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From the horse’s mouth: Smarty’s review of The Wax Pack

I discuss the difficulties of satire, the pursuit of Didi Gregorius, and a book about the players behind the baseball cards

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins
The pursuit of Didi Gregorius is the hot new storyline for the Phillies
Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

Now that the Phillies’ offseason has finally kicked into gear, here are a few random thoughts.

On to the next one

Yesterday, Phillies fans received the news that they had been waiting for all offseason: J.T. Realmuto was coming back!

As great as it is that the Phillies have retained their All-Star catcher, it’s also refreshing that we won’t have to get daily updates on how the negotiations with Realmuto were (or weren’t) going. Was Realmuto looking for record money? Were the Braves interested? Would it be THAT bad if they had to go with Andrew Knapp as their starter? (Yes, it would have been.)

Speaking of the next plotline, the fans had just a few hours of post-signing bliss before the next crisis arose: Who the heck was going to play shortstop?

When Tuesday began, it seemed like there were plenty of decent options still available on the free agent market. By the end of the day, Andrelton Simmons, Freddy Galvis, and Marcus Semien had all signed elsewhere. That left the Phillies and Didi Gregorius awkwardly staring at each other across the dance floor.

Hopefully, the two sides can reach an agreement soon and we don’t have to deal with weeks of angst over whether or not Didi is going to come back.

Everything is satire

Based on the reaction to my story about Alec Bohm, it’s clear that in today’s world, it is very difficult to detect when a writer is being facetious. And I realize that there is not 100% crossover between Eagles and Phillies fans, and some readers are blissfully unaware of the Carson Wentz apologists who have to mention “Wentz had to walk past a statue of Nick Foles every day!” when defending the Eagles’ beleaguered quarterback.

That said, while I may write some stupid stuff at times, I try not to cross the line into brain-meltingly stupid unless its intentional. (I save that for some columnists at the Daily News.) I’ll try to make the satire more obvious next time.

Anyway, as a show of good faith, if you didn’t understand the joke, or what offended by what I wrote, I will offer you a full refund.

A review of the Wax Pack

Last year, when author Brad Balukjian went on the Hittin’ Season podcast with John Stolnis to talk about his book The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife, it piqued my interest. Like many baseball fans, collecting baseball cards was one of the main ways I learned about the sport as a child. The only games I watched on television involved the Phillies, so by collecting baseball cards, I was able to learn more about non-Phillies players, especially those who played in the American League.

I recall one birthday, when my parents gave me a box of Topps baseball cards as a present. It was thrilling to tear open each pack, anxiously discovering which players would be contained within. Would I get a Ken Griffey Junior or a Barry Bonds? Or would it just be a pack full of “commons,” destined for permanent storage in a box in the closet?

Upon hearing the premise of Balukjian’s book, it struck me as a brilliant concept, and one which I wish I had thought of myself: Balukjian opened a pack of Topps cards from the 1986 season, and travelled across the country, trying to interview each of the players found within. As he explains in an author’s note, he actually opened a few different packs to try to come up with the most appealing set of players, but he didn’t combine cards from various packs.

It should be warned that the book is as much a Brad Balukjian autobiography and travel journal as it is a story about baseball cards. In reading previous reviews of the book and discussing it with others, feelings about this were mixed. If you went in expecting to simply read a series of “Where are they now?” stories you might not enjoy the personal filter with which Balukjian recalls his encounters. And your enjoyment of Balukjian’s re-connection with an ex-girlfriend and attempts to find love via dating apps will likely vary.

It certainly would have been a different book had it been written by a famous sportswriter. Unsurprisingly, when dealing with former major league players, not all of them were in a hurry to be interviewed, and I wonder if some of the players who avoided Balukjian would have been more receptive to a reporter from Sports Illustrated or another national publication.

On the other hand, the players whom Balkujian did meet with might not have been as open with what they revealed. It seemed that Balukjian largely praised the players he spoke with, while the players whom he couldn’t connect with were described in a much less flattering manner. I suppose that’s the price you pay when you let someone else tell your story.

Balukjian was a Phillies fan as a child, and two of his interview subjects were former Phillies: Don Carman and Randy Ready. Carman - a lefthanded pitcher who was with the team from 1983 to 1990 - gets two chapters dedicated to him since he was Balukjian’s favorite player while growing up.

Reading about Carman, you see how quickly a “future star” can become a “never-was”. As I learned from an interaction with former Phillies farmhand Greg Golson a few years ago, every player’s story is unique, and there are many variables to a player becoming a star - many of them out of a player’s control.

Philadelphia Phillies v Pittsburgh Pirates
Don Carman in 1987
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Ready was a utility infielder who spent two mostly unremarkable stints with the team. Despite suffering great tragedy in his life, he comes off as a very positive figure. But as mentioned earlier, Balukjian seemed to portray all of his subjects that met with him in a positive light.

I thought an inability to speak to some of the players might hurt the book, but it actually proved the opposite. Balukjian still discusses the players, and gives some background as to why he thinks they’ve been so elusive. Sometimes, the journey is better than the destination, and in at least a couple of instances, his failed attempt at an interview proved more interesting than his one-on-one encounters with the players.

The reasons for the failure to connect were varied. In a couple of cases, it was due to post-career success, while for others, it was because their lives had taken a downward turn since their playing days. And in the case of Al Cowens, it was because the player was deceased.

In the end, while your mileage may vary on some of the biographical aspects of the book, if you’ve ever collected baseball cards, or ever wondered about the lives of players beyond what you see when watching them on television, I recommend giving The Wax Pack a look.