A few years after starting to cover baseball as a full-time beat writer many years ago, I ran into an old mentor at the ballpark I hadn’t seen in a long time and asked if he wanted to join a few of us for drinks after the game.
He’d be there, he said, but he didn’t drink anymore. Couldn’t. Not like he used to. Not after all those years covering baseball finally taught him what he didn’t want to know — just in time for a columnist job to come along and save him.
“This beat will expose your demons,” he said. “Whatever they are.”
It’s a haunting truth for any of the countless, often faceless, people who ever have subjected themselves and their families to the lifestyle of baseball’s traveling circus, whether as one of the stars of the Big Top, one of the carnies, or even one of the media clowns.
And whether Brad Balukjian sought that particular truth when he set out on a seven-week, cross-country journey to track down the stories of 14 players from a single pack of 1986 baseball cards, he found it along with chapter after chapter of surprisingly candid interviews, emotional revelations and sharply written observations in "The Wax Pack," which reached the Los Angeles Times bestseller list last week.
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“The reality is everybody has something,” said Balukjian, who joined the Cubs Talk Podcast to talk about the book. “Whether it’s physical, mental, [you’re] famous, not famous, none of us get off without having something to deal with, and so that’s kind of what I wanted to tap into in the way that I approached the book.”
The book, which features a Hall of Famer (Carlton Fisk), two Cy Young Award winners (Rick Sutcliffe, Dwight Gooden), a one-time All-Star (Lee Mazzilli) and Balukjian favorite Don Carman, is like 14 mini-biographies woven through an autobiography you don’t see coming as it unfolds across 11,000 miles of highway and 123 cups of coffee in the summer of 2015.
On his website, the author said the book in part turned into a “meditation on the loss of innocence [and] what it means to grow up.”
It’s also about fathers and sons, strength and frailty, success and failure, humor and a lot of very personal, sometimes odd details.
We learn, for instance, that both Steve Yeager and Garry Templeton abruptly stopped drinking once they finished big-league careers that included a lot of it.
“One of the themes in the book is about the importance of behavior vs. thoughts and feelings,” said Balukjian, who centers much of the book’s thematic wisdom in the chapter spent with his childhood idol, Carman — now a sports psychologist who works for agent Scott Boras.
“Don Carman makes a big point to say you can’t control your thoughts and your feelings. you can only control your reaction to them. What these players were really good at was … essentially knowing that all they can control is their behavior. Someone like Yeager and Templeton recognizing their own demons, or their potential to be consumed by drinking, made that decision that, ‘OK, I’m just going to stop.’”
As much as anything, the book was the result of an inspired concept and a labor of love — emphasis on labor during a process to find a publisher that consumed the lifespans of two book-agent relationships and included 38 rejections over five years.
“The idea using a pack to get a random sample came to me very quickly and suddenly,” said Balukjian, who already had a fascination with typically lesser-light players and a desire to take on a where-are-they-now project. “It just seemed like it was this device that captured the excitement of the unknown that we all remember from opening packs as kids.”
But that might have been the only part that came easily during a project he pulled off with a 13-year-old car, a tight budget and a list of players that included one who had died too young (Al Cowens) and another who proved nearly as elusive (Fisk).
“For Fisk — well, for any of the guys — I decided I was still going to try to find them and tell their stories,” said Balukjian, who devoted two chapters to stalking the Red Sox and White Sox legend, including an undercover operation at a Florida country club.
“I found out from a source where he golfs at this really exclusive resort,” said Balukjian, who then posed as a wealthy snowbird looking for a home on the golf course.
“It may not have been the most well conceived plan thinking that I could pass myself off as a multimillionaire coming in with a 2002 Honda Accord with 100,000 miles on it and peeling paint,” he said. “But it was one of the more fun chapters. The book has a lot of heaviness and some very somber moments to it. The Fisk chapter was a sort of fun diversion.”
Balukjian did not find Fisk at the resort. In fact, attempts by the Cubs Talk Podcast to have Fisk on with Balukjian also were unsuccessful.
Which is not to say the author did not get his face time, however brief. And it’s definitely worth reading about.
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