July 23, 2020

Book Review/Interview: The Wax Pack: On The Open Road In Search Of Baseball's Afterlife, By Brad Balukjian

The Wax Pack: On The Open Road In Search Of Baseball's Afterlife
By Brad Balukjian (University of Nebraska Press, 2020)

In September 2014, sitting alone in the sparsely-populated upper deck of the Oakland Coliseum, Brad Balukjian's mind wandered in the time between pitches.

Thinking about the game and his childhood and collecting baseball cards eventually gave him an interesting idea. What if he bought an unopened pack of Topps cards from 1986 (the year he began collecting) and tracked down every player in the pack?

He began scribbling notes on his scorecard and well before the game was over, he had (via his phone) won an eBay auction for a 28-year-old, still-sealed pack of cards. After the pack arrived and was opened, and he had chomped the brittle slab of gum, Balukjian began researching and mapping out a seven-week, 11,341-mile drive through 30 states (in a 13-year-old Honda Accord).

That journey is the subject of The Wax Pack: On The Open Road In Search Of Baseball's Afterlife, an enjoyable and thought-provoking look at life after baseball. I should warn you: do not come to this book expecting tales of game-winning hits or complete-game shutouts. The publisher describes the book as "a meditation on the loss of innocence and the gift of impermanence" and that "Balukjian [had] retraced his own past, reconnecting with lost loves and coming to terms with his lifelong battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder".

Balukjian describes himself as a natural introvert who has "always gravitated toward the obscure, the unknown, the unsung". His writing is direct and enjoyable, conveying serious thoughts with a light touch, along with turns of phrase that made me smile: "I bolt up like a piece of toast." He notes that his teaching schedule gave him the luxury of time off in the summer, but not a lot of money. "The only advance I have is the warning that Vince Coleman might be a dick".

He describes an OCD flare-up as "refereeing a civil war" inside his head. Talking more generally, he writes:
There's an important distinction between resignation and acceptance. Not fighting back doesn't mean letting fear roll over you, it just means not resisting. ... [Y]our brain can be full of shit. ... The only way to beat the unwanted thoughts is to accept them, to invite the fear over to dinner, rather than shutting it out.
All but one of the 14 players in the pack had a career of at least 10 seasons. ... I learned Garry Templeton never said, about the 1979 All-Star Game, "If I ain't startin', I ain't departin'". (The line belonged to announcer Jack Buck.) Templeton still burns about a 1981 confrontation with manager Whitey Herzog that was grossly misinterpreted in the press. Herzog never bothered to correct the record. ... Lee Mazzilli, growing up in a family of five in a three-room apartment, seems to ask as many questions as he answers. ... Richie Hebner mentions getting hit by a pitch in four straight games. Naturally, I have to check his recall. Hebner's memory is correct: May 18-21, 1975.

Balukjian is the director of the Natural History & Sustainability Program. and teaches biology at Merritt College in Oakland, California. His bio states that he graduated "from the 23rd grade", he chose his career path because he "apparently has a strong aversion to money", and he possesses strong opinions about "utility infielders from the 1980s."

Sitting by Al Cowens's grave in the Inglewood Park Cemetery, Balukjian thinks back on his many conversations, not only with the players, but his father and former girlfriend:
The lesson I learned in dealing with OCD has been reaffirmed throughout this journey, that we overvalue our thoughts and feelings, which are out of our control and ephemeral and often illogical, and undervalue the importance of our behavior, which we can control. And if we change our behavior in a positive way, our thoughts and feelings will follow.
I spoke to Balukjian on the morning of June 24.

Joy of Sox: Just before I called, I noticed MLB and the players finally agreed to a short season.

Balukjian: I saw that last night. We'll see. (laughs) Who knows if they will even finish, with the way Covid is acting. It's going to be weird not having any fans, too. I was of the opinion that if they didn't play this year, I wouldn't really have minded. I certainly miss baseball, but it's not like we need to do it at all costs, you know?

Right. I haven't missed it, honestly. I'd been assuming all along there wouldn't be a season, so I'm a little surprised. ... Congratulations on the book. I mentioned in an earlier email that you getting the idea for The Wax Pack was exactly how I got it into my head to research the 1918 Red Sox. An idea pops into your head at a baseball game.

I thought using a pack of baseball cards as a device to write a book was a neat idea. I liked the idea of the randomness of the cards. I've always been curious about the players that I grew up watching. My favorite players were always the bench guys – and I knew in a pack, you're going to get more of those guys than stars, so it was also a nice way to indulge my fetish for underdogs.

The Wax Pack is not a typical baseball book in which you write about each player's career and their personal highlights or important events. An excellent example of that is when you tell Steve Yeager that you'd rather go with him to run errands and wash his car than see him work with the Dodgers' young catchers. When you were gathering information on each player, were you concentrating on the more mundane aspects of their lives?

