Authors: Dirk Hayhurst
“After many minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years spent in the bullpen, I can verify that this is a true picture of baseball.”
“There are great truths within, of the kind usually unspoken. And as he expresses them, Dirk Hayhurst describes himself as ‘a real person who moonlights as a baseball player.’ In much the same manner, while
The Bullpen Gospels
chronicles how all of us face the impact when we learn reality is both far meaner and far richer than our dreams—it also moonlights as one of the best baseball books ever written.”
“A bit of Jim Bouton, a bit of Jim Brosnan, a bit of Pat Jordan, a bit of Crash Davis, and a whole lot of Dirk Hayhurst. Often hilarious, sometimes poignant. This is a really enjoyable baseball read.”
“Fascinating…a perspective that fans rarely see.”
—Trevor Hoffman, pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers and baseball’s all-time leader in saves
“The Bullpen Gospels is a rollicking good bus ride of a book. Hayhurst illuminates a baseball life not only with wit and humor, but also with thought-provoking introspection.”
“Dirk Hayhurst has written a fascinating, funny, and honest account on life in the minor leagues. I loved it. Writers can’t play baseball, but in this case a player sure can write.”
—Tim Kurkjian, senior writer,
ESPN The Magazine,
and analyst/reporter, ESPN television
in Dirk Hayhurst’s hilarious and moving account of life in baseball’s glamour-free bush leagues.”
—Rob Neyer, ESPN.com
“If Holden Caulfield could dial up his fastfall to 90 mph, he might have written this funny, touching memoir about a ballplayer at a career—and life—crossroads. He might have called it ‘Pitcher in the Rye.’ Instead, he left it to Dirk Hayhurst, the only writer in the business who can make you laugh, make you cry, and strike out Ryan Howard.”
The Bullpen Gospels
is a funny, bone-tickling, tear duct-stimulating, feel-good story that will leave die-hard baseball fans—and die-hard human beings, for that matter—well, feeling good.”
—Bob Mitchell, author of
Once Upon a Fastball
Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran
Kensington Publishing Corp.
for loving the man beneath the jersey.
And to my family,
for supporting him while he reached for it.
It’s no easy undertaking to write a book. It’s especially hard to write a book about professional baseball while playing it. Thanks in large part to the exposé-style works that have come out in the past, any book about baseball from a player/author is met with incredulity and paranoia. Despite the rough-and-tumble, thick-skinned persona needed to survive in this industry, telling a story about what happens behind the scenes is a sensitive subject.
That said, I’d like to tell the reader that this book’s purpose is to entertain, not to name names; pull the cover off the bare ass of drug use; show cheaters, adulterers, or tax dodgers; or do any other whistle-blowing. If you are looking for someone’s dirty laundry, you won’t find it here. I know it stands to reason that if those things didn’t exist in the sport, there would be no paranoia—and I hear ya—I’m just saying, it’s not in this book.
Names have been changed at the request of some players and at my discretion, to give them more of a character feel as well as to protect identity. Some characters within are composites blended together for ease of reading. 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 this book may bring their way. Mind you, I was a teammate before I tried my hand at writing, and I hope to be one long after this book is published.
Furthermore, I believe there is more to the game than steroids and scandals. I also believe there is more to the game than just baseball. For all the great things baseball is, there are some things it is absolutely not. And that is what this story is all about.
When we won the division in the first half of 05, I had nothing to do with it. Hell, I was lucky to be employed. I was deadweight on a team full of prospects—a dud, a smudge on an otherwise crystal squad. We may have been guaranteed a spot in the postseason, but I didn’t know if I’d be around when we got there.
I was the team’s long relief man. A nonglorious pitching role designed to protect priority pitchers. If the starting pitcher broke down or the game got out of control, I came in to clean up so the bullpen wasn’t exhausted. Despite feel-good semantics supplied by the organization, my main job was mopping up lost causes. Why waste a talented pitcher when there was a perfectly useless guy for the job? I could pitch five innings in a blowout or face one batter in the seventeenth inning. Put it this way: if I could have done any other role successfully, I wouldn’t have been the long man.
I had been struggling all year, inadvertently serving as the league’s batting practice thrower. I floundered as a starter and was demoted. Then I brought the kind of relief that made starters moan, “Jesus,
could have given up my own runs—no need to bring in this guy!” The way the season was shaping up, it would take a witch doctor to resurrect my career.
I didn’t pitch very often, which didn’t bother me at all. I knew I couldn’t make it to the big leagues if I didn’t get out on the mound and show the world what I had, but, at the time, I didn’t feel I had much. All I could think about is how bad things could go, even worse than they were.
It’s hard to pitch with fear. It was as if baseball’s Grim Reaper was watching every time I took the mound. Most of the time he’d show up in little incarnations, like a black cat or a double that landed exactly on the foul line just when I thought I was going to have a clean outing. Lately though, it seemed as if the Baseball Reaper had season tickets for front row seats to every park I played in. He never missed me pitch, sitting silently in the stands, sipping a Red Bull while waving a foam finger that said #1 Fan! From the way he looked at me, I knew he couldn’t wait to reach out and snatch my baseball career.
Maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but I had never struggled before. I imagine a lot of guys who get drafted aren’t used to struggling. I always knew it would happen eventually, but I envisioned it to be more like turbulence than a fiery plane crash.
The only solution I had was to bear down and work through it. I spent hours on the practice mound refining my delivery. I tried to bend my breaking ball, hasten my fastball, and change my changeup. I even tried sports meditation, which had me standing on the mound with my eyes closed visualizing myself pitching better. I’d picture myself standing on the mound in the heat of battle, with my hair being tussled by a breeze blowing purely for the sake of making me look sexy. At my feet would be the corpses of dragons, ninjas, and Chuck Norris. My pecs would barely fit into my uniform, and I would pitch with a huge sword strapped to my back. I would laugh at batters as they feebly limped to the plate, my voice deep like thunder. I would crush the hitters, see them driven before me, hear the lamentations of their dugouts. I enjoyed the visualizations, maybe a little too much, and would stop only when I felt I’d centered myself—or after one of my teammates hit me in the nuts with the rosin bag while my eyes were closed.
Come the second half of the season, things were still going bad. My voice was no deeper, and it was all I could do to keep the Baseball Reaper’s blade from my neck. The only positive note was that all the team’s prospects were promoted to Double-A. A fresh pack of less talented replacements were promoted, filling in vacant spots and allowing me to blend in.
In our first month together, the new squad fell apart. We tumbled from first place in the league all the way to dead last on a twenty-game losing skid. Our manager tried every combination to reverse the streak, but we thwarted them all. We lost on errors and home runs, in extra-inning heartbreakers and first-inning blowouts, and on bad calls and blown saves. We even managed to walk in the winning run. Sometimes it was bad luck, other times we looked like the Lake Elsinore circus.
Fans stopped sitting down the first baseline because the shortstop threw so many balls into the stands. The pitching staff agreed we might as well pitch to the backstop since all our efforts ended up there anyway. We hit so badly you’d think the batting coach had Tourette’s. Mix in a lion tamer and a tightrope, and we could have put a tent over the place.
Other guys began to see the Baseball Reaper as well. Haunted and paranoid, we strugglers took refuge in the rear of the bullpen discussing what we’d do after being released. I told everyone I was going to join the circus because it’d remind me of life in the minors. Another guy said he was going to become an executioner because at least he’d feel like he was getting even.
No matter how badly we did, we were still on course for the playoffs. We looked forward to it like a root canal. The second half of the season was a disaster we couldn’t wait to see end. Instead of looking at the postseason as a chance to win some jewelry, a chance for redemption, it was extra days of ass-kicking. We were phonies who hadn’t earned our own playoff berth being rewarded for the efforts of the first-half guys who weren’t even around anymore.
When we arrived in our first playoff series, the most amazing thing happened: we won. My only explanation was that we had nothing to lose. We hit well, we pitched well, and we made fewer mistakes than the other team, which was unheard of. Suddenly, we were a brand-new team.
The only negative to be mentioned was during the last game of the first series. Our starter got hurt. About the third inning, he stopped pitching, grabbed his arm, and began to cuss under his breath. The trainer and the manager ran out to assist him. I don’t know how, but he had incurred a stress fracture in his wrist from throwing. I, as was my role, came in to replace him. The team held the lead and won the game. We swept the Lancaster Jethawks and clinched a spot in the championship series versus the San Jose Giants.
After the game on the bus back to Lake Elsinore, the air was alive with music and celebration. The front office furnished us with enough booze to hammer an elephant. You would have never guessed that a few days previous none of us wanted to be a part of the postseason. Everyone was brimming with confidence and excitement. Someone peed on my backpack, and I still don’t know who it was.
On came the Giants, and we won the first two games with the same ease with which we swept the Jethawks. After the second win, the coaches pulled me aside to tell me Luke, the starter who got hurt, would be out for the remainder of the season. They said I, being the long man, would fill in for him if there was a game five. Then they slapped me on the back and told me not to worry about it, as if it were some piece of trivial fine print. They said if we kept playing the way we were, we wouldn’t need a game five. We immediately blew the next two games.
The night before game five, the biggest game of my pro career, I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, sleepless. There was nothing I could do to prepare; it was too late. I thought about standing on the mattress and doing some blind visualization, but my roommate was already convinced I was nuts because of my conspiracy references to the Baseball Reaper. I do some of my best thinking when I’m in bed, but all I wanted to do that night was turn my mind off. A river of anxiety was running through my brain. Sleep would be an escape from the lashing of anxious thoughts. Finally, during the dark, forgotten hours of the morning, I went under. I dreamed I was Captain Ahab chasing a big, white, baseball-shaped whale. And I was naked.
