'The Wax Pack' delivers

Brad Balukjian went on an epic quest centered around baseball cards and the resulting book is a must-read that's about much more than baseball

Good morning, frents …

Bit of a different Midway Minute this morning as I’m breaking out my first book review. It’s about “The Wax Pack,” which is getting great reviews after being released this spring.

I’m also running my first giveaway with copies of the book up for grabs via a drawing. Read below for details on how to enter.

Full disclosure: I bought “The Wax Pack” on my own after reading about the book’s conceit — how could I not? — and only reached out to the publisher for a couple of prize copies after finishing it. There is no other arrangement. I’m only writing about it and giving away some copies because I know you will enjoy it as much as I did.

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When a pack of cards is something much more

A lot of books have spoken to me in my life.

But I’m not sure I’ve ever felt one was specifically written for me.

Then came “The Wax Pack,” a new book from first-time author Brad Balukjian and one that comes with a premise guaranteed to connect with baseball fans like me.

You’re telling me Balukjian opens a pack of 1986 Topps almost 30 years later and then embarks on a road trip to hang out with all of the players he found inside?

I was automatically in even before I knew he pulled Carlton Fisk and Rick Sutcliffe  — or saw the cover with the same beautiful look and feel of those old Topps packs.

Like Brad, the ‘86 set was the first I ever collected seriously. I can still remember being in a neighbor’s room and having him show me a pack he’d just brought home from a card store. I was seven years old and knew I needed some of my own

Topped with that distinctive black container and colorful team names typed in Napoli X bold, the cards still elicit an emotional response from me almost 35 years later. One of the most unpopular opinions I hold is that they’re even better than the wood-paneled ‘87 set that gets most of the love. It’s true: You always remember your first.

So, yeah, there was almost no chance I wasn’t going to like The Wax Pack.

But after ripping through all 259 pages quicker than my younger self could tear through an actual wax pack, I have to say the book was even better than I expected.

For one, Balukjian is a fantastic writer. A college biology professor by trade, he poured everything into this book, financing the road trip himself and being turned down by more than 30 publishers before University of Nebraska Press bought in.

It shouldn’t have been much of a gamble: Balukjian is better at sportswriting than many of us who do this for a living and his love for the subject comes through. He loves the sport, baseball cards and the players of that era as much as you or I do.

How can you not relate to a guy who carries the same strange love for Don Carman that you likely have for someone equally as random? (I see you, person who uses Jody Davis for your Internet passwords.)

Brad Balukjian during his day with Rick Sutcliffe (@waxpackbook)

Where “The Wax Pack” really excels is Balukjian’s ability to get the old ballplayers he visits to open up.

Yes, It’s a sportswriting truism that athletes only really start talking once no one wants to hear from them any more. There’s a lot of that at play here. But considering that Balukjian parachuted into each man’s life with a phone call and an unsold book idea, it’s remarkable the insight he was able to glean in just a few hours’ visit.

Balukjian, though, did his homework and came to each meeting knowing more about the man than most of their family members. The result is a lot of introspection on making it to the big leagues, making mistakes both on the field and off and what life is like once your name is no longer penciled into the lineup. One common thread Balukjian finds about a father’s involvement (or lack thereof) gives the book an emotional heft I wasn’t expecting.

Along the way, Balukjian becomes the book’s unofficial 16th card as he writes about his own mistakes in life and his lifelong battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s a likable narrator, whether he’s spending the Fourth of July in Arkansas with Jaime Cocanower, getting the runaround in New York from Doc Gooden’s camp or trying to pin down the ever-elusive Fisk. While most of the players were willing to spend an afternoon or two with Balukjian, Fisk was more reticent and the question of will he or won’t he laces the book with a suspense that will keep you turning the pages.

Over the past several years, opening a pack of baseball cards has become one of the most dependable pieces of Internet content. Countless YouTube channels are devoted to the practice and my old Yahoo Sports friend Mike Oz has carved out a great niche opening packs with players themselves.

