Author of 'The Wax Pack' discusses his card-based journey and the search for baseball's afterlife
Brad Balukjian released "The Wax Pack" this spring
Although the spread of the novel coronavirus has delayed the start of Major League Baseball's season until some unknowable future date, that hasn't stopped people from enjoying the game through various mediums. That can mean watching a game in Korea or Taiwan; it can mean passing the hours on The Show; and it can mean diving into a good baseball book.
Author Brad Balukjian recently penned one of the latter, called The Wax Pack, wherein he hunts for baseball's afterlife by chasing down and talking to 14 players about their careers and lives. Balukjian's book, which was released in April, is part-memoir, and is unflinchingly honest -- about its author, and its subjects.
Balukjian was kind enough to answer a few questions for CBS Sports through email. You can follow him on Twitter by clicking here, and you can learn more about The Wax Pack, and even purchase a copy, by clicking here.
Let's start with the obvious question: what inspired you to write this book?
For years, I had wanted to tackle a book-length project, to have the opportunity to actually practice the techniques of writing creative non-fiction that I had learned way back in my magazine journalism classes in college. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer places left that publish that genre of journalism. I think a good narrative nonfiction book needs to have an overarching story arc complete with characters, dialogue, some sense of purpose, and scene-setting details. I saw the random pack of cards as the perfect device to set up a "quest book," with the simple premise of finding all the guys inside the pack. I knew that if I centered the book around the road trip itself, I would be able to blend travel, sports, and memoir in a way that would provide all those elements of storytelling I mentioned earlier. I also liked the device of the pack because it ensured (through probability) that most of the players would be the very underdog types I idolized as a kid. I didn't know what the full story was going to be until I went on the trip, but I always believed that I would find something compelling and relatable.
For those who haven't read the book, how did you land on this set of players to write about?
The 14 players profiled were all bundled together in a single pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards, which had remained sealed for 29 years (collectors often kept packs sealed in the hopes that they would one day be worth something).
You've tweeted a bit about the difficulty you had in finding a publisher. What was that process like?
Oof. The publishing process is a bear. I knew it would be hard, but not this hard. In general, when you have a non-fiction book, you write a proposal to secure an agent, and then the agent shops it to publishers. Ideally you get a book deal with an advance, which is the money you receive to write the book (once the publisher earns the advance back, you start to earn royalties on each copy sold). In order to make book writing financially viable, you need to get a big enough advance to sustain you for the time it takes to write a book (often 1-2 years). I ended up cycling through two agents and getting rejected 38 times before landing on the University of Nebraska Press, without an agent. I will always be grateful that UNP took a chance on me. What was particularly frustrating was that most of the rejections were not based on the quality of the writing, but on the fact that I lacked a sufficient "platform" to promote the book; in other words, I didn't have 100,000 Twitter or Instagram followers. I left the process wondering how new writers will ever be discovered in non-fiction if the gatekeepers of the publishing industry are not willing to take more risks?
With almost every player you met, you ask some probing and, at times, difficult questions. Did any of the players push back?
Good point. In general, I was pleasantly surprised by how accommodating and forthcoming the players were. In a couple cases, they asked for things to be off the record, but I never had a player blow up at me or get angry.
You write a fair amount about your life and your relationships -- be it with your ex, your father, even your mental health -- in a way that you wouldn't usually find in a book about baseball. Do you think the memoir aspect of the book is part of the reason it seems to resonate with people?
I think so. While there are a few people who have been critical of my role in the narrative, the response to the memoir parts has been overwhelmingly positive, which gives me a feeling of vindication and satisfaction. Several of the aforementioned gatekeepers pushed me away from including myself too much in the book, but I felt that the only way the book worked and hung together as a cohesive narratives was if I was included as a character as well. My character is the connective tissue between the players, and my goal was to get the reader to invest emotionally in me as well as the players. I think the book resonates because it really isn't about baseball--it's about our relationship with fear, in all its guises. The lesson of the book is that in order to conquer fear, you have to learn to co-exist with it; that the harder you resist, the more fear will tighten its screws. The key to living a content life, I think, is to exist as much as possible in the present moment. Fear is different from pain; pain exists in the present, while fear inhabits the future. Because of that, fear is the more sinister and destructive of the two. The players I met with taught me a lot about this.
Speaking of relationships with fathers, the chapter on Dwight Gooden -- really Dwight Gooden Jr. -- left an impression on this reader. Is there a particular chapter you've heard the most feedback on?
When people tell me they liked the book, the question I most like to ask is which was their favorite chapter? The most popular seem to be Don Carman, Carlton Fisk, Jaime Cocanower, and Doc Gooden. I think Doc resonates because it is a new take on his story that hasn't really been told before (through the eyes of his eldest son).
Have you remained in contact with any of the players, and have they offered any comments on the book?
I have! I was touched that several of them were going to make appearances with me at book signings before COVID hit.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from this process (be it as a writer, a human, a baseball fan, whatever)?
The biggest lesson was that we have a lot more in common with ballplayers than we ever realized. I felt closer to these guys afterwards because of their willingness to be vulnerable and to share some deeply personal stuff that cannot be easy to talk about with anyone, let alone a stranger. I think the book demystifies hero worship in a positive, healthy way that makes all of us feel more connected. And that's a good thing.
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