Q and A with Dirk Hayhurst: “It’s the most liberating and imprisoning experience at the top”

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From GroovyGarfoose.com, Bonnie Hayhurst’s musical therapy website.

As a follow up to today’s review of “Out of My League” (linked here), and a preview to Friday’s media column, some painfully insightful Q-and-A with pitcher/author Dirk Hayhurst:

Q: Are you officially out of baseball now?

A: I guess so. Part of me is like (in an announcer voice), “Next year, latch onto any team and have a goodbye tour!” But let’s be honest. I’ve applied to grad school. People want me to do broadcasting. Shoot, I don’t know.
I hate saying this, because I feel I’m betraying everyone, but I get it from Twitter fans every day, from people who I don’t know who they are, saying: “You should get into broadcasting!” Or, “You should write about …” And I’m “OK, all right.” Then I get away from it and it’s like, “What the hell am I doing?” I’m letting essentially 14,000 digital nobodies essentially tell me now to live.
I’m taking it slow trying to find out what I care about. I’d like more of my existence to be more what’s in front of me right now and not potentially what’s happening in this digital world I occupy pandering for followers. I hate being sucked into this.


Q: Your relationship with Bonnie is going well?

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A: Marriage is fantastic. It was the best decision I ever made. If I’d have had to quit baseball to marry her, I would look back and not felt bad at all. The best thing baseball has to offer me is a platform to be an agent of social change that it can be, but the second most valuable thing was the money. Beyond that, playing for the love of the game is a romantic concept that breaks down after a couple of years in the pro system. You’d be more apt to say you play for the love of the industry. That’s what it is. It’s an industry that manufactures greatness. You can play the game well into your 50s or 60s if you want to on all these pick up leagues if you love to play. But you play professionally and you sacrifice professionally because of the rewards. Or you lie to yourself.

Q: What’s your relationship with baseball? Love/hate? Both?

A: My relationship with baseball is a peculiar thing. I don’t hate it. I really don’t. Baseball is this benchmark of history, a beautiful thing to have been part of. But at the same time I hate our society’s obsession with it. The more I think about it, it’s not even that as much as our society’s obsession with pop culture, dream jobs and how they’re supposed to fulfill your life. Baseball gave me some of the highest highs of my life, but it also gave me some of the lowest lows. In that sense, I’ll have to look at it with a balanced hand.

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It’s a great tool, but it’s a double-edged sword. The bad parts of it are because of what’s projected onto it. And that represents the bad parts of our culture, too. Making a lot of money, being famous, having power, having social influence, all desirable things that will make your life meaningful and give you purpose. But at the end of the day, I call bullshit on all of that.
Those beliefs will destroy relationships, end marriages, get you addicted to things that end of the day, no one cares. The hardest part was getting to the top and realizing none of these people cared about me as an individual. They all cared about me as a “big leaguer.”
It took me a very short period of time to realize that no one here knows Dirk Hayhurst, nor do they want to know Dirk Hayhurst, they just know that I’m a celebrity and that’s really all they need to know. And that’s all they really want to know. And now that I am one, there are all these expectations. It’s the most liberating and imprisoning experience at the top.

Q: You’re in what looks like a dream job, but you care so much about it you end up beating yourself up, becoming anxious and paranoid. But you have the talent to put it in a book rather than go off in a corner and never be heard from again. Does that help at all?

A: That was the bad part of it. For me, especially in baseball, I had all these rough experiences. My life hasn’t been: ‘We signed for a million dollars and then he’s in the show rolling in money and throwing hookers and models out of my bed.” Whatever. For me, it’s: “This sucks and I don’t know how to cope with it-turned-writing.” But it’s the one thing you’re not allowed to do in baseball. I hate to think others will get blindsided by that same experience.
We’re such a culture that our job is supposed to make sense of everything for us, but when it doesn’t, it’s crushing. This entire paradigm we based our life around has fallen apart when we need it to be that golden carrot we’d be chasing for so long. It’s a nihilistic experience, like there’s no meaning in anything, or why I’m alive anymore or why anything’s worth caring about anymore. It’s all a shame. Fuck everybody (laughing).
The thing baseball taught me is to find happiness where you choose to find it not where you believe culturally you’re supposed to find it. Baseball was all my life, supposed to be this gift and now that I’m out …
Someone said, “You’re going to be a great coach and parent because you’re an expert in sports.” But that’s so stupid. I’m an expert in sport? What does that do for you? It’s so useless. It’s a jaded feeling to have, but it’s so prevalent and important and meaningful to our culture to be a great sports-used-to-be-guy. What’s wrong with us? It bothers me to no end.

