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Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Review "The Bullpen Gospels" by Dirk Hayhurst

Hayhurst penned a diary about 3 years ago about his time in the Padres' organization, playing both at High-A Lake Elsinore in the California League and AA San Antonio in the Texas League. He writes the book using a good convention -- he changes the names of players who might be offended by some of his anecdotes and characterizations, and he uses the names of those who are figures of authority or can come off good. So, for example, touted prospects Kyle Blanks and Will Venable receive mention, but the formerly only in one instance and by his last name, and the latter only in one vignette, in the last inning of the AA championship series in the Texas League at a point when the bullpen was en route to blowing a 12-0 lead (finally, the baseball equivalent of clotting factors took route before the patient bleeded out).

Hayhurst at this point in his career was a journeyman reliever who was about 1 consistent pitch short of making an impact. Translated, he needed to figure out a way to fool hitters using more than a fastball; he had to get his slider to bite. What he reveals is how fragile an existence being a minor leaguer is, and how the minor leaguers develop a solid, if whacky, esprit de corps because they're 25 young men together for about 6 months, and, well, they are competing as a team on the one hand and against each other (sort of) for jobs with clubs in better leagues. In other words, have a few bad outings in a row, and you can get released or sent down to an inferior league.

So, in part, the book is a chronicle of a season of a minor league relief pitcher, and you get a sense of what it's like to play minor-league ball, make subsistence wages, try to get perks when you can and try to create your own fun in the bullpen, where a lot of the hilarity happens. Fortunately, though, the book doesn't end there, as Hayhurst went the extra mile and revealed a lot about himself, his past, his makeup, and how he attempted getting over the "pitching not to lose" hump that can separate those who don't make it from those who do (with the latter taking the attitude, "I'm worried about climbing the mountain, not falling off it.").

To call Hayhurst's personal life (at the time he was in his mid-twenties, single, chaste and a teetotaler, but with a sense of humor that would bely the latter two descriptions) dysfunctional would be generous. His family back in Ohio was hanging together by a thread, owing in large part to a bad accident that his father suffered that rendered him unable to work and depressed and angry as a result, and, as much so, to an alcholic brother whose destructive tendencies proved cancerous to the family. During the off-season, Hayhurst lived with his grandmother, who might be best described as Granny of the Beverly Hillbillies, but with a mean streak and without a filter for holding in some of her most cutting thoughts. That family life, and the frustrations of baseball, led the introspective Hayhurst to thinking that his life didn't have as much meaning as it could have.

There he was, a professional baseball player, doing something many kids dreamed of but weren't nearly good enough to do, and unfulfilled. He had no money, he didn't relish the semi-celebrity status he had in the towns where he pitched, and he was adrift. What's instructive about The Bullpen Gospels is how Hayhurst puts everything together and starts pitching with much less fear and more purpose, and how he does so through so very powerful and meaningful interactions both in the off-season and during the season that show him how to move forward with purpose. No, it's not a book about finding religion in a locker room in Shreveport after getting shelled, not at all. It's a book that mixes the humor of the minor leaguer's existence with his realizing that despite all of the uncertainty around him, he still can carve out a path toward satisfaction.

I don't think that Dirk Hayhurst is pitching right now; my guess is that he's writing.

Which is a good thing, because despite some pitching excellence, my guess is that a front-office person or two somewhere has told Hayhurst that his future probably lies in writing.

But something else tells me that, as with many former athletes, if he can get just one more chance -- at the age of 29 -- he'll drop what he's doing to take it.

And that something else also tells me that given Hayhurst's focus and sense of purpose, he might do better this time around than he's ever done before.

Great read. You'll laugh aloud at points, and you'll also get sentimental if not emotional. Most books do one or the other, but not both. That's the excellence that Hayhurst brought to the work -- he was true to his subject.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds interesting. According to the Toronto Blue Jays' web site, Hayhurst is on the 60-day DL. So he's making a living pitching.

8:59 PM  
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