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.