Yeah, I definitely went in knowing I wanted to write a book that wasn't so much about baseball. You could go in a lot of different directions with this conceit, but what was most interesting artistically to me was writing a book that would (hopefully) transcend baseball because of the themes that would emerge from their personal lives and who they are as people. I had done a ton of research on each guy and when I would meet each player, I would put my big folder full of material in front of them and say, "I've read all this and I feel like I know nothing about you." And that would set the tone, I think, that I was not going to do a typical sports interview. I also envisioned the book as something in the literary/new journalism tradition, where I'm an active participant in the story. My own narrative is the connective thread between these players. Without that, it's just 14 stand-alone profiles. And I didn't want to write a book like that. I wanted a cohesive narrative.

A few times in the book, I was genuinely surprised at what you were revealing about yourself. I clearly see myself as much more of a straight reporter, because I think I'd rather cut off my arm than share such personal (and unflattering) details with the reader. I like reading people who can mix reporting with personal information – when it works, it's amazing – but I can't see myself doing it, or doing it well.

I knew it was risky. It's why the book was rejected 38 times. It was perhaps more ambitious – or more unusual – than most sports books, which are usually about a season or a player, where the author is not in the story or it's a straight-up memoir. I wanted to write a book that's a travel book, a sports book, a memoir – it's telling the story of these players, but it's also about my life – and some publishers, they may have thought, "Well, this seems too hard to pull off." If I could describe one of the main themes of the book, it's vulnerability. I'm asking these players to be extremely vulnerable with me, so I felt like I owed it to them – and the reader – to be just as vulnerable. It's not easy to share that stuff, but that authenticity and honesty is something I wanted in the book. And frankly, there have been readers who haven't liked that. It's "oversharing", "too much information", "why are you telling me that?" Or people have not liked me personally. I always knew that would be a risk. But I wrote the kind of book I wanted to write.

When you put down the file of clippings and say these articles don't tell me about you, that implies these players, during their careers, were rarely forthcoming. And I understand why players speak in cliches. It's so much easier to answer the same questions every day with generic answers that you don't have to think about. Yet in your encounters with these guys, they are all extremely open and honest, without exception. How hard was it to get them to speak about such personal issues?

It helped that I was not a traditional sportswriter. I was extremely honest about that and when I met these guys, I would also talk about myself. If I was asking a player about his divorce, I'd talk about my own failings in relationships. Also, going to their houses, or the zoo, or a bowling alley, people are generally more comfortable in those environments. It's not like sitting across a table with a tape recorder in front of you. So all that made them more comfortable. Some readers have wanted more straight-up baseball talk. An editor at the Los Angeles Times gave me the best piece of advice about writing. What matters most is the meaning of whatever you're writing. Not the words or the style or any of that, it's the meaning. So I felt like once I identified what the meaning was, if the material didn't fit that, if it was a story just for the sake of having a story, I took it out. Steve Yeager told me about the different brawls he was in and it was interesting, but it didn't serve both the chapter and the book, so it didn't have a place.

Looking through my notes at what each player said about his childhood and his father, it's a litany of neglect and emotional abuse and abandonment (either through divorce or death), which ended up causing damage in different ways. It's brutal when it's all piled up.

Yeah. So much so that when I got to the last chapter, I had become almost numb to the storyline of bad fathers. It kept coming up over and over again. I didn't know that was going to be the case going in.

You write about several players visibly debating with themselves whether to keep talking. Your favorite player as a kid, Phillies pitcher Don Carman, was 15 when his father had a heart attack and died in their front yard. And he admits "I was hoping he would die". Carman was told all the time he was slow and ugly and stupid, picked on by everyone, even teachers at school. His intensity on the mound came from a fear of failing and going back home to Oklahoma. (He's now a sports psychologist.) Rick Sutcliffe is extremely blunt about his father, who he last saw when he was 11. "I know what a piece of shit is. I know what not to be." ... Whose father built a pitching mound in the back yard, watched his son throw one pitch and then walked away and never had anything more to do with it?

That was Randy Ready. Yeah, one pitch when he was 10 and that was it. And six years later he died of a heart attack. It's very sad. Randy talked about the last time he saw him, he didn't give him a hug, and all that stuff. [One of Balukjian's more surreal moments of the trip is, after Ready mentions he's currently in the middle of a divorce, introducing Ready to the world of Tinder and enduring some light ribbing.]

The bigger theme is the players' adjustment to life after baseball. Some stay connected to the game as coaches, but most of the guys are simply trying to become a regular person.

There are very few professions where when you're 35, you have to consider: What do I do now? You've stopped doing the one thing you always thought about doing. They were about my age when they were retiring and moving on to the rest of their lives. There was a parallel with my life and finding out what can I learn from them.

Baseball was the one thing they all had been doing obsessively since they were kids, or teenagers at the very latest. So that's most of their life – and then it's suddenly gone. Carlton Fisk did not talk with you (despite your persistent efforts), but you include a quote from him. Near the end of his career, he said, "I'm afraid to leave the game because I'm afraid there's nothing out there for me." He's defined himself as a baseball player for decades and now he is not that. Who are you?

