Best Baseball Autobiography Since Bouton?

Dirk Hayhurst’s description of himself for the author’s ID in his upcoming book The Bullpen Gospels reads in part, “Dirk is a former member of the San Diego Padres, and after this book gets printed, a former member of the Toronto Blue Jays.”

I’m not sure he’s correct. In fact, I’m not sure that in these times when so many fans feel like they’re constantly having the wool pulled over their eyes by athletes ill-equipped for the attempt, if Hayhurst’s constant honesty, his remarkable candor, his drumbeat of unadorned confessed self-doubt, and his seamless writing, won’t resonate through the sport like the first true wonderful day of spring when the game and the weather finally reassure you that winter has been beaten back, at least for a season.
In fact, I’m not sure that he hasn’t written the best baseball autobiography since Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. For Hayhurst, who bombed as a starter for the Padres in 2008 and then showed promise out of the Jays’ bullpen the season past, has written what Bouton wrote, and what a decade before Bouton, what Jim Brosnan wrote – a book that is seemingly about baseball but which, as you read further and further into it, is obviously much bigger than that. 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.
Brosnan’s achievement, in The Long Season and Pennant Race, was to introduce to a world which previously had no information of any kind on the subject, the concept of athlete as human being. What did he have to do when demoted, or traded? What happened when management changed? Was there a Mrs. Athlete, and could they share a martini now and again? (answer: You bet). 
Bouton’s breakthrough was to show the concept of athlete as flawed human being. Too many martinis, some of them shared with women other than Mrs. Athlete. Athletes who might not have been geniuses on the field or off, but who seemed invariably managed and coached by men even less intelligent. The struggle to self-start as one’s team sank from optimism, to contention, to inconsistency, to irrelevance, to embarrassment. And yet, were they enjoying themselves, did their lives change for the better, was being an athlete fun? (answer: You bet).
And now here is Hayhurst, who may single-handedly steer baseball away from the two decades-long vise grip of Sport-As-Skill-Development. 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’s not just Dirk Hayhurst’s existential doubt about whether he’ll reach the majors or why he’s still trying or if he shouldn’t be helping the homeless instead of worrying about getting the last out of a seven-run inning. He is experiencing the crisis of reality through which we all pass, often daily: when our dreams about life crash head first into its realities, what the hell are we supposed to do then?
Thus The Bullpen Gospels is a baseball book the way “Is That All There Is?” is a Leiber-Stoller pop song by Peggy Lee from 1969. It is the primordial battle of hope and faith and inspiration versus disillusionment and rust and inertia.
Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? But of course therein lies the delightful twist: like Brosnan and Bouton before him, Hayhurst repeatedly rediscovers the absurd hilarity of it all, and the book is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. And like all great artists, he pulls back curtains we never thought to investigate: from how assiduously minor leaguers debate which “Come-out songs” they will choose or which numbers they will wear, to the pecking order of seat locations on the ever-infamous bush league bus trip.
My favorite is probably the mechanics of something the average reader will have never heard of before, let alone have contemplated. It’s “the host family” – the living arrangements by which the non-first-rounders survive their seasons in the minors. Hayhurst hilariously defines such temporary homes as ranging from Wackford Squeers’ Dotheboys Hall, to the visitations from In Cold Blood:

Some families are the perfect model citizens, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Host family with their white picket fence and adorable little children with their cherub faces who can’t wait to be just like their new older brother. Some families are wealthy and treat you like the draft pick you always wanted to be. Some host families aren’t even families at all; some are just one person: a well-toned Cougar looking for an after-hours power hitter to keep her company between filming.

Depending on the makeup of the player, all these choices are desirable. However, they only represent one side of the coin. On the flip side, there is the family who has a pack of misbehaved trolls for children with parents who don’t believe in discipline. The reason your PlayStation has peanut butter leaking from the optical drive can be chalked up to “youthful curiosity.” You may live with a super fan who wants to play coach, manager, and parent. He’ll live vicariously through you and evaluate, criticize, judge, blog, and call the organization about you. Or you may end up with a miserable old spinster who loves cats and hates men…

Players aren’t saints either, and it takes a special family to agree to house one. If you’re a devout Catholic family, getting a Mormon player can make things a tad awkward. If you’re parents of little children, getting that Bostonian player who uses “****” for greetings, good-byes, pronouns, adjectives, verb, and prayer, might be more than you bargained for…

As this excerpt suggests (and the asterisks are mine), it doesn’t hurt that Hayhurst is a fluid and gifted writer, whose prose can take off like a jet and compel you to read for half an hour more than you have. He populates the pages of The Bullpen Gospels with teammates, some identified, some amalgamated, some under aliases – and if the book takes off, ripping the Hayhurstian masks off the more colorful ones may become a low-key hobby after the book is published on March 30 (it’s already up for pre-orders on Amazon and no doubt elsewhere – I’d get it now because I think they’ll be able to raise the price later).

