Let me begin with a disclaimer: I love baseball cards. Notice the lack of a “d” at the end of love. While it’s true that I certainly loved baseball cards as a kid, it’s also true that I still love them to this day as a full grown adult.
The reasons for my card-love are different. As a child I loved cards for the thrill of collecting and chasing down those elusive missing players – the quest for completing a set. As an adult my thirst for cards is just as thrilling but fueled not by the desire to complete a set, but literally for thirst. On an annual basis, before my long-running fantasy baseball draft, a group of us will sit down and open a box of late-80’s/early 90’s Topps or Upper Deck. One person per pack will choose a category – “fattest man” or “most career home runs” or “player born closest to Toronto” – and after all players put down their next card, one person wins. It’s a baseball card-themed game of war. Fewest cards at the end of the box means you chug a beer. Simple.
All of which is a long, meandering way of saying that I was naturally predisposed to love Brad Balukjian’s book The Wax Pack: On the Open Road In Search of Baseball’s Afterlife.
I’ll admit that I had the premise of the book all wrong. Seeing the cover I immediately assumed he had penned a history of the baseball card industry, or perhaps a look at the rise-and-fall of the hobby over the years. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The concept is wonderful in its simplicity, yet also insane: open a pack of 1986 Topps Baseball cards and set out to find, meet, and interview each of the players. Sometimes when pulling a member of the 1988 Baltimore Orioles or 1989 Texas Rangers, I’ve wondered things like “does this guy still have that incredible mustache” or “I bet he still has that mullet”, but never in my wildest imagination did I ever consider actually finding out.
Yet that is exactly what Brad did. By scouring a network of agents, family members, team officials, and loads of internet sites, he was able to not only find where each player lived, but make arrangements to meet them and find out what life was truly like after baseball.
Well – almost all of them. Vince Coleman and Dwight Gooden clearly did not want to be found, and there is a hilarious tale weaved throughout the book of Brad doing his absolute best to track down Carlton Fisk, complete with an orchid greeting card (seriously!), to no avail.
But the rest of the book is full of fascinating tales of ex-major leaguers and how they spend their days after hanging up the cleats. Some stories are heartwarming, some are heartbreaking, but all are riveting.
As a Blue Jays fan, the very first anecdote of the book about meeting Rance Mulliniks was the one I looked forward to the most. At the risk of spoiling anything, Rance has been through some trials and tribulations, but seems to be happy and well in California. To read about him looking back fondly on his days in Toronto, especially his final memory as a ballplayer – “Nixon bunts…Timlin on it…throws to first…or the first time in history the world championship banner will fly north of the border” – brought a huge smile to my face.
It took Brad 48 days to travel 11,341 miles across 30 states in the summer of 2015 to gather the material for the book. But it was worth every second of it.
PS – the public demands a sequel!