Brad Balukjian didn’t set out to tell some run-of-the-mill story about the post-playing adventures of pro baseball players whose trading cards happened to be a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
In other words, Balukjian wanted more to come out of the pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards that served as the foundation for his recently released book that’s appropriately titled, “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife.”
“The idea itself, based on writing about a pack of cards … you don’t even have to go on the road necessarily,” said Balukjian, who grew up in Greenville and attended The Wheeler School for grades 7-12 where he played tennis and soccer prior to graduating in 1998.
Hitting the open road, however, enabled Balukjian to gather the material he needed in order to complete his project in the fashion he so desired.
During the summer of 2015, Balukjian traveled across 30 states, rested his head on pillows at more bad hotels than he cares to admit, and guzzled down more cups of coffee in the name of staying energized and on-task. The cross-country journey was done with a singular task in mind – connect with all of the ballplayers who happened to be included in the pack of 1986 Topps that Balukjian had purchased via eBay. The significance of 1986 is that it was the year he first started to collect cards.
“I had the time of my life, meeting these guys who I only knew from their 1986 baseball cards.
Now I’m stepping into real life with them 30 years later. That was an amazing experience,” said Balukjian, who now lives in California – he teaches biology at Merritt College – but makes it a priority every summer to return to Greenville, where his family still has a home.
The Topps wax pack contained 15 cards and a stick of bubble gum that had lost its flavor many moons before inspiration struck Balukjian in the summer of 2014 while watching the Oakland Athletics from the upper regions of the team’s home ballpark.
With a checklist as part of the pack’s findings, Balukjian was down to a group of 14 that ranged from Hall of Famers (Carlton Fisk), to 1980s stars (Dwight Gooden, Rick Sutcliffe and Vince Coleman) to solid MLB contributors (Gary Templeton, Lee Mazzilli, Steve Yeager, Gary Pettis and Richie Hebner), to those known in the baseball card industry as “commons” since their cards typically won’t fetch more than a few pennies – Rance Mulliniks, Randy Ready, Jaime Cocanower, Al Cowens and Don Carman.
“The book is kind of a celebration of underdogs,” said Balukjian, whose interaction with the lesser-known players helped to make this more than just a baseball book.
“You want to write the best possible book and in order to do that, you need to create an overarching narrative that features characters with dramatic tension where they’re not just talking about their baseball memories. How do you apply baseball to real life?” said Balukjian, who wore a reporter’s hat and a detective’s hat in his pursuit to learn all about his prospective subjects before meeting them in-person.
For this Rhode Island native, the quest to get players to open up about personal experiences helped to show a fragile side that will have the reader rooting them on even if multiple years have passed since they last brushed up against baseball’s fame. Getting Templeton to admit past indiscretions was a major revelation. Same held true when Balukjian interviewed Ready, who was in the midst of a family crisis when he was interviewed.
“It was kind of awkward having to know that I would ask questions that would make them really uncomfortable,” said Balukjian, who grew up a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies and counted former Red Sox second baseman Marty Barrett as one of his favorite players.
Many of the players were thrilled to spend time with Balukjian. A few roadblocks, however, were encountered with the more recognizable players from the pack. If Balukjian wanted to be in Gooden’s company, it was going to cost him $200. In the end, Gooden proved to be a no-show at an event he had previously committed to, though Balukjian was able to get plenty of material based on setting something up with the pitcher’s son, who handled all of his dad’s public appearances.
In the case of Fisk, Balukjian attempted to pass himself off as a perspective member who planned to join a Florida golf course that Fisk belonged to. When that plan didn’t work, Balukjian met Fisk in Cooperstown and paid $69 for the catcher’s autograph. The pursuit ended with Fisk’s agent running interference and that his cooperation would not be forthcoming.
“I knew the demand on their time was great, so I was sensitive to that,” said Balukjian. “Still, I was hopeful they would take an interest in what the project was all about and be willing to spend time with me.”
By design, Balukjian inserted anecdotes about himself throughout the book – his battle with OCD, seeing his ex-girlfriend after nine years prior to the next leg of the Wax Pack journey, to his parents getting a divorce. The chapter devoted to Mazzilli featured a distinctive father-and-son tone with Balukjian’s dad joining him at the same place where Mazzilli was interviewed. It was Balukjian’s dad who the son credits for piquing Brad’s interest in baseball.
“For me to be part of [the book] and become the connective tissue … that was done to get the reader to invest emotionally in me as a character,” said Balukjian.
Each player chronicled in The Wax Pack was asked to sign their card. The player also shared anecdotes about the other players as he flipped through the pack.
“A player looking at his own baseball card is kind of neat,” said Balukjian.
The underdog theme also applies to Balukjian’s quest to become a published author. He was rejected by 35 publishers before University of Nebraska Press expressed interest.
“After signing a contract [in 2019], I spent the next five months writing it. The good news is that I had transcribed most of it already,” said Balukjian. “I would still have these great memories even if it never got published.”
Responses to the 280-page book have been strong. Recently, The Wax Pack hit No. 1 on Amazon’s list for baseball books. For baseball-starved fans, what Balukjian succeeded in composing is the perfect way to help pass the time as the sport awaits clearance to return.
“It’s gratifying to see it do well after all these years,” said Balukjian.
For more information, visit www.waxpackbook.com