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SSS Literary Supplement: The Wax Pack

Brad Balukjian’s debut book is a delightful romp through America — with a roadmap of 1986 Topps baseball cards

A more perfect subtitle, there’s never been: On the open road in search of baseball’s afterlife.

I’m not by nature a reviewer of any sort, so this might be more brief than KP’s detailed dives into past tomes. But thankfully, we’re running a wonderful podcast side-by-side with this review to rescue me.

While there’s not a big cliffhanger at the end, I’m hesitant to give too much away here. So let me extemporaneously describe this terrific book.

First off — and I believe I told this to Brad in our podcast, running alongside this review — his idea for this book is so good, I hate him for it. Right? If you’re creative, and someone unearths a concept that is simply brilliant, as much as you love the guy for it, you gotta hate him a little, too. So really, a little piece of me just hates Brad Balukjian.

But a bigger piece loves him, and the love story he has penned to the yeomen who make the world of baseball spin.

So anyway Balukjian, a science professor, was motivated by a lifelong love of baseball and some time off from school to craft a positively insane road trip to visit with a dozen players he got in a pack of 30-year-old baseball cards ordered off of eBay. (And yes, Brad did put the 30-year-old gum in his mouth, although any resulting dental work is not detailed in his otherwise fun and quirky book appendix.) Let’s see, off the top of my head, this road trip went something like Northern California, Southern California, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, New York, then crossing all the way back to California, and I’d be embarrassed I can’t remember the full trek if it wasn’t so ... positively insane.

Balukjian is extremely successful in his quests to meet all the players in his card back (even having a deceased player in his pack didn’t prevent him from visiting with the player’s son). It wasn’t a perfect run, but his near-misses are every bit as entertaining as the multiple-day, heartfelt visits he takes with several players.

I’m averse to giving away too much, but trust me in that you will be very satisfied with the vignettes Balukjian spins, even when meeting guys you have long forgotten or never realized played the game (aka “commons,” those yeoman players who aren’t stars, have no card value, and make up the bulk of any old baseball card set). One of those common players, coincidentally, was Brad’s very favorite growing up. (Weird kid: I mean, so was I, but I picked Ken Brett because, well, it just wasn’t a common name, first or last.)

I’ll end this drive-by review by citing the names who have blurbed the back cover of Brad’s book: Susan Orlean, Tyler Kepner, George Will, Jayson Stark, Jeff Pearlman, Ben Lindbergh and Rob Neyer. Holy hell. Now, did Brad take all the money he could have spent on decent hotel rooms and quality food on his interminable road trip and instead funneled it into his back-cover-blurb slush fund? Perhaps. The world of book publishing is wicked and peculiar. But for an earnest, first-time, long-searching-for-publisher author to have earned these kinds of advance accolades (I mean, goddam, Susan Orlean wrote The Orchid Thief and was the object of Charlie Kaufman writing and Spike Jonze directing Adaptation, for crissake) is nothing short of extraordinary.

It’s a terrific book. Order it here, and follow the Twitter account. Oh yeah, and listen to our podcast.