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A book recommendation for the holidays (or an MLB Lockout)

The Wax Pack takes a personal approach to baseball history

It’s the holidays, which means shopping and also accepting that there may be no real baseball news for awhile given the owners’ “defensive lockout.” With that in mind, I wanted to make a book recommendation. (If the lockout continues, I’ll probably be making more of them. Reading will be a nice way to spend the baseball-less time because one can only watch Ken Burns’ Baseball so many times.)

★ ★ ★

The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife

Brad Balukjian

University of Nebraska Press, 280 pages

The idea is terrific: It’s the summer of 2015. The author, an academic with a PhD in entomology and a love of baseball, buys on eBay a single pack of baseball cards from 1986 (the first year he collected cards). He then sets out to track down all the players whose cards are in the pack. (Thirteen are alive; one is dead.) Dr. Brad Balukjian leaves his home in Oakland in a 2002 Honda Accord and travels through 30 states in 48 days (11,341 miles) — all on the salary of an adjunct professor and a budget of $7,000. He considers himself a “sports archaeologist” in pursuit of an answer to a single question: What happened to these players after their baseball careers ended?

The pack has a mix of the great and well known (Carlton Fisk, Rick Sutcliffe, Richie Hebner, and Dwight Gooden), the above replacement level (Vince Coleman, Garry Templeton, Lee Mazzilli, Steve Yeager, and Gary Pettis), and the average (Rance Mulliniks, Randy Ready, Jaime Cocanower, and Al Cowens). Balukjian adds Don Carman, his favorite player as a child, who now works as a sports psychologist for Scott Boras. It’s a nice variety of players and research subjects. (Unfortunately, there are no Colorado Rockies connections.)

The narration moves from California through Texas with a swing up to Oklahoma, then over to Florida, up the East Coast to Cooperstown, back through the Midwest, and the finally to Compton.

He is able to meet with most of the players, who are extraordinarily generous with their time. He has a meal with Steve Yeager at his Jersey Mike’s franchise; goes to the zoo with Don Carman; and teaches Randy Ready how to use Tinder. His conversation with Garry Templeton is particularly timely. Not all of the Wax Packers are so accessible, however, (You’ll have to read the book to learn about his Carlton Fisk adventure.)

Balukjian approaches the task with the precision of a scientist. Each chapter begins with a log of miles traveled and cups of coffee consumed; then there’s a baseball biography of the player, followed by a personal biography, and Balukjian’s account of his meeting/interview with the subject. Oh, and they all sign their respective baseball cards. Balukjian’s research is meticulous to the point that he tracks down Al Cowens’ grave, a task more difficult, perhaps, than finding Carlton Fisk. When he cannot talk with a player, he interviews someone close to them.

Woven into this is Balukjian’s personal telling of his leaning to live with OCD and addressing a failed relationship. (Seeing her is also on the itinerary.) He is unmarried, but is also hoping to meet someone. And, because it’s a first-person book about baseball, there’s got to be a heavy dose of father-and-son relationship contemplation.

The book is compelling — and I should add that I listened to the audiobook, which Balukjian reads.

I learned a lot — who knew that Carlton Fisk is an orchid enthusiast? — and found myself wondering what it would be like to embark on a similar quest. (To be clear, I’m not. But The Wax Pack made me wonder how I’d approach a project like this.) Balukjian’s writing is clear, and he is committed to telling the truth, no matter the risk to himself. (The material on OCD is highly confessional.)

One thing bothered me — and it bothered me a lot.

Balukjian has an unsettling habit of, for lack of a better term, classifying the people he meets on his trip. He generally mentions hair color, there’s some comment on eyes (which always involves an adjective, like “kind” or “sad” or “laughing” in addition to eye color), and there’s an assessment of the subject’s body and/or clothing. He does this for both the male and female characters in his book.

As a reader, I found to be, first, repetitive, and, then, demeaning because when Balukjian is describing women, it reads like objectification.

  • Here’s Garry Templeton’s wife: “Glenda, fifty-five, is wearing a black-and-gray dress, her pretty brown eyes embellished by just the right amount of eye shadow, a gleaming cross dangling from her necklace. She has a classy, regal air, an instinctive emotional intelligence evident in her give-and-take, never too much.”
  • Meet two women at a bar in Oklahoma, “one an older brunette and the other a redhead named Lacey. The brunette is a nurse and bartender with some miles; ‘I don’t drink,’ she tells me, ‘but most of my friends who work in bars are alcoholics.’ She excuses herself (early shift at the hospital in the morning), leaving me alone with Lacey, whose green saucer-eyes are devastating.”
  • Notice a young woman he meets via Tinder on his trip: “Sophia, thirty-one, a brunette with close-set eyes and light freckles wearing an expression of soft determination in her profile picture.”

You get the idea.

To be clear: I’ve known men like Brad Balukjian throughout my career, and I don’t think there’s any deliberate sexism at work here. Rather, I think someone who is trained to classify insects has a particular way of viewing the world, and that comes through in his description. Balukjian writes that he has a “pathological need to scrutinize and document.” That’s a key skill when writing a scientific paper. It works less well in a memoir. Frankly, I fault an editor who failed to do their job.

That said, would I recommend The Wax Pack? Absolutely. It’s a novel approach to baseball history with a personal twist.

The book has been successful. On Friday, Balukjian tweeted the book’s first-year sales:

You can watch Balukjian talk more about his book here;

★ ★ ★

And that’s it from me, your taller-than-average author with exhausted blue eyes framed by John Lennon glasses, who is wearing a plaid flannel shirt and clearly needs to get serious about her yoga practice. Like Lacey, I “have some miles.”