I’m always thinking of book ideas and I think that it’s a nice device when a book has some kind of quest to the narrative. In thinking about the baseball cards that I collected as a kid, I always liked the players that were not the stars, but more the bench warmers and the underdogs. I always wanted to write about them when they were done playing, but I knew that each player alone couldn’t carry a book by themselves. So I had the thought that if you had a pack, you would get this random sample of players from that era and a lot of them would be these benchwarmers that I grew up having as my heroes.
So I really liked this idea I had that whatever guys are in a pack are the guys that I would go track down, and that would be the device to propel the book forward.
You probably get this question a lot, but was there any urge on your part to cheat, and basically curate your own pack of cards?
No, I’m a very conscientious guy and there was no way that I could have mixed cards together and been okay with that. It would have eaten me up to game the system. As I said in the book, I did open up more than one pack because if I just went with one there may have been several guys who were dead or maybe they all lived in the same place, it wouldn’t have been very interesting. But the guys who were in the pack that I choose were all in there together.
You pursued this project without a traditional book advance from a big publishing company…were there points when you were out on the road, maybe struggling to get interviews, where you questioned just what the hell you were doing?
I did….which made the book better, I think. The book is really the story of the trip and in order for any story to be interesting, there needs to be dramatic tension and conflict. If everything went great, it wouldn’t be a very good story. So I tried to work that into the narrative and there are a lot of moments in the book when I express my loneliness or more frustration. And it also revealed how passionate I was about the idea, and that I did it even though there were no guarantees or deals.
It’s also a shout-out to risk-taking as a writer, so I hope it inspires other people to take risks.
Well, it’s funny, because thinking about the players who were like the headaches of the pack for you—Carlton Fisk or Vince Coleman—would you have wanted to swap them out if you could or do they work almost as villains of the bunch?
Yeah, it goes back to how the story needs to have heroes and villains. I think it’s that much better because they didn’t all talk with me. If everyone was as wonderful as Randy Ready or Lance Mulliniks, I don’t think the book would be as good.
In that sense, which player surprised you the most with regards to the interviews that you did get?
Well, I’d say that Gary Templeton was surprising in how forthcoming he was. From what I read, I didn’t expect him to be this jovial charming guy, but he was so helpful and accommodating.
There was a lot that came out in the Al Cowen story that I had no idea about. Again, you read these sanitized versions of things: I read about him being drafted and that it was this great day, and then I found out from his son that he had got shot in the stomach that day. So it was like, “Okay, there is a lot more to this story than has ever been reported before.”
Pretty much across the board I was pretty surprised by how open the guys were and willing to talk about deeply personal things, and things that made them emotional and vulnerable.
And with that in mind, what were the unexpected themes that emerged from when you first came up with the idea for the book and then actually got out on the road to pursue it?
Right, so going in the theme was: What happens to these players after baseball? And then, what evolved was the importance of the father-son relationship and how many of these guys had had broken relationships with their fathers and how they processed that. The theme surfaced of how players are accidental Buddhists and how they are really good at living in the present and letting go of failure in the past. There’s also the theme of the tortoise and the hare: the guys who were the least accomplished baseball players end up being the most successful after baseball. And then there is a shift in how we see heroes as kids versus as adults, and that these guys were heroes of mine as a kid for just their being on a baseball field; and as an adult, I find they are heroic but for different reasons: for being open and flawed, sort of de-mystifying that larger-than-life aura that they have when you are a kid.
Yeah, that really struck me a lot reading the book: this re-emerging theme that great stats as a player don’t necessarily equate to a well-adjusted human being off the field.
Right. Well, as an adult I don’t understand fan culture where it’s like other adults are worshipping these players. To me, they’re just people who had this amazing talent but that talent was very fleeting. And that’s another theme of the book—impermanence; that everything is fleeting, that everything ends.
In terms of your pursuit to talk with Carlton Fisk, if you could have gotten the interview, was there a main thing you would have asked him or that you wanted to know?
