People are bigger than baseball. Dirk Hayhurst is bigger than baseball. You and I are bigger than baseball. This is just some of the insight Hayhurst shared with me during a phone conversation that covered his new book, his beginnings in baseball, being drafted by the Padres, and what baseball means to him among other things.
Dirk Hayhurst played during parts of two Major League seasons for the Padres and the Blue Jays. He spent most of his career in the minor leagues though. That time as a prospect – or a non-prospect as he often calls himself – is what lead him to his new calling. While Hayhurst is still technically a free agent after spending the 2011 season with Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate, his new passion is for writing. He wrote The Bullpen Gospels in 2010, and he has his second book, Out of My League, hitting shelves this March.
Hayhurst’s baseball life has been well-docunented, especially by the man himself. Rather than recount his life every step of the way, I’ll let Hayhurst take you on a ride as he tells that story starting with his first book The Bullpen Gospels and following up with Out of My League. For the purpose of this story, the focus will remain mostly centered on his time in the Padres organization and how that parlayed into his new career as a writer.
On June 3rd and 4th of 2003, Major League Baseball held its amateur draft. In the eighth round, a tall, skinny young pitcher was selected out of Kent State by the San Diego Padres. Hayhurst celebrated the occasion with his family in a Chinese restaurant back home in Ohio.
“I remember that my parents took me to this Chinese restaurant. It’s a real cheap restaurant, it was like everything was a number [on the menu]. That was the coolest thing for us to have done at the time. It was a proud moment. I was happy to have my whole family there for it. I remember my Mom stopped dinner, everybody’s dinner in the restaurant, and she announced that I had been drafted by the Padres. I remember she was met with moderate enthusiasm. The people were like, ‘yeah great, we’re trying to eat man.’ Which I feel like, looking back, was definitely foreshadowing my entire career.”
While his mother may have been excited, she had pushed for Hayhurst to be a football player growing up. With Canton, Ohio serving as the backdrop to his formative days as a youth, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame making the city a household name around this country, a pursuit of football would have been understandable.
“My Mom wanted me to be a football player. The high school team I was part of was so bad, she was like, ‘you’re going to get hurt. I don’t want you to play anymore.’ Because I’m really not very athletic, you know. Which is why pitching was the safest place for me to be. It’s obvious I’m out there. I’m isolated. I’m also raised so everyone can see me safely”
Hayhurst’s decision to “hide out” on the mound notwithstanding, he obviously made a good choice when he pursued baseball and pitching in general. ”I tried basketball. I got cut. I wrestled for a year and got murdered.”
His success in high school allowed him to go to Kent State University on a baseball scholarship. ”I got signed when I was a Junior [in high school], a year before I would actually attend.” From there he ended up in their athletic Hall of Fame and is the career strikeouts leader.
Life on the Farm
In spending four grueling seasons in the minor leagues, Hayhurst had ample opportunity to meet, befriend, and dislike an assortment of players coming through the Padres system. As Hayhurst outlines in greater detail in his new book, sometimes the stories revolving around the less likable players are often more entertaining than the stories of friendship and camaraderie.
“I had some good friends. I had some absolutely jackass enemies in that organization too. You’re going to meet a guy who was a real pain in the ass for me in this next [book]. You know, he was like my arch nemesis there. He represented everything that can go wrong with a pro athlete, and we hated each other.”
While there are sure to be stories involving enemies in the game, Hayhurst had his favorite teammates as well.
“Some of the guys I was tightest with in the organization – there was Frenchy, or Wade LeBlanc. He and I were good friends. I remember kind of being with Frenchy and thinking he was way better than me. He got way more money to play than I did. I kind of wanted to hate him for that, but he was a cool guy.”
Hayhurst struggled through his time in the minor leagues and finally made his Major League debut on August 23, 2008. While it may be considered a blessing by some, the pressure of having to perform at such a high level day in and day out would cripple most. It’s a lifestyle the average fan can only dream of, but when thrust into the life, the ugly reality often settles in. In the form of conversations cut short by questions with no good answers, or in the internal suffering of taking a beating on the mound, life in the league is not always pretty. But to dwell on the bad times would be a disservice to those great memories that every player has. Hayhurst had his fair share of memories worthy of recalling.
Moments of Greatness
“There have been so many great moments in my career. Every one of them was great at the time that it happened for specific reasons. There was a game when I struck out like 21 batters in a summer league game. There was the first time I got to run out in my pro uniform, and people wanted my autograph.”
In a career that saw the extreme peaks and valleys that Hayhurst experienced, the memories are sure to flood back. Hayhurst’s minor league travails are surely a constant thought and memory, readily accessible at any time. Yet, his Major League memories are just as vibrant, including a memory many Padres fans can only dream of.
“There was the first time I got to see – this is really one of my favorites – is when I got to see Trevor Hoffman leave the bullpen to Hell’s Bells.”
The legendary Padres closer has also been a mentor and a source of strength for Hayhurst. ”He’s been one of my biggest idols coming up through the system and through baseball in general. He actually has a lot of play in the next book. You’ll get to talk with him a little bit more.”
When chances at the big league level are so sparse, Hayuhurst had to make the best out of every opportunity and embrace the good moments. In one such moment, one of the game’s greatest pitchers was right there to offer words of encouragement. Few words, but words nonetheless.
“Coming in and retiring the side on like nine pitches in the big leagues my first return outing, and having Roy Halladay come up to me an say, ‘good job, well done’ and that was it because, you know, he doesn’t talk very much.”
In the end, sometimes all a player has left are the memories. For Hayhurst, he has so much more than memories. He has an ability to reach people through the written word. He has the ability to be completely open and honest about himself. And in his next book he goes into some of his favorite first time moments and baseball memories.