The book begins and ends with the people who worked at the Topps factory back in 1985 making the pack that I eventually opened almost 30 years later. That was a conscious choice, to make the point that baseball is beyond the players. One of the things that I conclude with is that a lot of fans wonder what it would feel like to be a major league player, but I think they already know. If they have been part of any kind of team at any level, in any way, that is somewhat what it feels like. I mean, sure, you have the novelty of your first at-bat or whatever, but after a while, it becomes another day at the office. It's really about the relationships with the other people in the game that's so special. Baseball players have these two lives: their baseball life, which is something we don't normally relate to, and then there is their second life, which is – okay, now they are just like the rest of us, how are they going to adapt.

You meet up with your own father during the trip and he spends a couple of days with you. So that becomes part of the thread, too. And while you say you have always had a good relationship with him, you are still extremely nervous about telling him about yourself, your outlook on life, your beliefs, etc. ("a thirty-four-year-old liberal with Buddhist leanings"), which are very different than his.

I am close to my dad and I had a nice childhood – it's not like we had the kind of broken relationship that a lot of these players had – but whenever we talk, it's always, hey, what's the weather, what's the stock market, what's happening in baseball? It never was about what's really beneath all that, how are you emotionally, how's your personal life, what are you feeling? Talking about your feelings is not something my dad and I would do very much. And what I wanted to get out was This is who I am and I wanted to say that directly to him and not have him try to infer it.

You also mention an alternate life for yourself as you go to meet an old girlfriend who you once thought you would marry. In thinking of these what ifs, the choices you make (or your family makes for you when you're a child) inevitably mean other choices are no longer available. The players mention being driven by fear or anxiety or a burning desire to prove someone wrong. I wondered how much they consider how things might have been different if they had better relationships early in their lives?

I got the sense from most of them that they don't dwell on that, and that attitude is part of what helped a lot of them be successful. They recognize things could have ended up differently or maybe they whimsically wonder about that, but in general they accept what is in front of them and what happened. I didn't sense that many of them were particularly trapped in wondering about those things. They didn't even seem particularly nostalgic about their baseball careers. What they missed was the camaraderie. Rance Mulliniks said if he had to choose between going 4-for-4 or just hanging out with the guys he played with, he'd choose the latter.

The attitude of accepting what is in front of you is essential to being a successful player. I can't imagine a player getting as far as they did without the ability to forget you made the error last inning or that you've already struck out three times today. Or even that you looked silly missing a curveball and now the count is 2-2.

Which is basically what sets Jaime Cocanower apart from everyone else in the book. By his own admission, he wasn't good at that. ("Baseball was very frustrating. I don't look back on it as my fondest memories of life.") So it's no coincidence he was the least successful baseball player.

As a writer I couldn't help thinking the spring of 2020 turned out to be the absolute shittiest time to release a baseball book.

I had a 35-stop book tour planned and all kinds of stuff. But one thing that has been nice is that a bunch of people who had baseball books come out this year have come together to form the Pandemic Baseball Book Club. Writers can sometimes be territorial and competitive and it's been really cool to see how we've not done that. We have a podcast and a video series and we've got swag. We're up to about 25 writers now.

I wanted to ask you about the Iron Sheik.


Now, obviously, he didn't kill you. [Early in the book, Balukjian says he hoped to write a biography of the wrestler, but that idea ended "with a drug-addled Sheik threatening to kill me in his living room". An endnote explains a little more: "Technically, the Sheik gave me three options: shoot me with his .38 Magnum, stab me with his butcher knife, or simply break my leg."]

It's an interesting story, but I didn't think it really belonged in the book, in any detail. But if Don Carman was my favorite baseball player, the Iron Sheik was my favorite wrestler. Fifteen years ago, I had left my job at Islands magazine to write his biography with him. I had gotten to know him and done a lot of research, but he was so strung out on drugs and so volatile that things fell apart. I realized, okay, this is not going to happen, so I cut my losses and came back to California. But I'm still in touch with him. I talked to him a few weeks ago. It wasn't like it was a bad ending in the long run. He's a little old, but he's doing a lot better.


Since Balukjian does not reveal (either in the book or our conversation) which of the Iron Sheik's three less-than-ideal options he chose, I'm guessing he talked his way out of any physical harm. I'd enjoy reading a magazine article about his whole Sheik project/adventure.


accudart said...

That was great!

k r c said...

Wonderful post, thanks for this.

Not sure what it says about me that I am feeling more excited about a new baseball book with a an interesting premise than I am about the MLB season starting today.

johngoldfine said...

You give good interview, Allan. I mean both ends of it were excellent, but you're more than some guy offering a sentence with a question mark.

I have 'The Wax Pack'--time to open it!

allan said...

I mean both ends of it were excellent, but you're more than some guy offering a sentence with a question mark.

Thanks. I'll remind you that you didn't hear the actual recording.