Do you remember that excitement of opening a new pack of baseball cards? The waxy outer packaging is the gift wrap. The stale – even new it tasted stale – stick of pink gum’s texture became a memorable taste associated with the unboxing. Before Pokémon cards and Fortnite skins, we collected the paper faces of our heroes from the baseball field.
Brad Balukjian harkens us back to those times in his book The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife. The feeling of the waxy book cover was a nice nostalgic touch, giving me a sensory reminder of when I held a fresh pack in my hands. I cherished those cards.
Balukjian took a single pack of baseball cards from 1986 and opened the road to find all the players he got in the pack. As Brad takes us along on the baseball road trip, we get to discover the real lives of the players we looked up to and how they often mirror our own. It’s a nostalgic, funny, and poignant read that will appeal to any baseball fan still searching for that rare rookie card of their favorite player.
I collected cards in 1986. The Wax Pack gave me the urge to dig some of my old ’86 Topps cards out. The iconic black and white frame with the large and colorful stylized team names make this year a memorable one for card collectors.
Mike Scioscia, my favorite player of all-time, tops my stack. There’s a Michael Jordan card with his complete NBA record on the back, converted to approximate baseball stats. It’s still fun to look back at some of those golden baseball moments of our youth, and The Wax Pack is the road map to this nostalgic journey.
Brad was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his book, his lifelong love of baseball and our shared struggle with anxiety and OCD.
It’s easy to buy baseball cards online nowadays like the featured pack of 1986 Topps cards won on eBay that spurred your book. What’s your opinion on the state of baseball card collecting in general and the decline of baseball card shops?
At the risk of sounding like a stodgy old guy, I think it’s really sad. I remember when baseball card shops were so common that there was an entire category for them in the Yellow Pages. As a kid in Rhode Island, I begged and cajoled my mom into taking me to so many of those shops in Rhode Island and always had my list of common cards that I hoped to buy. The card dealers would read the list—Dennis Lamp, Don Carman, Bob Dernier—and then say, “trying to finish a set?” to which I replied, “Nope, I just like those guys,” drawing a puzzled look. But that was one of the delightful things about cards in those days—kids grabbed on to different things. Some kids wanted to trade them, playing pretend-GM; others liked certain visual aspects of the cards; I liked the underdogs. That spirit is what drove The Wax Pack.
Today it seems like the industry is more for adults and is more niche. That’s fine, but I think we’ve lost a common touchpoint that my generation had as kids.
How did you adapt your writing on that roller coaster of a trip? Were there many revisions and roadblocks?
I’m jealous of my fiction-writing friends. Because with this style of writing, what I would call participatory journalism or creative non-fiction, you have to essentially write two books in one—first, you have to get all your facts straight, since you are reporting what actually happened and are bound by the truth, and second you have to weave those facts into a compelling narrative using many of the techniques of fiction (dialogue, scene-setting details, varying point-of-view, etc).
On the road trip itself, it was just a marathon of getting all the facts on paper—what happened, who said what, etc. There was nothing pretty about it, just old-fashioned journalism with short-hand notes, audio recordings, etc. Once I got back home and got a book deal, then I had to really write, which is where the craft comes into play.
What was one thing you learned from writing this book about the life of a baseball player which surprised even you, a lifelong baseball fan?
Probably how relatable these guys are, how much we all have in common with them. Perhaps it’s because the guys I wrote about were decades removed from their playing days and therefore didn’t have their guard up as much, but I was amazed by how open and vulnerable most of the players were willing to be with me, a complete stranger. As you’ll quickly see, this is a book not so much about baseball as it is about relationships, growing up, and vulnerability. And I think it’s a better and more broadly appealing book because of that.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing about the players’ personal stories?
I think the hardest thing is knowing that you have an obligation to the truth, not to the players’ feelings, and that you have to risk them not liking everything that you’re going to write. For example, Don Carman, who was my childhood hero, opened up to me in a very emotional way about his father being abusive. I thought it was relevant to his story and wanted to include it, but I also knew that his family and friends might not like that this information was being publicly disclosed, and that while he knew I was a journalist when he shared it with me, that his feelings may change about that disclosure. You want to be sensitive to people’s feelings, and you certainly only want to include something if it serves the meaning of the work, but you also have to accept that some people are not going to like what you write, and may not even like you. In this particular case, I was grateful that Carman had no issues with what I wrote, and in fact seemed to appreciate it.
Having anxiety issues, myself, I can relate to your struggle with anxiety and OCD. How did you deal with your own nerves and anxiety while writing this book?
The best technique I learned in therapy, and which I shared in the book, is called exposure and response prevention, a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy. While it’s effective for OCD, you can use it for anxiety related to rational fears (part of what makes something OCD is the irrational nature of the obsessive fear). For example, if you are afraid you didn’t lock the door and compulsively check the lock, your homework is to gradually reduce the number of times you allow yourself to check until you’re down to not checking at all. When I was writing the book, if my anxiety started down the road of “what if I share all this personal stuff and the people at the college where I work use it against me and I become an embarrassment,” rather than running from the fear, I would embrace it by responding with, “yes, they will hold it against you and your career will be ruined,” a form of imaginal exposure. Just sitting with that discomfort and anxiety, rather than fighting it, makes it dissipate more quickly because you realize, ‘hey, these are just thoughts.’ And a lot of thoughts are just bullshit.
What is your favorite era in baseball?
It would have to be the 26-Team Era, from 1977-1992, when there were 26 teams with no contraction, teams moving cities, or expansion. It was an era of great parity and small ball when baseball had about as much action as it can have.
How did you feel about the Dodgers winning the World Series for the first time since 1988?
I loved it. I’m not a Dodgers fan, but my Dad is, so I was very happy for him. I texted with my buddies Eric Nusbaum, Anika Orrock, and Jason Turbow (three very talented baseball writers) all throughout, and given that we are in a pandemic, that sense of community was extra special and comforting. The Dodgers to me have always been a likeable team, which is impressive given that they are a monster with lots of money and esteem. I think SoCal keeps them relaxed.
Also, I found my new unsung hero or underdog to fixate on in today’s game: Dylan Floro. That guy should have won the Series MVP just for his three consecutive change-up strikes on Randy Arozarena in Game 6. I logged online to see if a Dylan Floro shirt existed, and I had like five to choose from!
Do you plan on anymore baseball trips in the future?
Yes! Just give me (and 330 million others) the vaccine!
Who was your favorite baseball player growing up?
Don Carman, which is why the chapter on him in the book is so special to me.
Do you still have your trusty ’02 Honda Accord?
I do, with 252,900 miles on the odometer. At this point, how can I give up on her?
GET THIS MAN A DYLAN FLORO SHIRT.
You can visit Brad Balukjian on Twitter at: @waxpackbook