By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 29, 2020) — Decades after he collected baseball cards, Brad Balukjian was intrigued by an original idea: opening up a pack of cards and meeting all of the players whose cards were in the pack.
And then he pursued that idea.
It led to an epic journey across the United States.
Balukjian’s curiosity sparked his desire to take the trip, meet former MLB players and talk to them about their lives decades after their playing days.
The result? “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife,” one of the top-selling sports books in 2020.
Positive reviews have helped the book create an online buzz, with diehard baseball fans also pining for nostalgia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reviews of “The Wax Pack” illuminate the book’s compelling topic and Balukjian’s storytelling skills.
Here’s a few, which are posted on the book’s Amazon page:
“As pleasing as the pink slab of bubble gum that, long ago, came with baseball cards inside five cent packets, this slender volume gives fresh flavor to the familiar phrase ‘inside baseball.”—George F. Will, author and columnist
“What if a pack of baseball cards could come to life? It sounds like a Spielberg movie plot, except it happened. It happened because Brad Balukjian made it happen, in real life, with the most eclectic cast of baseball characters ever assembled. And the result is one of the most fun, honest, funny, human, and uniquely creative baseball books of the year. I’ll admit it. I loved The Wax Pack!”—Jayson Stark, longtime MLB reporter
“What a weird, quirky, fun read. There have been 50,000 books written on Major League Baseball, but Brad Balukjian’s The Wax Pack is a uniquely romantic love letter to a game, a time period, and its random soldiers. Well done.”—Jeff Pearlman, author
“A journey of self-discovery by way of a pack of 1986 baseball cards. In Brad’s emotional quest, he not only finds answers but shares a snapshot of ballplayers who, like him, are trying to make it through life’s many twists and turns.”—Shane Rawley, former MLB pitcher
In a recent interview, Balukjian provided revealing details about his project from start to finish, including his travels, what writing the book meant to him, and what he learned along the way.
On the day that you opened up the pack of 1986 Topps cards, was it a day filled with ideas bouncing around in your head? Any particular reason you opened the pack that day? Had it been something you had wanted to do for several weeks or months but stopped short of doing it because you thought it was silly? Was it an unusual day? Was opening that pack of cards an epiphany — that a book would follow?
I actually had the idea to write a book based on a pack before I had the pack itself. There’s something about the physical pack — rectangular shape, 15 cards (15 chapters) – -that reminded me of a book. I also thought getting an unopened pack would be the perfect device for getting a random sample of players. Thankfully many collectors saved their packs back then thinking they would be worth something someday. That didn’t turn out to be the case, but it made it pretty easy to order a pack from eBay.
Did you find instant pleasure in looking at those cards 30 years later and you began thinking about a way to express that fun and explore a larger idea about a random slice of your childhood?
Opening a pack still evokes that thrill of the unknown. Even 30 years later, I was giddy to see each card revealed. And yes, i even chewed the gum. It was every bit as bad as that sounds.
Did you ever think the book’s premise was too much of a singular focus? Or was it pretty clear to you that an outline for the book would not deviate too much, because you simply needed to conduct the interviews and write it up?
If anything, the challenge was that there were too many themes, too many foci. I started with a simple premise — what happened to these guys once they were done playing? But once I got on the road and started meeting people, it was clear there were many more themes than I ever anticipated.
Traveling 11,341 miles through 30 U.S. states in 48 days doesn’t seem like an easy task. How did you it? Did you fly to most places? Did you hop on trains for portions of the trip? Did you drive everywhere yourself? Did it feel like your own personal version of the film “Plains, Trains and Automobiles” with some of the same horror stories that Steve Martin and John Candy experienced?
I drove the whole thing in one shot, 11,341 miles over 49 days. My 2002 Honda Accord took a beating.
And how did you figure out where to go and who to see first? Was it all pretty much mapped out to maximize your time and follow the most logical route without going out of your way to see Player A, Player B, etc. until you spoke to the 14 players showcased in the book? Was there a lot of rescheduling and shuffling of schedules in order to get to see everybody?
I spent about 10 months before the trip researching each player and tracking them down via phone or email to set up the meetings. They were spread out throughout the country, so I was able to map out an itinerary in advance that also accommodated their schedules.
What were a few of the most candid and most unusual things players told you? Did you try to treat each subject as a straightforward, scripted interview or have natural conversations during the course of the activities you did with them?
I was blown away by how forthcoming and candid the players were. Since I always knew this book would be a work of creative nonfiction in the New Journalism tradition, I asked to meet with players in a variety of settings — a zoo, a bowling alley, an art museum, their houses, restaurants, etc. This made the conversation a lot more relaxed and fluid, and I think opened the door for more compelling interviews.
The Boston Globe and CBS Sports, among others, noted the book was rejected 38 times by publishers In retrospect, what piqued the interest of the 39th publisher, and why was the University of the Nebraska Press the right company to publish the book?
The University of Nebraska Press has a long and proud tradition of publishing great baseball books, and they saw the potential and vision that 38 others didn’t! I am grateful.
How has the success and overwhelming positive reviews for The Wax Pack changed your life?
It hasn’t really, other than bringing me a sense of vindication for all the turmoil and struggle and rejection. And it has been wonderful to make many new friends through the Pandemic Baseball Book Club (pbbclub.com), a group of fellow baseball writers who also had their book promotion affected by the pandemic.
What do you hope are readers’ main takeaways readers from the book?
That they have a lot more in common with baseball players than they ever realized. Our heroes are mortals; they are people just like us who deal with the same issues. Everyone has something.
For more information on Brad Balukjian’s book, visit waxpackbook.com.