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Hayhurst tells darkly comic tale03/29/2010 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com
When it came time to report to Spring Training in 2007, Padres "non-prospect" Dirk Hayhurst wasn't exactly on top of his game.
A self-described "aging senior college signee with a small bonus and unattractive career numbers," the 26-year-old righty was coming off a season in which he had lost 14 games en route to posting an unsightly 4.73 ERA. His status as a "Future Friar" was rapidly degenerating; "future fryer" at a local fast food joint seemed like a far more likely scenario.
The situation off the field was even more humbling. Harsh offseason economic realities had led Hayhurst to move in with his tyrannical and slightly unhinged grandmother, sleeping on the floor while surrounded by dusty exercise equipment and tacky heirlooms. The disconnect between public perception of a baseball player's life vs. the reality could hardly have been more pronounced.
But instead of running from his situation, Hayhurst wrote about it. The result of his habitual chronicling of the Minor League life is The Bullpen Gospels, a memoir of the 2007 campaign that alternates deftly between sobering personal struggle and scatological clubhouse humor. George Orwell was famously Down and Out in Paris and London; readers of Hayhurst will have to make do with the folksy locales of Lake Elsinore, Calif., and San Antonio, Texas.
"[Writing] was an experiment, because I didn't expect to make it through the season," said Hayhurst in a phone interview, displaying his characteristic candor. "I got my foot in the door when Baseball America let me do a Prospect Diary. As soon as I could, I changed it to the "Non-Prospect Diary." ... I'm not going to write about myself like I'm special. Everybody knows I suck."
Such sentiment may seem strange from someone who has since spent time in a Major League uniform (with San Diego in 2008 and Toronto in '09), but self-deprecation is clearly a trait that is hardwired into Hayhurst's DNA. So is the desire to bring to light the less-celebrated (some would say "seamier") aspects of a professional ballplayer's existence.
"Major League Baseball gets a ton of hype, and people are interested in what goes on, but the same stuff happens in the Minors -- just under far more dire circumstances," he continued. "The travel is harder, our eating habits are terrible, and living arrangements can be brutal."
Thus readers are treated to stories involving harsh treatment of bumbling bus drivers, unappetizing clubhouse spreads served in the bowels of decaying stadiums and the "shockingly awful" accommodations provided by the Lake Elsinore Hotel and Casino. And because the principal characters are all testosterone-fueled young men in their early 20s, booze and women -- and the combination of the two -- are often obsessively discussed in lurid R-rated detail.
"These are all normal 20-something boys with a pack mentality. ... I think the behavior portrayed in the book is almost expected of them," said Hayhurst, an abstinent teetotaler who often portrays himself as a bemused observer rather than a direct participant.
Still, don't read the book if you're hoping for juicy details involving the extra-curricular activities of established baseball names. Many players are obscured behind a made-up nickname, and others are "composite characters" that combine the traits of several individuals. In an author's note that precedes the book's prologue, Hayhurst explains that "everything in this work is based on actual occurrences, though I have attempted to conceal identities for the benefit of those who may not want to deal with any extra drama."
"It's not my place to take someone's personal life and throw it out there for others to judge," elaborated Hayhurst during his phone interview. "I didn't want to throw anyone under the bus or be thought of as a snake."
Such discretion is not employed when it comes to the author and his family. Hayhurst describes his dysfunctional home life in unflinching detail, including his father's crippling depression, brought on by a debilitating injury, and the violent tirades of his alcoholic brother.
"I'm a broken person from a broken family, so my issues are going to revolve around that," explained Hayhurst. "Baseball is not a problem-free lifestyle. If I just wrote about the fun and wonderful parts, then this would be another dime-a-dozen baseball book.
"If I didn't show [my family's] struggle, then there couldn't be any resolution," he continued. "The message isn't that I won a championship and fixed everything, it's that I won perspective, and it's that perspective that helped alleviate the burden."
Indeed, the underlying message of The Bullpen Gospels is that success can't be measured in trophies and statistics. As Hayhurst remarks in the book's final chapter: "[A] man of integrity can make any profession seem heroic by how he lives while doing it."
This stance has led to no small amount of soul-searching for Hayhurst, who is clearly uncomfortable with the elevated standing of the professional athlete in modern-day society.
"I haven't passed a health-care bill or lobbied for peace or fought in a war or cured any diseases," he said. "What the hell do I do? I throw a ball past a guy with a club."
But since he's in a position where his voice can be heard, he may as well take advantage.
"I think for a lot of fans, it's novel to hear a baseball player talk the way I'm talking," he said. "We're not necessarily all we're cracked up to be. We're normal. I'm not trying to tear athletes down, I'm trying to build the people around athletes up. I don't want anyone to feel inferior -- it's a delusion that hurts me and hurts others."
And then, like he does so many times throughout the book, Hayhurst turns to self-deprecation in order to make his point.
"I won't presume that what I'm saying can influence anyone. I just hope that these nuggets of truth are more beautiful than the person spouting them."