If you are a real, real long time reader of this blog, you might remember when I did book reviews. I was fortunate to be on some lists that would send books along to be read. However, the pile got bigger and the reviews stopped happening. I still have a good stash that I read that I never wrote on and a lot that I still haven’t read. So I stopped requesting them.
For the most part. Earlier this year, I did get a copy of Bud Selig’s book, which I’ve not finished reading in part because it’s a real good way to get upset when you remember the strike years and read Selig’s spin on things. And then I got an email offering me a copy of The Wax Pack by Brad Balukjian. The concept was interesting but I almost passed on it just on the general principle. However, I honestly could not resist the cover of the book. Perhaps you shouldn’t judge the content that way, but it’s a great selling point.
Seriously, how great is that? The book looks exactly like a pack of Topps baseball cards from 1986, the year the cards that make up the basis of this book were printed. If you are old enough, you remember those baseball cards. The black top with the team name in colored block letters. These cards:
1986 happened to be the year that Balukjian started collecting cards and, as such, had a certain appeal to him. (If I were doing this, it would have been a pack of the 1987 Topps with the wood grain, but that’s me.) Balukjian had the idea of finding one of those packs 30 years later, opening it up, and finding out exactly what had happened to the players that were in the pack.
Now, he does note that he opened a few packs to make sure he didn’t have too many deceased players and he still wound up with one in this pack (Al Cowens) that had unfortunately passed. I also think he opened enough to make sure that he got his favorite player in the pack, though he doesn’t say that outright. Still, what are the odds of being a huge Don Carmen fan and then having one in the pack? I mean, Carmen probably wasn’t a rare card in that set but it still seems a stretch.
Whatever license was taken in determining the pack, the stories of tracking down the players and his interactions with them make it all worth it. When you look at the list, two players stand out for Cardinal fans: Garry Templeton and Vince Coleman (which actually wasn’t the card above but one of the “record breakers” subset). Balukjian talks a lot about the day in St. Louis where Templeton flipped off the fans, giving Templeton’s side of the story (which doesn’t make the fan base or Whitey Herzog look all that great, though that might be to be expected). Coleman, on the other hand, he’s unable to track down, but the people he does talk to and the research he cites doesn’t paint the most glowing picture of Vincent Van Go, focusing a good bit on his Mets career when he went off the rails.
Coleman, Gary Pettis, Dwight Gooden, and Carlton Fisk don’t contribute to this book, though Balukjian has some great stories about trying to track them down, even surprising Fisk at a Cooperstown autograph session. It’s OK, though, because you get a feel for what those guys were like as players and some of what has happened to them since they quit playing the game.
While I expected to be interested in Templeton and Coleman, the player that I actually wound up identifying most with was Jaime Cocanower, who was a player I didn’t even remember ever hearing the name of before this book. All of the others I at least knew the names, but Cocanower, a Brewers pitcher, wasn’t in my memory banks. However, it turns out that 1) he’s living in Arkansas, just a couple of hours from me, and before moving up to the northwest corner he and his wife lived even closer, about 35 minutes away, 2) he’s the son of missionaries and still keeps his faith, and 3) went to school while he was playing and majored in accounting. Honestly, out of all of these guys, Cocanower seems like the one I’d like to spend the day with.
Which is what Balukjian does with these guys. He spends the Fourth of July playing Cards Against Humanity with Cocanower, his wife, and their friends. He watches kung fu movies with Templeton, goes to the zoo (and plays catch) with Carmen, and hangs out in Steve Yeager’s sub shop. It’s a great look at the humanity of these guys, most of which never were the big stars. (In fact, Templeton–or maybe Rick Sutcliffe, especially with his ESPN work–might be the biggest of the guys that participated.)
The quarantine helped, of course, but The Wax Pack is a good and quick read which not only follows the ballplayers but Balukjian’s own battles with OCD and some of his past history. He learns lessons on the trip that apply to his life as well as to those retired stars. If you are looking for something to pass some time as you are cooped up avoiding the coronavirus, order this one and dig in!