The book: “The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran”
The author: Dirk Hayhurst
The vital stats: Citadel Press, 340 pages, $14.95 (paperback)
The pitch: Keith Olbermann, the former ESPN and Fox Sport Net anchor, current MSNBC communicator and author of the MLB.com blog “Baseball Nerd” (linked here), was one of the first major supporters, writing this review:
“I’m not sure that he hasn’t written the best baseball autobiography since Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. … These are books about life: struggle, confusion, purpose, purposelessness, and the startling realization that achievement and failure are nearly-identical twins, one which gnaws and deadens, the other which just as often produces not elation but a tinny, empty sound. …
“Since my own childhood, we have ever-increasingly devalued every major leaguer but the superstar. Late in the last century we began to devalue every minor leaguer but the top draft choice. If you don’t make it into somebody’s Top Prospects list, you might as well not exist. Dirk Hayhurst is writing of his days, his months, his years, as far away from the Top Prospects lists as imaginable. He is, in The Bullpen Gospels, often the last man on an A-ball pitching staff, and trying to answer a series of successively worsening questions cascading from the simplest of them: Why? This, of course, is why the book transcends the game. … It is the primordial battle of hope and faith and inspiration versus disillusionment and rust and inertia.”
No wonder Amazon.com has seen it launch to the top of its best-selling sports books since its release three weeks ago, and the New York Times’ bestseller list has it in the Top 20 this week.
Some brief background: Dirk Von Hayhurst (baseballreference.com bio linked here) pitched for seven teams in seven seasons, including the San Diego Padres and Toronto Blue Jays, since 2003. Fans of the California League might remember him with Lake Elsinore … and pitching against the Lancaster JetHawks, as he describes in the first chapter. Drafted by the Padres out of Kent State, eventually let go by the franchise in ’09, he spent most of last season with Triple-A Las Vegas and came up to the Toronto Blue Jays late in the year. He’s currently on the Jays’ 60-day DL (linked here), not on the active roster, recovering from shoulder surgery done last February and likely won’t pitch again this season.
Baseball America’s website had plenty of highly-touted minor leaguers writing for its “Prospect Diary” blog, so it was natural for someone like Hayhurst to create something called the “Non-Prospect Diary” (linked here), which showed off his writing skills and insightful introspection. The book was a natural progression.
A couple of excerpts for us sum up what’s really going on in a book that Hayhurst states clearly is not about outing a teammate taking PEDs, one who’s cheating on his wife or any other scandalous stuff — just real life.
From page 24:
Something about lying in my underwear with snow boots on while my right arm throbbed got me thinking. Suffice to say, this was not how I pictured my life as a professional baseball player, shacking up with the withered old puppet of evil I called grandma, hanging on to a crumbling dream while the world passed me by, is not how things were supposed to go.
There is so much you don’t know when you get into the baseball business. You think you know it all. You’ve certainly seen enough of it on television to form an educated guess. But the stuff that happens on television isn’t real, no matter how bad you want it to be. … I was going to live the big-league dream. What the hell happened? Where were all my millions? … Where was my dignity?
I had a lot of failures in my career. Even my successes felt like failures, seeing how I had nothing to show for them. When I failed, it felt so colossally taxing, I became afraid of the slightest potential of it happening each time I took the mound. Soon, it was the only thing I expected myself to do. It’s easy to talk about success when failure doesn’t mean anything. To me, failure meant a lot. It was something along the lines of self-destruction or imprisonment. … It’s what motivated me, punished me, and branded me. It was my very wicked master. Thus, each success I had this spring was tempered by the looming shadow of my possible meltdown. Sure I was happy about the results so far. I was doing well. But more importantly, I wasn’t blowing it.
One more, from the last chapter, page 335, relaying a story about meeting Padres reliever Trevor Hoffman, who sees him writing on his laptop — until that point, Hayhurst said, his biggest highlight, “the one my mom called to inform me I made ‘SportsCenter’ for,” was giving up a home run to the Dodgers’ Manny Ramirez:
“What’s the book about?” (Hoffman asked).
“It’s about one season in the minors. It’s about baseball. Maybe it would be better to say it’s about what baseball isn’t.”
“What it isn’t?” Hoffman asked, now giving me his full attention.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, baseball is a lot of things, but it’s not everything. It can’t make your brother sober. It can’t make your family stop fighting. It can’t make peace or win wars or cure cancer. It makes or breaks a lot of people, like many jobs where the folks who do it find their identity. I don’t know if it should be as valuable as it is, or maybe baseball is valuable, and we players just don’t use it the right way. I guess that’s what I want to figure out in the book.”
Hoffman looked at me, evaluating and judging me like those big leaguers with time and power do. “I agree,” he said …
That kind refreshing take on life, counterbalance by the other hijinx that goes on with minor-league sophomoric lifestyle, sheds far new light onto what it means to be in a baseball uniform. How hopes and dreams can be great goals, but are mostly unrealistic, causing constant doubt and reassessment, a realignment of goals, and some moments of epiphany.
A story about a 3-year-old with liver cancer visiting the bullpen, led by his sobbing mother, is one of those moments that Hayhurst relays with such profoundness, it leads to him writing:
“Baseball and life – such funny things that don’t always make sense. Yet, in those moments spent with that child, watching him live in the game in a way none of us who played it could, everything made perfect sense. … Baseball doesn’t have any intrinsic power. It only has what people give it. … Is baseball as important as food, knowledge, care of a dry pair of boots? Is it as important as some of the things that pass us by in everyday life? I don’t think so. Can it inspire, motivate and call us to do something greater than ourselves? Absolutely. The burden of the player isn’t to achieve greatness but to give the feeling of it to everyone he encounters. It was wrong of me even to try to separate life and the game. They were intertwined, meant to be, one teaching the other…”
How it goes down in the scorebook: Some guys — athletes or not — just don’t get it. Hayhurst does. Thanks, Dirk. As long as you keep things in perspective, you’ve not just learned an important life lesson, but you’ve let the rest of us in on the process. We hope you find what you’re looking for.