It’s a good question ’cause I honestly had no idea what I was going to ask him. With everyone else I had my game plan, but with him…it would have been this sort of ambush, so I wouldn’t have had the chance to go through a sequential list of questions and pick his brain. I think it would’ve actually been kind of cool for me to act like I didn’t know who he was and just start talking to him about orchids [one of Fisk’s post-baseball-career hobbies], which I think he would have appreciated.
That scene where you try to find him at the golf club made me squirm; like, reading it genuinely made me nervous.
It was like watching an episode of The Office, right? And if it made you squirm, how do you think I felt?
Well, I give you credit for going after it.
It could work as a lesson in taking chances as a reporter.
So what kind of feedback have you gotten from the players now that the book is out…and did you hear from any of the players who had originally turned you down?
I have not. Who knows…I would guess that some of them have heard about it, but I have not heard from any of the guys who turned me down. But I’m curious what they think.
The guys that I had talked to have been great. In fact, several of them were going to make appearances with me on a book tour which would have been starting now, but it had to get shelved. But hopefully I’ll get to do that with them down the line.
Well, I wasn’t sure where in the interview to ask or how exactly, but here you are releasing this book about baseball that you’ve worked on for 5 years right in time for the new season…and for the first time in MLB history there is no baseball. So, what role do you think the book can play in terms of filling that void?
I don’t pretend to think my book has any earth shattering significance at a time when there are obviously sad, tragic things happening in the world. But if there is any benefit, it is that people do need entertainment and distraction. And I wanted the book to be not just informative but entertaining. And if I can provide that, it’s a great service that we all need right now. The book has some somber aspects to it but I think it’s generally a fun read. So I hope people can get something out of that.
It’s been a strange time to try to promote a book. One nice thing that has come out of it is what we’ve called the Pandemic Baseball Book Club, where we created this whole site of baseball writers who have had their books affected by the pandemic. So we’ve done a whole series of interviews with each other, podcasts and other content to promote each other’s books.
I heard this interview with Keith Hernandez when he was promoting his biography last year, and he said that he was surprised by how current players had little sense for baseball history and who the figures were. So on the topic of the cards themselves, to what degree do you think they played into that with regards to teaching the stats to kids or do you think it’s a generational shift in how the game is viewed?
It’s a good question. I think from the perspective of fans, not having the cards could be a factor there. With the cards, you really got to know the players so well from a young age. It’s a little counterintuitive in the sense that now players specialize in baseball from a young age and don’t play other sports, whereas all these guys from the Wax Pack all (usually) played basketball, baseball and football. And so, on the one hand, they’re more hyper-focused on baseball, but on the other they’re not necessarily gaining an appreciation for the heritage and the history.
Some of that might be the paradox of too much choice that we have in society. You know, there are as many hours in the day now as in 1986, but now, how many more options do you have in terms of what to read and watch, and what to do? So, I just think people aren’t spending as much time with that material as when they had fewer choices.
Hey, not sure if you’re up for it, but can you explain what the hell happened between you and the Iron Sheik?
Did you see that he tweeted about the book?
No! I didn’t.
Yeah, last week on Twitter he gave it a shout out, which was nice.
So wait, you had tried to write a book on him?
Yeah my first book idea was way back in 2005. I was always a fan of his growing up and he has this amazing story: he was a body guard for the Shah of Iran and he defected after his friend got assassinated by the Iranian secret police..and he was an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic team in 1972… So, even outside of pro wrestling he has an amazing story. I knew it could be a great book, and I envisioned this book where I could talk about all these things that I would do with the Iron Sheik in the present day and then tell his story chronologically in flashbacks. So I moved to the suburb of Atlanta where he lived and spent a couple of months working with him, but he was just still addicted to drugs and he was so volatile that the whole thing was just a disaster … so I eventually just cut my losses and came back to California.
But I ended up staying on good terms with him. I called him last week and said hi.
Just to end locally….did the A’s have a shot this year?
Yeah, they looked good. It’s really sad this is all happening because they’ve got a great team.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
Brad Balukjian’s The Wax Pack: On the Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife is available now via the University of Nebraska Press.
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