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Q: Can you go to a baseball game as a fan just to watch or does it drive you away from that simple pleasure?

A: I could. I watch games to see the guys play and throw as a craft. I could watch the game if nobody is there just for the pageantry of it. But when I get online, it’s hardest for me to talk honestly about someone’s ability level. There comes a tidal wave of angry people to yell at you. It’s like you’re making fun of a religion. And it’s so sad. At the end of the day, it’s just a sport. How are we so hung up and invested in it? I just don’t get it.

Q: The key paragraph in your book is your discovery that some of the things we believe to be important really aren’t while other things we take for granted could be life-changing. You stuck true to that.

A: I wrote that intro as the last thing. I wanted to be familiar to people. The book is different than the first one. That was a romp in the minors, which what I was told the people wanted, some kind of insight into the world of a minor leaguers. That’s the thing about the minor leagues, that there’s no point to it. You’re just practicing every day. The only that matters is the bigs.
We have stories of things we do just to entertain ourselves because really the results in many ways don’t manner and you don’t know where you stand, so you just try to survive and grind it out. I had all these kind of individual stories that were packed together in a chronological fashion to get you to certain payoff points. And people enjoyed that, but also it took a lot of criticism because, “Oh it’s just these juvenile hijinks.’ Which is what baseball is. Twenty five guys out of college, that’s what we do.
But in this (new) book I wanted to grow up and I tried really hard to get those priorities going forward, the evolution as a person. But then I was, “Oh man, this is more adult, with a love story in it. Casual fans won’t go guffawing.” So I needed it to feel something like the first one, and in my expanding myself I tried not to lose what I had in the first one.
The last book was, “What you do with your chances are a different story” feel to it. I feel like the book accomplished all the goals I had for it at the end of the day.
I did have one person, on Amazon, who said I’m “an insufferable whiner who complained about the greatest opportunity of his life and I’d never want my daughter to marry this guy, would never want to know this guy, he didn’t deserve anything that he got” … That’s was I was afraid I’d get the whole time. They’d hear me complain about the big leagues, but I’m not. I’m not. I’m trying to show this perspective of life. It was a huge risk-reward experience. Unfortunately I got the worst of it because I stunk. If I wasn’t for that incredibly tragic experience I never would have known the true value of a lot of things that are lasting in my life.
You can tell people that or you can show people that. And in the process of showing people that, I opened myself up to get smashed as a whiner and a complainer. It was a risk I had to take. But as more of the reviews are coming in, I think people got it. That makes me feel as if I succeeded.

Q: There was a balance of inside locker room stuff, things you talk about the pitchers use to improve their grips. But there’s also a lot of sincerity in trying to get some words of advice from Trevor Hoffman, the Padres relief pitcher who’s about to retire. He has a reason for playing and a soul you don’t get from a lot.

A: The last time I wrote about him (in “The Bullpen Gospels”) I asked for his permission to write everything and he was cool about it. But this time, well, I made him look better than I did last time so I won’t track him down because he’s out of the game now. Trevor was great, at the end of his career and this an old man looking back at all he’d done. But at the same time he was never been asked about it. So I’d ask him these questions and he’d smile and shake his head and be like, “You and your questions. ” I would ask him things nobody else would ask. That’s the culture of the clubhouse. You have to come up begging and sniffling to these guys who are no more than 10 or 20 years older than you, tops, and you have to beg them like a king on a throne for an ounce of their time.
If you’d ever go up to them and say, “You know, it’s really quite ridiculous that I have to beg you to pay attention to me just because you play a child’s game better than I have,” when it should be the other way around. “You should be proactive in the development of us since we are a team.” But we’re not. We’re a team on paper. That’s another romantic concept, because we’re all individuals worried about ourselves because if we don’t do well we’re fired. So there’s someone who could potentially take our job. I get it now. It’s all a big lie. “So how do you deal with a lie, Trevor? There’s your question.” His best answer was: “I realize what it is I do and I realize why I do it an it’s not for the reasons everything may think, but they’re my reasons and you have to find yours and move forward.”

