Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of posts, in which we stretch out our review of Jays reliever Dirk Hayhurst's narrative non-fiction tome, The Bullpen Gospels until its release date. (Available at a fine bookseller near you on March 30. Pre-order this fine book - kitty not included - at Amazon.ca, or whichever Amazon store you like. Or another online bookseller. Or an independent bookseller, supposing that they may carry it. Which they won't, because they're usually too cool to stock sports books. Pricks.)
We haven't played baseball in a competitive, organized setting in more than 20 years. In fact, aside from a lost summer as an obnoxious softball guy and a few years of chasing tail around ultimate frisbee fields, our sporting life has generally been limited to the role of an observer. And yet, there was a lot in Dirk Hayhurst's The Bullpen Gospels to which we could relate.
Sure, Gospels is a baseball book, and most of us will be drawn to it as such. We'll dig in to uncover what happens behind the scenes, and in the clubhouse. (Which, so far as we can tell, involves a lot of video games and naked tomfoolery.) But what really draws the reader into Hayhurst's account of his whirlwind 2007 season through three levels of minor league ball is the author's honesty about himself. There are many athletes who would gloss over anything resembling weakness, or frame their own emergence as a player in the rote, glorified clichés that are plentiful in the sports world: That they triumphed over adversity by being so goddamned gifted and awesome, and that God shone his special light down upon them so that they might offer their great gift to all. (The sort of story we saw repeated throughout the Olympics.)
But Hayhurst's story is so much more complex - and ultimately, rewarding - than that. While there are aspects of his life that seem anything but ordinary (Grandma and her firearms, for instance), the underlying story of Bullpen Gospels is really about two very universal things: Hayhurst's struggles with self-doubt, and his difficult transition from an extended adolescence into manhood.
The period covered in the book starts as Hayhurst is about to turn 26. It's a point in the life of many young men where, if they're at all sentient (and in spite of his out-there Garfoose tweets, Hayhurst does seem to be that), he starts to get a little more serious about who he is and what his place in the world might be. For Hayhurst, this transition and the uncertainty that goes with it are magnified by his chosen profession: If he's not about to make it, or to take a step forward, then he has to find another path.
The struggle, which is implied but never entirely stated outright, is that given the undeniable draw of a life as a professional athlete, how could anyone ever let that dream go? Especially after they've already made it past the point where so many others drop off? And yet, faced with a fourth consecutive season in High-A ball, Hayhurst spells out vividly the thought processes - both rational and irrationally emotional - that played into his decision to stick with the game. (Given his spot on the Jays' roster, we're probably not giving much away there.)
While it would seem that someone as clever and young and bright as Hayhurst would have no problem integrating himself back into civilian life, the real surprise of the book is how much the game has served as an escape. Without going to far into his motivations and background, suffice to say that Hayhurst did not have the comfortable fall back alternatives that one might expect.
(It's a narrative that, if we're being honest about how we understand race and sports, we might have expected if Hayhurst were African-American. It was an uncomfortable thought for us that we've so internalized the idea of "playing to get out of the poverty/strife" that we had a hard time rationalizing the same narrative about a blue-eyed blondish player. But that's our problem to resolve.)
Following Hayhurst's progress through that crucial 2007 season is a rich experience, and is truly the strongest element of The Bullpen Gospels. Certainly, there is lots of fun to be had as well (what with the "SpiderMan-ings" and the unwanted animal visitors in the bullpen), but the heart of this book is walking alongside Dirk as he conquers his internal demons, and subsequently seeing his life and career take a crucial turn for the better.
We sports fans and amateur analysts often reduce those positive changes in a player's career path rather glibly ("he flipped a switch", "he made an adjustment", "the player's development"). But beneath the player (and the counting stats and the rate metrics) is a human, who has to understand their weaknesses and evolve themselves beyond them. That whole idea of transcendence is, as Steve Earle once said, a painful thing. The reader of The Bullpen Gospels is privileged to share that moment with a player who has the self-awareness to understand the process, and the humility to work through it.
You'll find yourself rooting for him all the more by the book's end. (Speaking of which: Get well soon, Dirk.)
In our next episode: We'll focus on the monkeyshines. There are scooters, dramatic cases of the scoots, pressed hams and pleas for nudity made from moving vehicles. Good times.