The premise is irresistibly simple. Eager to reconnect to his childhood passion for baseball, author and college professor Brad Balukjian opens a pack of 1986 Topps cards at random, pops the disgusting rock-hard bubblegum in his mouth, and sets out to track down each player to see what they’re up to, long after their playing days are over and their fame has receded. He sets off on a cross-country road trip on which he’ll learn a lot more about life than he does about baseball.
The luck of the draw was kind to Balukjian for the most part. He drew an interesting variety of players from journeymen to superstars, including one Hall of Famer. Each chapter follows the story of one of the players, or Wax Packers, as Balukjian calls them. Some players are cooperative, revealing and insightful in conversation, while others are reticent to discuss their lives outside the game and a few are downright hostile to the endeavor.
Balukjian was also lucky enough to draw his favorite player as a child, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Don Carman (pictured above.) Carman was an unusual choice for a kid to make, but Balukjian explains that he always had an affinity for those players who weren’t obviously talented, who had to work hard just to stay in the big leagues. Luckily for the book, Carman turns out to be a fascinating guy. After his playing days he became a sports psychologist and now works for super-agent Scott Boras counseling his clients on their personal struggles. He’s introspective about his own life as well.
Some of the book’s highlights come from the players who were more difficult. Stolen base wizard Vince Coleman proves to have an outsized ego and an unlikable personality. (One of the book’s weirder missteps involves Balukjian continuing to use Coleman’s cutesy nickname “Vincent Van Go” even while detailing Coleman’s litany of serious misbehavior.) Doc Gooden’s personal and legal troubles overshadowed his potentially legendary career and sadly they still hang over him. Al Cowens is the only Wax Packer no longer living, having died after a few years of odd behavior.
There are some recurring themes, as many of the Wax Packers have more in common than their profession. Absentee fathers are common, and it’s inspiring to see how many of the players have lived up to their promise to be closer to their own kids. While some of the Wax Packers have gone through divorces or family tragedies, many of them have made their marriages work, even if it took a second try. Balukjian connects their attitudes to life to baseball, with it’s constant need to move past failure and re-focus.
Not every chapter is a winner, but even relatively uneventful interviews with the likes of Lee Mazzilli and Richie Hebner contain their insights. While steeped in baseball, the game itself isn’t exactly central to the book. There’s not a lot of rehashing of great moments or any discussion of the changes in the game over the years. It’s basically just a slice of life.
Balukjian talks about how life and baseball aren’t about hitting home runs. More often it’s a short single to the outfield or a groundball to second base. In baseball terms, The Wax Pack is roughly equivalent to a double off the wall.