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Q: Are you essentially happy with the response to the book, that they got what you were trying to get across?

A: I think I was surprised to see it more positively accepted than “The Bullpen Gospels.” It was kind of lauded as the minor league “Ball Four,” and I’ve never read “Ball Four,” so I don’t know, but “The Bullpen Gospels” had this kind of gritty, angsty, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here” feel to it. This book is more of growing up as an author. I’m happy I grew and it was still accepted and there’s a market for it. I was afraid people would see me as a one-hit wonder. Because it was make or break for it. If that book didn’t do well, then I’m not a very good author and I can only talk about funny stuff.
There was a New York Times writer, Jonathan Eig – I remember the name because if I ever see him I’d want to punch him in the mouth – who said (linked here) something like that when I was trying to be funny, I was OK, but when I’m trying to be serious, I really fall flat. That made me want to strangle him. That bothered me to no end. The competitor in me hasn’t died. I feel like he’s looking at me as “I know the game,” as outsider’s perspective because he thinks as an historian of the game, he knows what the game is supposed to be like and how you’re supposed to be in it. And when you fail to do that, you have no relevance on the rest of the game and it should be discounted. Of all the guys who are so snobby, the historical writers always give me a rough time.

Q: When we last read about you before this book, you were in Italy trying to make some kind of comeback, or at least set out for an adventure on a new story (New York Times story linked here) What happened?

A: That’s definitely another book. … It was a crazy ride. I was there about a week. That’s all it took to legitimately meet a guy who had sex with a farm animal, get accosted by the police, get into a fight with the entire management, run a herd of feral cats out of my apartment, and then have authentic food. No one died, but it was close. It was a cool experience. One of our starting pitchers would smoke cigarettes on the bench between innings, then he’d run out and take the mound. It was just wild. You see a lot of those things.

Q: Did you read the John Grisham book, “Playing for Pizza,” about a football player trying to keep his career alive by playing in Italy?

A: Y’know, everyone asks me that and first of all, I don’t like John Grisham, second I’m not going to read a fiction work about life in Italy to prepare me for life in Italy. But people say, “It’s about sports! And you’re going over to Italy.” But I haven’t read “Ball Four”‘ yet so, I don’t know. If people tell me to do stuff as if it’s life or death, I’m pretty much not going to do it. And I won’t die.

Q: Is there a book coming up next year about your stint with the Blue Jays (which came in 2009, after his ’08 season with the Padres)?

A: There is. Mainly what the book is about is what happens to a guy who is hurt, and on top of that struggles with depression. It’s still taboo in sports. I’ve always been kind of more in my head than I need to be as an athlete. One of my biggest hang-ups is my awareness is an impediment to my ability. So I spent all this time thinking about my situation, mapping out all the possibilities that could wrong or right at any time. So when I get hurt and don’t come back as fast as I should, I’m isolated and start to get depressed and self-medicate to weather the depression. It’s just better for you to try to handle stuff in the darkness away from everybody’s eyes than to let the organization know you’re dealing with something because then it brands you.
As soon as you have arm issues, you’re a guy who’ll always have arm issues. As soon as you have mental issues, you’ll always be damaged product. I didn’t have the talent superior enough to have issues. So you try everything to keep it hidden, and once it comes out there’s all these consequences to pay.
So for me, once I’m telling everyone I’m having trouble keeping my shit together, I was marked. Guys handled me like, “How are you feeling today? Did you talk to your counselor today?” All you want when you’re hurt and depressed on a team is to be treated like you’re normal. You want it so bad. That’s what you’re missing.
You can’t play with all the other guys, you’re like in a quarantine zone. When there’s mental stuff, that’s when people get weirded out by you. When guys come up, you want them to say, “What’s up fuckface?” We’re so crude to each other, but that’s normal. But when they find out you’re depressed, it’s (lower voice) “Hey Dirk, how are you feeling today buddy? Are you OK?” It’s total insincerity, and it’s backwards, you know. You’re used to being treated like crap. That’s when you know people care about you because they’re comfortable enough to do it. Now all of the sudden they won’t. It’s challenging. There were some suicidal moments in that time frame. But then, like all my books, it’s about gaining perspective through these so-called dream job experiences as a vehicle to share perspective.

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