The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball's Afterlife
By Brad Balukjian
University of Nebraska Press; 280 pages; hardcover, $27.95; eBook, $16.95
Brad Balukjian, a freelance journalist who is also the director of the Natural History and Sustainability Program and teaches biology at Merritt College in Oakland California, and he set out on a quest to see if there's life after baseball.
The quest to answer this question began when he took a single pack of baseball cards, otherwise known as a "wax pack," hence the title of this book, from 1986 (the first year he collected cards), and then he embarked on a cross-country trip to talk to the players in the pack.
The players in the pack included players across the spectrum of stardom, with stars such as Doc Gooden, Carlton Fisk, Rick Sutcliffe, and Vince Coleman, and memorable names like Rance Mulliniks, Don Carman, Garry Templeton, and Rich Hebner.
Balukjian also does a great job of taking the reader along for the ride and giving us a sense of who he is as a person. As he is getting a sense of these former players' present lives, he retraces parts of his past, reconnecting with lost loves and coming to terms with his lifelong battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He also comments on mundane things like hotel accommodations and how many tolls it takes to get into New York City.
A Conversation With Brad Balukjian:
Jason Schott: What's it been like promoting this book with baseball shutdown due to the Covid-19 crisis? Your publication date was timed for what would have been the opening of the season.
Brad Balukjian: It's been tough; I was actually supposed to be, actually, in your neck of the woods at this time st the beginning of an over month-long book tour that would have taken me to Oklahoma City. It's too bad that that's been cancelled, but I guess one good thing that's come out of it is that several of us with baseball books coming out now that have been affected by the pandemic - Eric Nusbaum's Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between, Jason Turbow has written a bunch of books, Anika Orrock has written a book about the Women's Professional Baseball League (The Incredible Women of the AAGPBL), and we all kind of came together, realized we're all in the same boat, and so we formed this thing called the Pandemic Baseball Book Club (pbbclub.com and on Twitter: @PandemicBasebal1) where we're working together to promote each other's books, do podcasts, and it's been really cool to see people come together and help each other and bring us all up together, so that's been one of the nice effects of this whole thing...It's kind of too bad that it would take a global pandemic for people to cooperate, but hey, to me, it's something that we should be doing all the time, like why not help each other if you see it not as competition, but as a kind of mutualistic strategy.
JS: How excited were you with the players in the pack of cards you opened for this project, including your favorite player, former Phillies pitcher Don Carman?
BB: I was actually most excited about a few that I remember liking as a kid. In addition to Don Carman, I always liked the name Rance Mulliniks, I always liked Lee Mazzilli, kind of always had a fixation with him, a lot of the guys who were not the stars. I was actually less excited about Doc Gooden and Carlton Fisk than those other guys.
JS: That's especially true having read about your efforts trying to get Fisk to talk.
BB: It proved to be every bit as difficult as I anticipated it would be to get those star players, and so I decided to do whatever I could to get to them and write about that whole process.
JS: When it came to Lee Mazzilli, even though you were meeting him in Greenwich, where he lives now, you visited Sheepshead Bay to get a sense of where he grew up. What was your experience like?
BB: I wanted to kind of immerse in the neighborhood where he grew up, and I talk about my dad and I walking the streets of Sheepshead Bay. I really liked it; it's a bustling, diverse area, neighborhood, you know, to me, it had a lot of character, a lot of little, independent shops, a lot of different communities there. I could kind of get a sense of his very blue collar upbringing there, and what that might have been like. Then, to get to meet him, he was sort of like, 'what are you doing staying in Sheepshead Bay? I grew up there, you don't want to stay there.' He now lives in Greenwich, which is as opposite as Sheepshead Bay as you can get.
Mazzilli, he's a true Brooklyn guy, you know, everything about him sort of screams New York and Brooklyn, very gracious. I was glad I could get of some that context by staying there and kind of checking out the area.
JS: How important was it for you to spend time with these players, whether it was having lunch or spending time at their homes, seeing them as regular people now?
