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Another baseball season set to kick off Sunday night, with the latest Armageddon showdown between the Red Sox and Yankees at fabled Fenway Park. In other words, this the time of year when every fan gets revved up about the game again. Perhaps you’ve recently popped in Bull Durham or Field of Dreams to get those baseball juices re-started.
It is also at this time of year when new books on the National Pastime tend to hit the shelves. There are tales of star players, and their rise to greatness. There are books about championship seasons of recent times or long ago.
But this year, another type of book has emerged altogether. It is a highly compelling and great read called “Bullpen Gospels” and its author is a player you might have never heard of. His name is Dirk Hayhurst, a right-hander who has pitched 25 games in the Majors and is currently with the Toronto Blue Jays. Hayhurst is recovering from surgery on his arm these days, and there’s no time-table yet of when he will return to the mound. But after reading his book, you are likely to keep tabs on him once he does.
The focal point of the book is Hayhurst’s 2007 season in the San Diego Padres’ Minor League system, but it is so much more. It isn’t so much a baseball book as a tale about the various twists and turns of life. He takes you on bus rides, in the clubhouse, and, of course, in the bullpen with in-depth descriptions and terrifically written passages.
Hayhurst was by no means a fast-track prospect. Quite the opposite in fact. He was a right-hander fighting for survival. In the early stages of the book, Hayhurst is candid about his family life, which is far from storybook. His father, once a tremendous source of support, has been reduced to a shell of his former self, both mentally and physically. This, after Mr. Hayhurst fell headfirst from the roof of the family home while laying shingles. Dirk’s brother was a raging alcoholic, capable of being violent with anyone in his path, even his parents and brother. His mother is supportive enough, but also preoccupied in the tangled web being caused by a health-challenged husband and an alcoholic son.
The dysfunctional and chaotic home situation left Hayhurst living with his ornery grandmother during the offseason. As Hayhurst explains, part of the reason he was keeping his dream of playing baseball alive was simply to escape from the harsh realities that his family live had turned into.
And fortunately for readers, Hayhurst keeps playing ball for that 2007 season, which he captures it wonderfully throughout that entire year, which starts at the Spring Training complex in Arizona. Here, you get game-within-the-game insight, in the form of Hayhurst pleading the lady behind the desk at the hotel that he needs a suite. As a Minor League veteran, Hayhurst knows that a suite means being able to have a microwave and a refrigerator. He then finds out that the only suite left is one in which he will have to room with perhaps the loudest snorer in San Diego’s entire farm system. Hayhurst weighed his options, and decided that the fridge and the microwave was more important to him then a quiet sleeping environment.
Hayhurst takes readers through the monotony of camp, from locker room banter to on-field drills. He recalls in vivid detail the thrill of listening to Trevor Hoffman, the All-Star closer for the Padres, speak to the prospects. And in humorous fashion, Hayhurst put his foot in his mouth, asking Hoffman a nervous question that prompted weeks of ribbing from his teammates. Much later in the book, Hoffman and Hayhurst are reunited as Major League teammates, and a meaningful one-on-one conversation ensues.
One of the most compelling portions of the Spring Training chapters comes toward the end of camp, when everyone knows that cuts are coming. Hayhurst feared he might be one of the pitchers let go, and for all he knew, that could be the end of his dream. Though he initially dodged the chopping block, Hayhurst is told one night by a team trainer that he shouldn’t pack his bags for the Double-A van. What exactly did that mean? Hayhurst was told he wouldn’t find out until the morning, leaving his fate hanging in the balance for a sleepless night. He was told the next day he could go to Lake Elsinore of Single-A – if he wanted to. After pitching in Double-A the season before, this was a bitter pill to swallow. The goal of a Minor Leaguer is to steadily go up, not down. Alas, Hayhurst took the invitation, not willing to give up his dreams just yet.
Though it is a humbling experience, going back to A-ball, Hayhurst doesn’t sulk. Instead, he bonds with his teammates, even though, unlike many of them, he doesn’t drink alcohol. Hayhurst vows he will never touch alcohol as long as his brother does. It is clear he enjoys being part of a team. Sometimes he sneaks off to play video games with the grounds crew during a game that drags, while at others, he helps his bullpen mates device a humorous contest during home games in which fans can take turns trying to throw quarters into a cup in order to win a free baseball.
Hayhurst eventually gets a reward during that ’07 season, getting the call up to Double-A. It was a great time to call home and tell mom and dad the good news. But Hayhurst is crushed when his father can’t even tell him that he’s proud of him. His mom tries to console him, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, things go well for Hayhurst at Double-A for the most part. But he is unnerved one night when Padres general manager Kevin Towers is in the audience. Hayhurst winds up having a disastrous outing and wonders if he has blown a chance to open the eyes of the brass.
Again, he calls home looking for support, but instead is blind-sided when his brother takes the phone from his mother and asks Dirk for forgiveness. The brother has quit drinking, has joined AA and truly wants to start over with Dirk. It doesn’t come easy, as Dirk is understandably hostile throughout the conversation, only finally at the very end agreeing to give his brother another chance.
However, a championship feeling is developing for Hayhurst and his teammates in the Texas League. One spine-tingling story is told during that portion of the book, when a mother asks Hayhurst to speak to her three-year-old boy, who is shy. The conversation took place between the bullpen and the stands, and Hayhurst gets the jarring news that the boy has liver cancer. In a poignant scene, Hayhurst and his teammates have the boy sit in the middle of them during the game. The bullpen that took turns signing the baseball for the awe-struck kid.
“We won that night, but the game didn’t matter,” Hayhurst writes. Wins, losses and numbers behind them were rendered meaningless by two perfect innings spent in the bullpen. Something else, something bigger than baseball that can’t be recorded took place. Something no one will read about in the box scores. Something only uniforms with real people inside could make happen.”
Hayhurst’s Double-A squad goes on to win the Texas League championship, and he describes in intimate detail the euphoria that is felt when a team comes together as one.
The book only mentions in passing Hayhurst’s time in the Majors, and concludes with him finding the right woman and getting married. And who knows, maybe there is even some repair work in the difficult relationship with his father. You’ll have to buy the book to find out. Trust me, it’s worth it.