Book Review: "Out of My League" by Dirk Hayhurst
Sports books are an interesting genre. There aren't all that many of them, I don't think that they particularly sell all that well, and we all have our favorites. It just that they don't come around all that often.
I recall fondly Jerry Kramer's "Instant Replay," about life on the Vince Lombardi-led Packers in the 1960's, "Ball Four," Jim Bouton's M*SH-like tell-all about life on the woeful Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers), and Lawrence S. Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times," a delightful oral history of baseball played at the turn of the 20th century. And then there's Buzz Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights," about high-school football in western Texas, a compelling story about how football can dominate a local culture, and many others that you can find if you Google "SportsProf" and "book review" or my holiday shopping list from many years ago.
Hayhurst wrote "Bullpen Gospels," about his trials as a minor-league pitcher in the San Diego Padres organization. He brings a unique device to his craft -- he avoids the potential fallout from "Ball Four" and the wrath of teammates and organizations by changing names and making up composite characters, all the while mentioning some real-life people as well. I don't know whether baseball nerds are now going back to the Padres' records in the 2005-2008 time frame to try to figure out -- using whatever cryptographic devices are available -- who was who, but that really doesn't matter all that much. What matters, particularly in this book, is what a great story Hayhurst has to tell about what baseball life is really life for most of the elite athletes who rise as high as to have a chance to make the Majors.
Most do not have the lives of the stars about whom we read every day. Most do not have the shortest road -- bonus baby, minor-league success, fast path to the Majors and a long career. For every Trevor Hoffman there are dozens of minor-league relievers hoping to climb the ladder, one minor-league level at a time, get noticed, and then, after they string together many good performances, perhaps get put on the every-so-important (but little understood) 40-man roster and make "The Show." Hayhurst is the everyman, the player who excelled in high school, pitched in college (albeit at a cold-weather school) and then struggled to define himself as unique and indispensable among a bunch of players with similar backgrounds -- competitive young men who enjoyed much success during their young lives, only to face a brutally Darwinistic process in which most of them would fail to achieve their dream -- The Show.
What Hayhurst reveals is the human side to the journey, family issues, trying to live a good life, trying to have a relationship, trying to invent the Garfoose (read the book and you'll understand), and dealing with early wake-up calls, low minor-league wages, bad nutrition, questionable accommodations and dealing with good outings and bad. For anyone who has worked in a situation where you're competing to get to the next level -- whether it be a baseball team or a law firm -- you also can find yourself in an interesting situation, where you rely upon the comradery of your teammates but, at the same time, realize that when they slip or fail that creates and opportunity for you. And, as with any organization, there are terrific people and absolute nut cases. And there are also pecking orders and unwritten rules that you had better know.
Hayhurst has a gift of making you become him, feel his pain and his sorrow, want to jump into the narrative and either root for him or, at times, shake him and tell him perhaps that he shouldn't go to the "dark place" (my term) after a particularly bad outing. You like him because he's real, get annoyed with him at times because of intermittent self-absorption (which you can understand completely if you've ever been in a similar situation), want to jump into the book to root for him and, at times, live and die with every outing. That said, what you also realize is that all that glitters is not gold, and that the life of a professional athlete, particularly the ones on the way up and not sure of their future, is not the most relaxing way to spend one's time. What it also makes you appreciate is how hard it is to get to the Majors and how much special talent -- physically and mentally -- players in the big leagues have.
The writer seems to be a terrific guy -- self-aware, kind, bright and determined. I have no way of verifying that, of course, except to say that the honesty with which he writes is refreshing and not designed to paint him in a positive light. He is human, he errs, he loses his cool, a reflection of an elite performer succumbing to the pressures that many do not understand but that exist in most people. Think it's easy to pitch in front of 45,000 people, or to pitch when the brass are in the stands reviewing the talent on the team? Or to be a professional athlete when spending an entire season sleeping in a sleeping bag?
For anyone with ambition, for anyone who's tried to climb the ladder, for anyone who is coaching anyone who is trying to do that or trying to be supportive of that person, for anyone who wants to know what it's like -- "Out of My League" is a great book that teaches many lessons.
Because for most of us, our journey is like that of Dirk Hayhurst, a relatively anonymous baseball player trying to get ahead.