The Wax Pack Book Review

For several months this winter I have been gazing fondly at a particular baseball book sitting on my bedside table: Brad Balukjian’s The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife (2020). What continually drew my eye to the book cover was not a stunning piece of original artwork that produced a feeling of existential awe. No, the cover grabbed my attention because it looked exactly like a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards. The book cover transported me back to my eight-year-old self, feeling the waxy paper wrapper of a pack of cards in my hands, ripping it open to find the wonderfully subpar stick of gum, and even better, the magical cards waiting within. While I certainly enjoyed Balukjian’s writing when I finally got around to reading the book, it was the front cover that pulled me in and didn’t let me go.

Defining Nostalgia

We have all experienced the powerful pull of nostalgia at one time or another. The word itself comes from a combination of the Greek nostos (“homecoming”) and algos (“pain”); thus, a sentimental, wistful longing for how things were in the past. Interestingly, the early use of the word described what was thought to be a psychological disorder. Nostalgia was seen as an unhealthy homesickness adversely affecting one’s entire demeanor and ability to function. The word eventually gained a more positive association, something akin to fond memory for a happy period in the past, but still retained the sense of longing, which for some could border on the painful. At some point along the way, book publishers realized they could leverage nostalgic feelings to attract readers. At least in my case, it worked like a charm.

The Pull of Nostalgia

My encounter with The Wax Pack was certainly not the first time I have gravitated toward a book for nostalgic reasons. A few years ago, I read Glenn Guzzo’s 2005 book Strat-O-Matic Fanatics not because it constantly appears on “best of” lists (which it doesn’t), but because reading about the history of the Strat-O-Matic tabletop dice game transported me back to my grandparents’ living room when I was growing up in Oregon. On many a night, while my parents and grandparents were engaged in “grown-up conversation” after dinner, I would sit on Grandma’s white couch, ignore the conversation, and focus intently on whether Joe Torre should bat third or fourth for the 1971 St. Louis Cardinals.

I was playing the 1971 Sports Illustrated Baseball dice game (a short-lived rival to Strat-O-Matic). I spent hours on the game and loved playing despite not knowing exactly what I was doing (there were no instructions in the box, so I improvised as I went along). The St. Louis Cardinals were my team of choice, but I also loved playing with Oakland and Baltimore where I would marvel at the offensive prowess of players like Reggie Jackson and Frank Robinson.

Reading Guzzo’s book reminded me of my game-playing sessions on the couch—and later game-playing sessions once I discovered Start-O-Matic many years later. It was enough to draw me into the book and keep me fully engaged from start to finish. Yes, I learned a lot about the origin of Strat-O-Matic and the entrepreneurial genius of game founder Hal Richman, but it was largely nostalgia that fueled my interest in the book. While it is probably not a book I would recommend to the average sports fan, anyone with a connection to Strat-O-Matic will surely be intrigued.

A Search for Players of the Past

The same sense of nostalgia that made me read Strat-O-Matic Fanatics also made Balukjian’s book irresistible. Published in 2020, it received positive reviews from many quarters and was high on my list of books to read. The central conceit of the book is too good to resist. The author opens a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards and then sets out across the country to track down each player. The setup suggests a book full of baseball reminiscences offering color and texture to the players and teams competing in the 1980s. What the book delivers, however, is something else entirely.

The book is not so much about baseball per se, but about the grip baseball has on the players who play the game. In essence, it is a series of case studies of how players, with a mix of supportive and troubled family backgrounds, find their way into baseball and then navigate the often difficult waters of their post-playing days. Each chapter offers some details about the playing careers of the featured players, from Hall-of-Famers, like Carlton Fisk, to lesser-known players, like Jaime Cocanower. But what the reader really gains from each chapter is insight into the relationships, personal struggles, triumphs, and aspirations of the former players. I came away impressed by Balukjian’s ability to draw out of the players some surprisingly honest and intimate details about their lives. It was not surprising that I experienced a mix of emotions during my reading: sadness at Dwight Gooden’s continued struggle with substance abuse; sympathy for the misunderstood Gary Templeton; happiness that Rick Sutcliffe and Don Carman overcame difficult relationships with their fathers to build positive relationships with their own children. All of these players whose baseball cards I owned and whose names filled the box scores in the morning paper when I was growing up came alive as fully fleshed human beings, thanks to Balukjian.

An Autobiographical Twist

There was one other character in the story who grabbed my attention: Balukjian himself. He writes openly about his struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, his failed relationship with the woman he thought he would marry, and his failure to connect at a deep level with his father. He even writes about his date with a yoga enthusiast during his road trip, an attempt at human connection amidst what must have been a lonely odyssey. Many would say this combination of baseball writing, personal memoir, and travelogue would never work (and apparently, many publishers expressed this sentiment before University of Nebraska Press thought otherwise), but Balukjian pulls it off and produces one of the most unique baseball books of the past few years. The fact that I googled Balukjian’s name, visited his personal website, and read some of his non-baseball writing is a fair indication that I was invested in his personal narrative and rooting for him throughout the book.

Whether or not 1980s baseball cards evoke feelings of nostalgia, this book is a creative piece of narrative non-fiction and an enjoyable read. I’ll be curious to see if Balukjian has another sports writing project in his future, if for no other reason than to update readers on his personal life, in which I now feel strangely invested.

1 comment

  1. You didn’t mention that the dust jacket FEELS like a wax pack, too! Truly marketing genius. I was always going to buy that book whether I intended to read it or not.

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