It’s not hard to see why. In an age where we’re driven by the digital dopamine hit, a pack of cards is the physical version. Combine that with Balukjian driving thousands of miles to see if the players he found will speak with him and the book delivers more highs than 24 hours of endless Facebook scrolling ever could. Between the ubiquity of the journey and the well-drawn portraits of men looking to find their place in life after the games end, I think it’s a book that will appeal to more than just baseball fans.

My only quibble? Balukjian has so far ruled out thoughts of a sequel. The format is so perfect that it’s not hard to imagine him replicating the every chapter-a-life approach that John Feinstein did with some of his sports books. I got done with “The Wax Pack” and I wanted Balukjian to rip open another pack right away.

But Balukjian insists that he’s done with the conceit and that his journey in 2015 was a one-time exercise. And while the good news is that he’s open to someone else trying the approach, the bad news is I can’t imagine anyone doing it as well as he did.

To learn more about The Wax Pack, visit waxpackbook.com

‘The Wax Pack’ giveaway!

I have three (3) copies of The Wax Pack to give away to Midway Minute readers, thanks to our frents at University of Nebraska Press.

How to win

Option 1

1. Make sure you’re subscribed to Midway Minute.

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2. RT this on Twitter and tag a few friends you think would like Midway Minute.

3.  Share this Facebook post and tag a few friends who would like Midway Minute.

4. Get two drawing entries if you share on both Facebook and Twitter and email me letting me know that you did.

Option 2

1. Make sure you’re subscribed to Midway Minute.

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2. Get a new frent* to sign up for the newsletter.

3. Email me the name of you and your frent at midwayminute@gmail.com. If your name is selected, I’ll send a copy of The Wax Pack to both of you.

Yes, you can go both routes. If you both post on social media and bring me a new frent, I’ll enter your name in both of the pools. The contest will stay open until 11:59 p.m. CT on Tuesday, May 19. I will pick the winners at random on Wednesday afternoon.

Good luck!

*New signup must have occurred after 5 a.m. on Friday, May 15

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MLB commissioner Rob Manfred appeared on CNN with Anderson Cooper on Thursday night and said he he has “great confidence” the owners and union will come to an agreement on a 2020 season. He said owners are on track to lose $4 billion if no season is not held.

Manfred also unveiled some specifics on the league’s testing plan:

  • Multiple tests will be done per week with some antibody testing. Tests will be done through a Utah lab that MLB normally uses for minor-league drug tests. There will be a 24-hour turnaround, but symptomatic players and teammates will receive instant testing.
  • If a player tests positive, he will be removed from the team and put in quarantine. He’ll have to test negative twice to return to the team.
  • No players will be forced to come back if not comfortable.

Crane Kenney told Cubs season ticket holders he’s confident Marquee and Comcast will come to an agreement by the time baseball returns. He said the two sides were close when the lockdown began.

Have a link for Midway Minute? Email me!

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Mark Lazerus’ feature on ex-Blackhawks GM Mike Smith was nuts. Bob Pulford makes Jerry Krause look like Theo Epstein. (The Athletic)

Here’s how several people associated with Illini athletics are dealing with the lockdown, including Tribune beat writer Shannon Ryan. Good stuff from Matt Daniels. (News-Gazette)

Blair Kamin on the 100th anniversary of Michigan Avenue’s DuSable Bridge. I can never read enough Blair Kamin articles. (Chicago Tribune)

If your soon-to-be-grad needs a commencement address, here’s one from my friend, sportswriter Jay Busbee. He says to never eat free hot dogs, though I’m not sure if I fully agree. (Flashlight & A Biscuit)

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• I can’t believe there’s only one night left. Savor it and I’ll see you back here on Monday morning to wrap the whole thing up.

Thank you for being a #frentofthenewsletter. Get those entries in!