The Meaning of Babseball
You’ll notice a definitive lack of statistics in this piece. That’s for good reason. We often worry ourselves with stats and records so much that we forget about the people. We forget about what it means to play the game and just how hard it is. This story is about a man who plays baseball and writes. Not a baseball player and a writer.
“Baseball has defined so many parts of my life. Baseball has always been the same game, but I’ve changed as an individual. So when I look at baseball, I don’t necessarily see the same thing all the time.”
It’s a thought that echoes through almost any romanticized concept. As we age, mature, and experience more, certain parts of our lives we once held near and dear or placed on a pedestal change. Yet as we age, priorities change and perspectives change. The same is true with a baseball player.
“To give you an example, when I was a kid looking at high school and it first got in my head that I could be drafted and turn pro, I thought that this would make me a rock star. I would turn pro, make a ton of money, I could live the high life, and I’d be set. I’d always be able to say I was a pro athlete and everyone would think I was wonderful.”
These youthful notions are surely a common theme among high school and college players. But more often than not, they don’t translate into reality.
“When I got drafted by the Padres, and things started to go south for me in the minors – and this is detailed in the book, I started coming to that epiphany that baseball is just an entertainment industry. I know a lot of purists get very upset with that, and that’s because they look at the game as having some deep, almost spiritual meaning. I can respect that, but I’ve been on both sides of it now.”
As fans, we often fantasize about this game we love so much. We wish that everyone was as we picture them. We wish the game was as pure as we believe it to be as kids. But the truth lies somewhere between our fantasies and the worst case scenarios that even the most cynical sports fan can imagine. The game is always just a game. The fans’ perception is what makes it so hard to understand things from the player’s perspective.
“I’ve seen the dirty underbelly. So I realized that you can only get from it, I guess, only the value that you put into it. It’s broken my heart enough times to the point where I thought I would be out of the game permanently, that I was like I can’t live my life based on something as fickle as an entertainment industry job.”
It’s an interesting thought and one that I’m sure many other players share. Certainly, every player has a different experience. Perhaps the game is easier for those who never find themselves struggling. Perhaps it’s easier for the Justin Verlanders and Roy Halladays of the game. For players like Hayhurst though, the meaning of the game is a constantly changing, living life form. Depending on the situation, opinions and viewpoints change. That has been the case for Hayhurst.
“The job always boils down to performing well enough and people approve of you. It’s not like another job where if you’re a doctor, you’re valuable. Period.” As Hayhurst grew into an adult, it became clear, he couldn’t live and die or hang on every moment of the game. ”I cannot define myself by what I do on this field.”
“A lot of what you see is a myth, and it’s based on these socially accepted principles that we have in our culture that success, fame, power, money are for some reason the pinnacle of achievement.”
We get so caught up in the game, we allow players to do the things we hate. We empower clubs to overspend or under spend. We empower the over-emphasis placed on talent rather than character. And Hayhurst has this pegged.
“You can do a lot with baseball. You can do a lot with sports. But you can only do so much because our culture gives it so much power. I think that trying and fighting and struggling to reach the top of the sport has really revealed to me that sad, broken truth about our culture as a whole.”
In moments of reflection, when Hayhurst truly thinks back to what he has learned about this wonderful game we all love from a distance, he acknowledges being inside the machine is more dirty and more hurtful than most would imagine. He of course had his good times. He had his down times. But more than anything, the game taught Hayhurst life lessons he will carry on forever.
“I guess what I’ve learned from baseball, the one thing I would want to pass on, is that the game cannot tell you who you are. I know people say stuff like ‘you’re not bigger than the game,’ but the fact of the matter is you are bigger than the game. People are bigger than the game of baseball, because they make baseball what it is.”
It’s a refreshing take on the importance of people over sport. Without the people that make up the sport, baseball is nothing. Unfortunately, too often we forget that. We forget that we are being entertained. Players forget they are putting on a show for the sole purpose of entertaining those who wish to watch. Opportunities are often wasted and lost in the belief that the sport itself is everything.
“If people accept that they are bigger than the game of baseball, and accept the fact that they can use the game of baseball like a tool, they’ll get more out of it and more out of their own lives than they would if they believe that baseball is some kind of God in and of itself.”
As he kept track of his days in the minor league system, Hayhurst always knew he could write a book about his job.
“I always kind of thought, even before I started writing, that if I could just be dedicated and write all this stuff down, I could make a book out of it. I didn’t really think I had one until someone said, ‘hey we’ll pay you to write one.’ But I guess it would take somebody else to say if I had it or not.”
While Hayhurst was able to get The Bullpen Gospels published, he never expected it to be as successful as it was. As soon as he saw that success, he knew he could write another book. Which was a good thing considering the request from his publisher.
“Someone once told me if you can sell 30,000 copies of a book, you’re a rock star. Everyone projected me to sell virtually nothing. They only sold 3,000 copies of the book to Barnes and Noble. That was sold out within 24 hours. I didn’t expect it to do well. My publishers didn’t expect it to do well. Then it ended up being a massive success. So then they’re like, “What are you going to do next? What’s your next book?’ They were like we’ll give you this much for your next book. I was like, I’ve got more books. Fuck yeah I do.”
“Out of My League is the chronological sequel to The Bullpen Gospels. It picks up immediately where the first one left off. You’ll fly back home with me after the Texas League Championship, and we’ll start right back at ground zero because minor league championships don’t change anything. Not in the real world anyway. In this book it’s kind of a bittersweet reality check because the last book ends so sweetly and then you kind of expect this happily ever after moment. But honestly, things just get worse.”
The book continues to capture that honest spirit Hayhurst has become known for. He allows readers into a world not many athletes wish to reveal. If the book is anywhere close to as good as The Bullpen Gospels, which I fully expect it to be, Hayhurst will have another hit on his hands.