The reaction will be fascinating to see. In 1970, my father endured my clamoring and bought Ball Four and read it himself before handing it to me: “I know you know all these words. Just don’t use them around the house. Read this carefully, there’s a lot of truth in here.” But ever since, we fans have been bombarded for decades by altered versions of truth, all of them writ large and desperately trying to impress us with their essential-ness. Baseball books have tended to focus only on the big, and to try to make it bigger still. We’ve gone from the unlikely accuracy of Jose Canseco’s slimy indictment of the steroid era, through the analyze-all-the-damn-fun-out-of-the-game-why-don’t-you tone of Moneyball and its imitators, through what may in retrospect be seen as a Hayhurst-precursor in Matt McCarthy’s fraudulent Odd Man Out, through dozens of historical works insisting everything that has ever happened in baseball has re-shaped the nation – Jackie Robinson (yes), the 1951 N.L. pennant race (very possibly), the 1912 World Series (no way).
Here, instead, will be a modest book by a modest relief pitcher who has appeared in the modest total of 25 major league games presenting what the modest author thinks (incorrectly) is only modest truth. He has yet to get his own major league baseball card and as I write this there are exactly two of his souvenirs available on eBay and one of them is a photo for $6.99 (“Or Best Offer”). His preface warns you if you seek scandal or steroids, look elsewhere, and the only bold face name in the whole 340 pages, Trevor Hoffman, comes across as a low-key gentleman.
And yet there in the prologue Hayhurst offers a key to what he has written and why, self-guidance to which he sticks pretty neatly: “I also believe there is more to the game than just baseball. For all the great things baseball is, there are some things it is absolutely not. And that is what this story is all about.”
Of course, just as Bouton’s exposure of the real flaws of the real men who played baseball in 1969 made them even more appealing than the phony deities into which they’d been transformed, the great things are made somehow greater by how well Hayhurst contextualizes them, how honestly he tells his story, and how vividly he takes us inside his world.

37 Comments

From the passage you quote it seems that he sees people in stereotypes, I suppose so he can feel superior to them. I wonder how those “cougars” and “crazy cat ladies” saw him.

@charlene.vickers – Please, lighten up a little. Stereotypes exist because many–but not all–people fall into them. That’s not to say there’s more to these people than their stereotypical behavior, but it’s unrealistic to deny that “cougars” or “crazy cat ladies” exist. As a matter of fact, you just classified the author as someone who views people in stereotypes…which is a stereotype, in and of itself.

Anyway…IMHO, the best books–on any subject–are those which focus on the human issues we all have in common, as well as the topic at hand.

For instance, you mentioned how players who aren’t superstars have been “devalued”. I think it’s true in life itself, not just in baseball, that society as a whole has been taught to think that there are two categories of people: winners and losers. There’s this philosophy that if you’re not at the top, you aren’t important…or you’re a failure.

I confess that I used to have that view, but I now see things differently. This world couldn’t function without the unsung heroes who do their jobs every day, neither expecting or receiving the praise they deserve. A sports team couldn’t function if the superstar didn’t have other players to rely on; one man does not make a winning team. In everyday life, the CEO gets the big money, but it’s the workers–right down to the “lowly” cleaning people–who keep the company running. One can only hope that a book like Dirk Hayhurst’s will convey that message to baseball fans…and that those fans will apply that lesson to other areas of life.

You described Hayhurst as a “fluid and gifted writer”, and judging by the excerpt you quoted, I would have to agree. But I would also say that, given your own observations in this blog and others you’ve done in the past, you should really consider writing an autobiography, yourself. In this blog entry, alone, your observations of the human condition are fascinating (“achievement and failure are nearly-identical twins”, etc.). I think you could write a book that does for news and sportscasting, what the books by Jim Bouton, etc., have done for baseball. (I apologize if this paragraph is off-topic in any way, but I feel it had to be said.)

Keith, you mentioned your father, and I hope that he’s doing well. It’s nice to see you blogging here again. Don’t be a stranger. :-)

Interest piqued. Though, sometimes those books that “only focus on the big” can be the best out there. Lords of the Realm is still an epic, biblical piece of art, for instance, and possibly the best baseball-related book ever, even though the game of baseball is simply incidental to the real story of labor. It’s only unfortunate that Helyar didn’t wait a couple more years and cover the ’94 strike in depth. What’s the opposite of serendipitous… ?

Keith, I’m with unpaka (and well said, by the way, unpaka). I would love to read your autobiography. I have a feeling it would be brilliant and beautifully written. Your words flow, and carry the reader into another world – a vibrant and fascinating place that I would like to visit more often. You definitely have a gift when it comes to writing.

You said this:

“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.”

Very eloquent – and very true. To my mind, success isn’t about how much money you earn, or how much fame a person can achieve – it’s about how much happiness you can find and share. You know you are successful when you can be comfortable with who you are and how you’ve lived your life. And I think there is one definitive truth out there that you have obviously found – that giving to others can make you happier than almost anything else in life. By that standard, you should be a very happy person. :) I hope that’s true.

A friend of mine said to me years ago that true happiness in a relationship consists of finding someone whose smile makes you feel good inside, and then spending the rest of your life doing whatever you can to keep them smiling. I like that idea.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but you have given me a lot of happiness over the years – on Sportscenter, on Countdown, and with the way you live… with compassion, integrity, and moral force. No, I know you’re not perfect… hell, who is? But you are a damned good human being in my book.

