The book opens in the winter before the 2007 season. Hayhurst, about to turn 26, is spending the offseason in his native Ohio, preparing for what he thinks will be a make-or-break Spring Training. He'd made 12 appearances at Double-A the previous season and four more at Triple-A.
Feeling he needs to make the Double-A squad to keep his baseball dreams alive, Hayhurst takes the reader through the rituals of Spring Training and the grind of the long 2007 season. It's a story of young men in uncomfortably close proximity for long stretches of time, of boredom punctuated by moments of intense pressure and of personal growth and enlightenment. It's also very, very funny.
The right-hander was the Padres' eighth-round pick in the 2003 Draft. Where many college players go pro following their junior year, Hayhurst completed four years at Kent State under the tutelage of pitching coach Mike Birkbeck, a former Major Leaguer. Hayhurst still holds the school record for career strikeouts and innings pitched and was named Mid-American Conference Pitcher of the Year as a senior.
"You have all these expectations of what pro ball will be like, how it will define you and make you a rock star," he said. "At first, it's great. But it's shocking how fast that disappears. It doesn't pay the bills. You realize pretty quickly that you are not actually a rock star, that you are eating junk food out of a Styrofoam cooler because you can't afford a nice plastic one and you learn that people really can be turned into a commodity."
Minor League baseball is very much focused on results.
"It's a job where you're constantly being asked -- and asking yourself -- what you've done lately," Hayhurst said.
The pressure to produce leads to a certain pessimism among players, most of whom won't reach the big leagues.
"You're thinking, 'At least I can say I played pro ball,'" Hayhurst said. "Later on you think, 'At least I can say I played in Double-A' or whatever."
A starter in college, Hayhurst worked out of the bullpen in Eugene, then returned to the rotation in his first full season at Class A Fort Wayne and Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore in 2004. Back at Lake Elsinore in 2005, he made seven starts and 31 relief appearances.
Hayhurst laughed when asked about the permutations of his pitching career.
"I had no control over whether I would start or relieve. It was good to be used in whatever way the team needed," he said. "That said, I kind of pitched myself into the bullpen, which is not a positive development -- unless you're John Smoltz."
It was around this time that Hayhurst, a communications major at Kent State, began to write about his experiences.
"I found it was great therapy to put down all those fears and concerns on paper and put them aside," he said. "I stopped worrying so much about bad innings or career prospects and tried to just pitch."
Despite returning to Lake Elsinore to start the 2007 campaign, as chronicled in The Bullpen Gospels, Hayhurst began to pitch with more confidence and to better effect, falling into a swingman/long relief role. After posting a 1.80 ERA in 13 outings for the Storm, he was promoted -- this time, for good -- to the Padres' new Double-A affiliate in San Antonio.
The Missions had a strong club that season, led by Texas League Player of the Year -- and current Padres third baseman -- Chase Headley. Hayhurst found himself in the middle of a pennant chase through the hot Texas summer. He responded strongly, going 4-1 with a 3.19 mark in 32 outings as the Missions captured the league crown.
"It is incredibly common, in baseball and in life, to root for someone else to fail," Hayhurst said. "With teammates, it's more an ambivalence. You may not be pulling for someone to struggle, but you want them to struggle just a little bit more than you. You want to be the skinny girl at the dance, while the other players are the fat girls.
"All bets were off in the playoffs, though."
Although individual performances were still what mattered to Padres management -- players are promoted based on their talent, not for being "winners" -- being in the postseason chase gave the Missions "something to win together. It became a matter of team honor."
Though The Bullpen Gospels concludes -- with a small but important sneak peek into the future -- with the Missions' championship, Hayhurst parlayed his strong 2007 campaign into a Triple-A assignment to open 2008. He went 2-3 with a 3.75 ERA in 46 outings for the Portland Beavers and made his big league debut with the Padres on Aug. 23.
With the Padres in San Francisco, the 27-year-old faced off against former Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito, allowing three runs on five hits in four innings. (He also reached base for the first time as a pro, drawing a third-inning walk after going 0-for-27 with 23 strikeouts in the Minor League.) He earned no decision as the Padres fell, 4-3.
The rookie was hit hard in nine more outings through the end of the season, amassing an 0-2 record and a 9.72 ERA. That offseason, Hayhurst was waived by the Padres and signed a Minor League deal with the Blue Jays.
After starting the 2009 season with Toronto's Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas, Hayhurst was called up by the Blue Jays in early June and was strong over 15 relief outings, posting a 2.78 record and earning the praise of Jays manager Cito Gaston.
Just as he was establishing himself in the big leagues, however, Hayhurst suffered a shoulder injury during offseason workouts and missed the entire 2010 campaign after undergoing surgery on his rotator cuff and labrum. He was released by the Blue Jays this winter.
Despite the setback, Hayhurst has fond feelings for the Toronto organization.
"The Jays are a fabulous organization, and I enjoyed my time with them immensely," he wrote on his blog earlier this month. "Now, before you bat that comment aside as the traditional athlete obligatory jargon about how to segue gracefully, make no mistake -- I loved being a Blue Jay.
"The Jays gave me a chance after I effectively shot myself in the foot with the Padres in my big league debut. They brought me to my first big league camp. They told me I had potential in one of the toughest leagues in the game after coming from one of the (supposed) weakest. In short, they believed in me and it showed, even when I was injured. Since I got hurt in the offseason, the Jays could have dumped my contract and saddled me with the medical bills and no big league paycheck for a year of rehab, but they didn't. That shows class, and in a game where human beings are turned into commodities, they treated me like a person and I'll never forget it."
Now healthy, Hayhurst isn't sure what the future holds -- a 30-year-old right-hander with a 5.72 ERA over 39 1/3 Major League innings is not necessarily an attractive free agent option. But his literary career is definitely looking up.
Under contract for two more books, he hopes to have his follow-up out in the spring of 2012, concentrating on his experiences both on and off the field -- he reached the Majors and got married -- since the 2007 season. He's also interested in the intersection of socio-economics and baseball.
"At a certain point, you kind of realize that maybe you're not going to make it, not going to have a big Major League career," he said. "But being a Minor League player can still be better than the alternatives -- you might be frustrated, but you figure it out. Being a player is a job that you're still pretty good at."
In a third book, tentatively titled Strike Out the Devil, Hayhurst plans to explore spirituality in baseball life.
"I was already an evangelical Christian when I was drafted," Hayhurst said. "And I was awfully sure of myself about what was right and what was wrong and who was going to hell and all that. You can imagine that that attitude didn't always go over well in the locker room. Your semantics and behavior and preconceptions definitely come under fire with 25 sweaty, naked guys around you at all times."
It remains to be seen if the final chapter has been written in Hayhurst's playing career, but he certainly has a bright future turning his experiences, thoughtfulness and humor into books that are about both baseball and life.