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  • The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife by Brad Balukjian
  • Mark Jent
Brad Balukjian.The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2020. 280 pp. Cloth, $27.95.

While many people reminisce about their childhood love of baseball, those nostalgic reflections don’t typically lead to a seven-week, 11,341-mile journey across thirty states. Watching the Athletics from the upper deck of the Oakland Coliseum in the summer of 2014, Brad Balukjian decided he would relive some of those childhood memories by purchasing a pack of 1986 Topps—the first year he collected baseball cards as a boy growing up in Rhode Island. But when the pack arrived he decided, “It’s not enough to just open the Pack. Now I need to find the players inside it. And write a book about it” (5).

Viewing himself throughout life as an underdog, Balukjian has always found himself drawn to the marginalized who played the game. “My childhood heroes were the journeymen and benchwarmers, the underdogs, fringe players who need to work like mad just to stay in place. I’ve never forgotten what it feels like to stand alone in the corner of the room” (1). To parallel his fandom, this single pack of cards was littered with those he was drawn to more than it was All-Stars who lived their careers in the spotlight. After nine months of researching their whereabouts, he sets out on his self-financed trip in June 2015 determined to find the men he once idolized and get to know their stories since stepping away from the game.

The majority of the Wax Packers, as Balukjian refers to them, welcomed him warmly. A few remained elusive and evaded his invitation to participate in the project. Along the way, the whereabouts of his encounters are as random as most of the players themselves. From meeting Rance Mulliniks at a high school baseball field, working out with Randy Ready at a gym, sitting in a Triple-A dugout with Rich Hebner, recounting stories with Steve Yeager in a Jersey Mike’s, or celebrating the Fourth of July with Jamie Cocanower, Balukjian was grateful for each player’s time as the conversations make his pack of cards come to life. But dinner in New York City with Lee Mazzilli is where Balukjian writes, “For the first time on the trip, one of the Wax Packers seems as interested in me as I am in him” (176).

Balukjian’s intuition that the players with more decorated careers could be more challenging proved to be true. A couple of days in Jacksonville trying to track down Vince Coleman led to dead ends around every corner. He finds Dwight Gooden in New York, only to be stood up on three separate occasions. He stalked Carlton Fisk at a country club in Tampa, but to no avail. Balukjian eventually met Fisk during Hall of Fame Induction Weekend in Cooperstown [End Page 234] after paying ninety-nine dollars to have the opportunity to say hello and get his card signed. He also delivered the former catcher a personal letter along with an autographed 8 × 10 of himself.

For Balukjian, the best card in the pack was that of his favorite player from his childhood—Don Carman. Though the former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher was an average player with a career record of 53–54 and an era above 4.00, Balukjian’s loyalty to him never wavered. Though scheduled to meet with Carman in Florida, Balukjian drove out of his way to Camargo, Oklahoma, and its population of 178 just to visit Carman’s hometown. When he made it to Florida, Balukjian spent two days with his favorite player and capped the trip off with a game of catch in the driveway of his house.

With the players Balukjian was able to interview, the most common theme was the father/son relationship. Several of these former big leaguers, now in their fifties and sixties, shared about the pain and abandonment experienced as a result of the void left by a father who...