On another note – when it comes to reading, my parents went by the philosophy of “give them the classics to build a foundation, and then don’t worry about what else they might read”. I think it worked fairly well with me – I love reading, and always have.

I hope your father is doing well – please give us an update one of these days, if you wouldn’t mind terribly. Hugs to both of you, and keep smiling!!

Yikes – I’m tired. I just forgot to mention – love the new pic! But then, I liked the old one too. :)

Night!

Keith-

Hate your politics, love your blog!

Best,

Ernie Paicopolos
Editor-In-Chief
FenwayNation.com

Look forward to reading this – thanks for bring it to our attention, Keith.

Dear NY Times,

This? THIS is how a book review should read! Not like Cliffs Notes. Not a synopsis of every point in the book. Not as a capsule biography of the author. If you decide to run a review of The Bullpen Gospels, please have Keith Olbermann write the review.

Sincerely,
MB Brown
San Francisco

Stereotypes aside, and a lot do it to themselves but just the same… I’m such a Baseball dork, this book has just gone to the top of my Christmas wish-list. Most of the books to come out recently have all been awash with filth only so this will be refreshing.

Pre-ordered! Thanks Keith. As MB Brown said – if only all book reviews were this well done!

I wasn’t aware Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller wrote this. The song, I mean. But SO apropos…
“If that’s all there is, my friend…then let’s keep dancing…let’s break out the booze, and have a ball…if that’s all…there is”.
And they’re right. YOU should write the review for the “Gray Lady”…stuffy douchebags though they are…lol
Gary
Nasty Nats Live Here (and Everywhere)
http://go-nasty-nats.mlblogs.com
http://twitter.com/gonastynats

Keith, regarding your description of Matt McCarthy’s “Odd Man Out” as fraudulent …

Thank you.

I felt much like your hero Edward R. Murrow earlier this year when I was lone voice out there battling McCarthy and his publisher who had their publicity machine in full gear to promote the book.

I was writing article after article documenting serious problems with the book, but felt like I was spitting into the wind. Those interested can go to this link:

http://comment.mlblogs.com/search?blog_id=980&tag=odd%20man%20out&limit=100

The turning point was the wonderful exposť by The New York Times that did its own thorough research. McCarthy was eventually forced to admit that parts of the book were untrue — the parts we caught — but the harm had already been done.

So I just wanted to say thanks for calling it what it really is. Which is what you do best.

As for Tom Kotchman, the man smeared by McCarthy, Kotchman won yet another pennant this year. That’s what winners do. They don’t have to make things up.

Stephen C. Smith
http://futureangels.mlblogs.com

Looks interesting, but it’s been done before-see “A False Spring” by Pat Jordan, from 1973.

I have previewed some of this book and I am impressed. Hayhurst does an amazing job combining the sacred and the profane of baseball, laughing along the way. His reflections on what it takes to be a successful human being-let alone a successful athlete- will resonate with all. Highly recommended.

I have previewed some of this book and Hayhurst does an amazing job combining the sacred and profane of baseball, in the meantime pondering what it takes to be a successful human being- not just a successful athlete. Highly recommended.

I’ll go “lighten up” with a book that doesn’t make me roll my eyes every 3 pages. Stereotypes sure do exist for a reason – to make the holder feel superior.

I never thought of comparative study of these books. But even if the subject rotates around the same game, the presentation of each one is totally different. The politics and the play presented in every book give a different way of thinking about the same things. I have not read every book in detail but have gone through some of these books. Every reader will have to appreciate the writing skills of the authors. No matter whether we will agree with their views or not but once at least everyone should read them.
Brookes

/”>www.kayakpoolsmidwest.com

I never thought of comparative study of these books. But even if the subject in wholesale printing rotates around the same game, the presentation of each one is totally different. The politics and the play presented in every book give a different way of thinking about the same things. I have not read every book in detail but have gone through some of these books. Every reader will have to appreciate the writing skills of the authors. No matter whether we will agree with their views or not but once at least everyone should read them.

Interesting post and thanks for sharing. Some things in here I have not thought about before.Thanks for making such a cool post which is really very well written.will be referring a lot of friends about this.Keep blogging Hollywood News

I have long ago decided that I will not discuss other people?s autobiographies hence I have no words for Dirk Hayhurst. I think he has all the reserved right and authority to put down all that he wishes in his autobiography inst he? Hence there is nothing to be discussed here. – Jordan

Reviews like this remind me of what a movie’s DVD commentary should be like. After reading this I am hopping on Amazon to order it, thanks for the detailed analysis, can’t wait to read more. Thanks.

I think the best part of this autobiography has to do with what it suggests, more than what it says. If you’ve been around the game ( and life ) a bit, there are many lessons you can get from the ups and downs of these athletes in general. If you haven’t been around that long, there’s even more for you in books like these. You’ll just have to read them a couple more times when you’re older. J.T. from repossessed cars information

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