Unsolicited Book Review: THE WAX PACK by Brad Balukjian

Like a lot of academics who prize their reading (for fun) time, I have a habit of starting approximately three books in the process of finishing one. This is generally because I spend a lot of time in bookstores, and I can’t help that publishers have been loading shelves of late with enticing new non-fiction with enticing new covers. The University of Nebraska Press did masterfully to release a burst of dormant endorphins in the recesses of my Gen-Y brain with the cover to Brad Balukjian’s mid-2010’s travelogue, The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife. The artwork mimics the 1986 Topps baseball card packs to a T, and the book’s descriptor immediately clicked as something almost directly curated to my interests. The author’s bio on the back cover also revealed a kindred spirit: a history lecturer who owns a VCR. Also, I just saw that this book found a publisher after 38 rejections, so, more relatability right there.

From TheSixFifty.com

Regarding the book itself, I am of several minds. To be fair to Balukjian, there is an ember of jealousy in me that he got to be the one to both have this adventure and splatter his personality all over these pages. I did wince at moments, remembering my own experiences being shut down or ignored by potentially pivotal interview subjects. His persistence and fearlessness in engaging even distant relatives of certain players is hard not to admire. He also responsibly acknowledges some ethical dekes on his part, including lying about wanting to buy a rich-person golf-munity home in Southwestern Florida on the chance of running into the notoriously elusive Carlton Fisk at the clubhouse. One of my favorite moments in the whole book (perhaps showing my hand as a researcher forced to operate under late capitalism) came at the end of that sequence, when Balukjian’s fib gets him a free fine-dining lunch. I’m sure there were some embarrassing moments of explaining his presence somewhere (or being escorted out) that he may have omitted, but the candidness of Brad’s research methods were highly relatable and educational, as much as they would likely not stand up to IRB scrutiny.

I have been critical in the past about the insufferable Gen-Y/Millennial propensity to find an audience for their premature memoirs by using some pop-cultural Trojan Horse. Two that spring to mind are the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson and Jack of All Trades. The former uses Calvin and Hobbes to tell Joel Schroeder’s story, and the latter focuses on the same subject matter as Balukjian, albeit more tragically, insufferably, and self-effacingly on part of Stuart Eisenstein. Neither are essential, but I’d still recommend both if you’re anywhere near my demographic.

A positive spin on this came at various moments when Brad reached into his long-term battle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which usually thickened the narrative and helped contextualize his level of dedication to an array of subjects. Also, OCD is an over-used catch-all term by people who really don’t understand much about it. I was unfortunately in that group until reading an old acquaintance’s zine about his adult life with the illness, ceasing outright to use the term casually. I would imagine this book would do the same for a reader with a similarly myopic understanding.

I won’t deny that Balukjian could have kept some of his personal tangents to himself, but I acknowledge it would be hypocritical of me as a someone who encourages writers to “put their personality into their writing.” A generation of Americans who don’t remember life before Reality TV have been conditioned to expect some type of highly personal juice (e.g. mental health and/or sex confessionals) woven into a project’s greater DNA. The publisher may have had a hand in nudging Balukjian to include those asides, and I may be in the minority to say so, but whenever he diverted from the lives of his baseball cards, I couldn’t avoid getting distracted.

Whether or not the personal expose superstructure is your thing, I’m not going to throw stones at Balukjian. It’s easy to criticize an abstraction (millennial memoirs-in-disguise) when you ignore a couple of wider, sadder realities. Nostalgia is certainly a helluva drug (as reflected in my usage of a nearly-two decade old Chappelle’s Show reference), and it’s nothing that ’80s babies can claim. Shit; one of the first pop songs most of us remember learning the lyrics to was “Kokomo,” a song that effectively sound-tracked the Baby Boomers’ descent into, to quote Todd in the Shadows, “sad, paunchy middle age.” It also put Mike Love into the driver’s seat of Beach Boys, Incorporated , whose brand for the past three decades has been reminding old people about how great their adolescence was and trying to get young people on board.

One thing I wish Balukjian had expanded was asking that inevitable question of what happened to baseball cards. At least twice he gives cursory nods to a cocktail of overproduction, the rise of the internet, and a declining interest in Major League Baseball (that 1994 strike was a real kick in the teeth, and not just because it inspired Fox to give Joe Rogan his first sitcom job). He includes one glimpse of a more critical discussion in the epilogue, when former Topps factory employees mention “outsourcing” before changing the subject. The Jack of All Trades documentary approached the question more centrally, including an amazingly thoughtful interview with Jose Canseco about how much trading card manufacturers steered the resale market in the pre-internet age. None of Balukjian’s subjects here, both the wonderfully hospitable and enthusiastic (e.g. Jaime Cocanower, Garry Templeton, Randy Ready) and the less so (e.g. walking brand/enigma Carlton Fisk, the embattled Doc Gooden, and notorious asshole Vince Coleman) had much to say about trading cards. Many of them were still involved in baseball coaching and player development, some lamented the game having changed in broad terms, but none really offered any further insights into just how and why things changed so much in the ’90s (the decade most of them retired).

As Sports Illustrated reported recently, Major League Baseball is inching their way toward drastic adaptations which may be necessary to ensure the Great American Pastime isn’t some hollow shell of itself by its “200th birthday” in 2039. Granted, the 1839 birthdate and Abner Doubleday mythology were cooked up by the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 to help breathe life back into baseball following a prolonged identity crisis on the heels of the Great Depression. Again, millennials aren’t the first generation preyed upon with a nostalgia-laced breadcrumb trail.

Baseball cards are a real relic of Gen Y childhoods, partially because Major League Baseball was something that got “taken away” from many of us. As in other major American sports, owners spent the ’90s strong-arming cities into building expensive new stadiums for them with taxpayer money, ticket prices skyrocketed to the point that the only people who could afford tickets were rich transients (pick a random MLB broadcast and count the people behind home plate dicking around on their phones), and, echoing what happened in the ’60s, Basketball, Football, and Hockey all produced a bumper crop of flashier stars. Also, even the stars had a playing schedule that didn’t jive with people who would have to start struggling to remain in the middle class (up to seven home games a week, versus one or maybe two for other sports). Your Juan Sotos and Fernando Tatis Jr.s aren’t going to save the game, especially because YouTube and gambling apps have made it ridiculously easy to be a casual fan. If Garrett Cole and Steven Strasbourg were Pok√©mon, the card industry would have a visible revival on the horizon, but alas.

Then again, crazier things have happened. There are still boomers in horse-blinds who assume nobody under 60 listens to music on vinyl anymore. Nobody can predict the future, especially not Brad Balukjian, who has no problem stirring up a fun cocktail of pasts here: his OCD-affected personal and professional life, the sordid (and wholesome) trials and tribulations of more than a dozen different people who were lucky enough to earn Major League paychecks in 1986, and all the places around the country where those lives intersected or didn’t. I never really appreciated this about baseball cards during their peak and glut in the early ’90s, but thinking on books and documentaries on this era, adult me appreciates how card packs were a great equalizer. Every player, no matter how hot-shit they thought they were (or how valuable Beckett decided their card was), was given the same amount of space as Don Carman or Rance Mulliniks. I was not expecting to emerge from this book with a lifelong respect for Garry Templeton, who I’m not sure if I had thought about in 30 years, but here we are. Therein lies the magic of oral histories and the reminder that everybody has a story to tell.

Check out Brad Balukjian’s Instagram for a catalog of photos from his road trip that weren’t included in the book. Just scroll back for a bit.