on March 30, 2010
The meat of this story is how baseball figures into Hayhurst's life, something that seems like it would be obvious seeing as how he's a pro ball player and all, but turns out to be much more complex. Some of the biggest stand-out moments of the story don't really have much to do with baseball at all. The book manages to craft together the dark and depressing with the light and humorous without either ever overpowering the other. A lot of authors would get too caught up with the dark stuff and focus on the difficulties involved in the story and it's nice to see that Hayhurst can keep the story true to life simply by not losing perspective.
The book starts out by telling us that the book is not about scandal or drugs in baseball and that's entirely true. However, it does give perspective and from that it becomes more clear why some of the players might turn to drugs. Hayhurst gives an unflinching look at how much hinges on a day's success or failure how much pressure a professional athlete can put on themselves to succeed and how unforgiving they can be to themselves when they don't. After looking at things like this, you can start to see why players can buckle and do anything they can to try and give themselves a little bit extra on their swing or a few more mph on their fastball.
So, if you've ever wondered what it's like to play in the minor leagues, this book will show you everything, from the worst to the best. More than that though, it really does make you think about how we deal with disappointment and excitement and lets us see how sometimes we can lose sight of what's most important. It was a brave book to write.
on April 5, 2010
After reading the first few chapters of this book, I put it down and really didn't have time to get back into it.
...or so I thought. A few days later, I realized that I was making excuses to not get back to it. The truth was, those first few painful chapters hit too close to home for me.
I'm glad I got back on the horse, though. From chapter four on, I could hardly put it down. Once I accepted the fact that Hayhurst could eloquently reconcile the horrible parts of his life and the parts that were hysterical; I can't remember ever laughing so hard at a book. At one point, I laughed so hard, I had to put it down and retreat to my kitchen for some kleenex with which to blow my nose and wipe away my tears of hysteria. I'm sure my neighbors and the occupants of the office building behind my yard were staring. I offer no apologies.
Hayhurst is truly a gifted writer and an amazing role model for young people. If there are parents who are on the fence about whether or not to let a teenager read this book, I'd vote for letting them read it. Hayhurst has a way of telling his teammates' raunchy stories without glorifying their behaviour. He neither harshly judges them nor puts himself on a pedestal for his own abstinence from such shenanigans; he simply tells the story and it's a tale from which young and old alike can be both entertained and inspired.
I thought I knew the ending, and I still found myself holding my breath for the last few chapters! What a ride.
I wish him the best. I'm truly sorry for his current injury status. I selfishly hope that he spends that frustrating time pounding out another book before his triumphant return to the mound. I further selfishly hope that when he's back, he's still a Jay.
on April 7, 2010
It's a numbers game, Dirk Hayhurst's agent tells him as the minor league veteran braces for reassignment down to single-A ball. For most of us fans, the numbers game - sabermetrics, stats, fantasy ball - represent a good portion of our view of baseball. We second guess managers, bemoan the presence of players we view as dead weight on a roster. We can be calculating, cruel and unforgiving. But there's also the other half of the equation which draws us to the game, its intangible magic: the smell of fresh-cut grass, beer and hot dogs as we settle into our seats, whether in a big league stadium or at the local farm team's park. The unpredictable serendipity which allows an underdog to defy the odds and rise above. The never-say-die heart and hustle of a true gamer who refuses to lose. These two components, the numbers and the magic, harmonize to form the body and soul of our love of the game as fans.
But what about the players?
Hayhurst's "The Bullpen Gospels" deftly, brutally, and hilariously upends this entire cosmology, and demonstrates how players are both "magicked out", as he puts it, and forced to live under the pressure of being reduced to a set of stats in the eyes of the public. He writes extensively about the feeling of being a commodity, a stock to be picked up and dropped for maximum profit. The human face that Hayhurst puts on the mop-up long reliever brought in take care of a lost cause should give pause to any fan who cavalierly trashes such a player. Conversely, there's precious little of the glory, magic and wonder of the game we see from the outside for minor leaguers like Hayhurst and his teammates in the bullpen. Working for little more than greasy meals, carted around the league in cramped, stinking buses, and left to sit through game after game in crappy bullpens at the mercy of drunk hecklers, Hayhurst's world is a far cry from that of the larger than life millionaire superstars who draw fans by the thousands to big league games.
There are two threads which run through "The Bullpen Gospels"; a behind-the-scenes look into the daily grind of life in the minors, and Hayhurst's strained relationship with his family, a cast of burdened and pained people. While they intersect and occasionally offer perspective upon one another, Hayhurst's writing generally oscillates between these two worlds.