BB: That's really the whole book. The heart of this book is who are these guys beyond baseball, as people, and how they matured and developed. They have 30 years of hindsight now to look back and reflect on their younger days and their career and that was essential to me. I really wanted to focus my questioning on trying to get information, or get material, about what these guys are like as people and their relationships, stuff that you wouldn't read about if you read an entire file on their baseball career, which I did. It told me a lot about what happened in their baseball lives, which is one life, but as I talk about at the end of the book, baseball players are unique in that they have two lives, really. They have their baseball life and the life that the rest of us have, and so I tried to put myself in an environment with them that was conducive to having just a natural conversation about all kinds of topics that were well beyond baseball.
JS: What continuing theme or through line did you see in your conversations with them?
BB: A lot of through lines emerged. One was the difficulty that they had, as I expected, when they stopped playing. So, when they were the same age that I was when I took the trip, in my mid-30s, that crossroads where they can no longer do this one thing they had spent all their time thinking about, and invariably, they all struggled with drinking or depression or addiction or divorce, and lots of life challenges that, you know, they tried to navigate as they made that transition. I think most of them came out of that pretty well, but that was consistently a challenge for them, and then, I think, the relationship that somebody has with fear was a consistency.
Most of these guys were really good at handling fear, and that's kind of what actually allowed them to be Major League Baseball players. I wouldn't say that these 14 guys were the 14 most talented - there were other guys that had more talent than them - but they all had the ability to master their fear in a way that the fear didn't control them, and that serves as a nice point of advice or something that we all can learn from as regular people. If we can have a healthy relationship, where if we can master our own fear, we can be more successful. The one guy in there that maybe wasn't as successful with that was Jaime Cocanower, and sure enough, he was the least successful baseball player. He talked openly about how he struggled with the mental part of the game and he didn't understand how guys could get knocked around and then just say 'I'm leaving it on the field' and come back the next day and forget about it, but he also was probably the most well-adjusted guy after he finished playing, in that he immediately stepped off the baseball field and was immediately in an accountant's office having a pretty nice job, so yeah, there were a lot of themes.
Of course, the father-son theme was another big thing that came out, how many of these guys had challenging relationships with their dads.
JS: When it came to Doc Gooden, you got the father-son relationship from a different angle, when you met with his son, Doc Gooden, Jr., who is his agent.
BB: I wanted to find a way to write about Doc Gooden that was original because his story's been so well-documented, it would be hard to find new ground. With his son, that was an opportunity to tell Doc's story through his oldest son, and a story that hadn't really been told before. To me, even though it didn't work out talking to Doc, it was okay because I had this fresh perspective from his son.
JS: It was a way to get a sense of what a day in the life of Gooden is like because it centered around his son's efforts to get him to go to events, such as a Mets charity event at Citi Field.
BB: There's a certain degree of sympathy for Little Doc because he's having to cover for his dad because I'm sure that's something he was not too keen on doing.
JS: One of the most compelling stories in the book was Randy Ready's and all he has gone through in life.
BB: Just a positive story, really great guy. He's just so friendly and has such a sunny outlook on everything, and he certainly had plenty to be upset about. First wife, and her having that heart attack and ending up in a vegetative state, and his second wife suddenly divorcing him, which was happening right when I was there, which I didn't know until he told me, and then his childhood backstory was, he grew up, you know, didn't have a lot, his family didn't have a lot, his dad was always gone, kind of grew up in his sister's shadow, she was a great athlete, so I think he dealt with a lot of adversity and managed to do it in a remarkably positive way, and so I felt very quickly comfortable with him, like he was just a buddy of mine, teasing each other and having a good time.
JS: That seemed kind of like the experience when you spent a day with former Dodger catcher Steve Yeager, too, seemed like you had a fun time with him.
BB: Yeager's, I think, a little more reserved, a little bit older than Ready, a little more guarded, but still a very honest guy and I appreciated that he was willing to let his guard down a little bit to talk about his relationship with his dad and, certainly, it was nice to be there and meet his son, who came in, and his son is a catcher also, kind of seeing their relationship and writing about that was really nice. To be able to talk about these multi-generations of fathers and sons was really nice.