The day of game five, my teammates repeatedly approached me asking if I was ready. What a stupid question, of course I wasn’t ready. How could I be? I was tossed into this role about forty-eight hours ago, expected to pitch a gem after hurling nothing but turds the entire season! I didn’t say that though; I just looked my inquirers in the eye and in my confident, competitor’s voice, said, “Oh, you know it, baby.” They’d smile, kneed my shoulders, or slap me on the ass, then tell me we were going to get ’em today. It made me wonder if they were faking it too.
I used all my cellular minutes talking to any positive voice that would pick up. I prayed every panic-induced prayer I could think of, being sure to remind God of each and every nice thing I’d ever done. Then I panicked and prayed for something wonderful to happen, like Armageddon, so the game would get postponed. I wrestled with the event I was about to spearhead until I had explored all possible contingencies and I was still feeling nauseous.
By the time I walked out to warm up, I was a mental and emotional ruin, and I hadn’t thrown a pitch yet. The stands were packed, and sure enough, there was the Baseball Reaper sitting in the beer garden—the smoking section—running a sharpening stone over his scythe in between lustful looks at senior citizens. He waved when he saw me. I pretended not to notice.
I warmed up, spinning my arms like propeller blades, contorting my legs at odd angles—toe touches, twists, nervous dry heaving. Then before it was time to start throwing, I flopped on the ground and closed my eyes. I had to—some force beyond my understanding made me do it. Twenty minutes before the biggest game of my life, I lay, stretched out like a snow angel with no snow in the middle of the outfield grass.
I was tired of thinking about the end of my career or the meaning one game had over my life. All this time spent being a prisoner of results. I wasn’t even having fun anymore. There was no assurance all the work I’d put in would pay off in improved pitching numbers or a win. I’d spent most of the season trying to fix whatever was wrong with me. Even if I’d figured it out, I could take the mound and get shellacked regardless. That’s the thing about baseball: every game is a roll of the dice. Once the ball leaves your hand, what happens next is out of your control. Veteran baseball people will tell you the same thing—hard work can only take you so far, the rest is luck and opportunity. Well, I had put in my hard work and landed an opportunity, for better or worse. Now it was time for luck to show up.
I can’t explain what it’s like to pitch an amazing game. I always wanted to be a superhero when I was a kid, and when I pitch well, it’s as if I am, and everyone watching knows it. Still, it’s something you need to feel to understand. Words can’t tell you how fulfilling, empowering, and relieving it is, all at the same time. How it makes you feel like some great champion, the master of the battlefield. How it justifies all the work you put in to capture it, even though you know it’s something so wild and free it can’t truly be contained. In the brief moments you hold on to it, it frees you from your bondage, each perfect pitch erasing a speck of self-doubt. It’s a feeling you’ll gladly endure a season of hell to experience. It’s why you compete.
I was a champion that day. I was a king among men. I was all that and a bag of chips. I carried a one hitter through six before talented pitchers came into relieve me. In my last inning, I struck out the side for good measure. A whole season of treading water justified by one stellar performance. I felt as if a weight was lifted from my chest. The shackles were unlocked, and I was free to believe in myself again. All year I had been a failure, blasted in the media as a letdown and on his way out. But in that moment, I was the hero.
Then minutes after I exited, somewhere between congratulatory butt slaps and getting my arm in ice, my relievers handed the game away. A hit batsman, a walk, a single, a sacrifice…We lost the game three to one.
The movie theme music screeched to a halt, the dream burned up like flash paper. When the last out was made, we watched as the other team surged onto the field, dancing around like wild men. They screamed and hugged and waved their jerseys overhead. Fans roared, music blared, cameras clicked to immortalize it. All we could do was sit in silence, too crushed to speak. That was supposed to be us; I was going to be the star.
Long after everyone made his way into the locker room, I remained sitting in the dugout, staring into nothing. I was too numb to move. It wasn’t supposed to end up like this, but once the ball leaves your hand…
In that moment, I got my first taste of hate for the game I loved. My entire life I had been told that hard work and hustle could get you anywhere you wanted to go. There were always obvious exceptions to the rule, top-dollar assholes who fueled ESPN showcasing how they squandered their talent and resources, but I blocked them out. I thought baseball was a pure thing, magical, bigger than the men who made it. I thought it was fair. Turns out that baseball is a lot like gambling. I had gone all-in with my beliefs. I bet the house on that championship start, and in those final innings, when it looked as if I was going to win everything back and then some, I got beat on the river.
A manager once told me, you don’t have to be a big leaguer to play a big-league caliber game. He said players all through the minors play like big leaguers while some players all through the big leagues play like minor leaguers. On any given day spectacular things can happen in this profession. It’s a game of luck and opportunity. Thus, we work hard so that we can make the most of things when they fall in our favor, have no regrets when they don’t. Sometimes a player puts it together at the right time even if he isn’t the most talented, and sometimes the most talented players fall apart when the spotlight is on them. Call it luck, call it opportunity. The bottom line is, you always have a chance if you have a jersey on your back. What you do with that chance, is a different story.