Baseball is more than numbers and less than magic to the too-human superheroes who play it in Hayhurst's book. It's a grind, it's a job. And in the case of the minor leagues, its a team event comprised of individual goals. The transience of minor league life allows Hayhurst to write about archetypes rather than detailing individual players. This gives his anecdotes of pranks, boredom-killers and colourful small talk which make up the culture of players working their way through the minors a light and approachable quality, not to mention keeps his book from being a tacky tell-all name-dropper (although you'd be hard pressed to find someone who'd give you press for specifying which single-A outfielders teabag newcomers and which have the foulest farts). Hayhurst knows funny, and dishes out plenty of it in his tales from the locker room and tour bus. I'm still snickering over the razzing one poor, overly-enthusiastic bus driver was subjected to.
As fun as the scenes from the minors are, it's in contrasting that life with that of his family that Hayhurst truly comes into his own as a writer. No punches are pulled as Hayhurst traces the paths of pain and anger etched into his family's flesh and souls. "The Bullpen Gospels" has already earned Hayhurst favourable comparisons with Salinger for the unflinching, honest eye its writer turns towards his own life and those closest to him, but Hayhurst isn't writing fiction; it's his life on the page, raw, flawed, and capable of delivering a gut-punch to the reader. Rather than Salinger, I think a more apt comparison can be found in Jim Carroll's "Basketball Diaries". There's no heroin or hustling to be found here, and Hayhurst delivers plenty of laughs to level out the heartache. But like Carroll, Hayhurst is drawn to a sport he loves (but whose culture he sits at slight odds with) and uses it as both an escape from and as a means of reflecting upon his life as a whole. Either way, "The Bullpen Gospels" sets itself apart from countless other baseball books for the honesty with which Hayhurst deals with his family life, and deserves plenty of the kudos it's earned on that point alone.
The problem which Hayhurst finds himself returning to time and again through the book, galvanized by his family life, is the value of baseball. What is it worth? What can it do? Who can it help? When is it useless? "I don't know if it should be as valuable as it is, or maybe baseball is valuable, and we players just don't use it the right way."
Finding that right way to use baseball, to use the gift which others would accuse him of squandering as he contemplates walking away from the game in his darkest days, is the crux of the journey Hayhurst takes over the course of his minor league career. "The burden of the player isn't to achieve greatness, but to give the feeling of it to everyone he encounters."
There's a famous anecdote about Haruki Murakami that speaks to this message to which Hayhurst eventually reconciles himself. After years of tending bar, Murakami found himself a game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp. In the instant that American transplant Dave Hilton belted a perfect double for the Swallows, Murakami realised that not only was he capable of writing a novel, as he'd always dreamed of, but that he simply -would- write a novel. This sort of satori, while rare, speaks to the possibilities of the game which we as fans love and which Hayhurst lives.
Hayhurst's got a fascination with superheroes, and anyone familiar with superhero origin stories will recognize the attempts in "The Bullpen Gospels" to use a talent for the 'the greater good' and to share greatness, and the mixed results that often occur when superheroes are just setting out on their path. But when baseball does become a flashpoint for something bigger than itself, for communication, generosity and kindness, Hayhurst writes about it with a humble simplicity which reminds the reader that he is, as he constantly reminds a world which sets ballplayers on a pedestal, just a guy who can throw a ball well. As it turns out, though, he's also a guy who can tell a story well. I'm not sure if either of those make him enough of a superhero to become a member of the Justice League, but it's more than enough to make "The Bullpen Gospels" the best book I've ever read by a ballplayer, and a must read for anyone interested in looking beyond the numbers and underneath the magic.
on January 21, 2011
One of the problems with many books on sports personalities is that they focus far too much on meaningless statistics, game results, useless information that can be checked in reference books for that purpose. It's as though there's going to be an exam afterward and you have memorize it all. Frankly, I find them tortuous, a waste of time and unreadable (the reason I don't). Those ones are still useful, nevertheless, as doorstops or, in the absense of stepladders, stools for reaching high shelves in the home.
Dirk's book mercifully has none of that. It's a humorous (mostly) insight into the travails of a frustrated man seeking to hang onto the last threads of his major fading league dream. The anecdotes are witty and well beyond the abilities generally associated with a young jock. Best of all, he admits his own quirks, foibles and weaknesses. There are of course, many tales of teammates and coaches but you never get the sense that he's exploiting them with embarassing revelations, for his own profit (ala Ball Four by Jim Bouton).
Well done, Sir. I'm recommending this one to friends, even the non-baseball fans.