by Dirk Hayhurst
341 pages, Citadel Press Books
Suffice to say, Hayhurst was not considered a major league prospect by anyone in the organization, and was, to say the least, not feeling great about his situation.
And so begins the Bullpen Gospels, easily one of the best books written on contemporary life in the minor leagues, about the journey of a middle relief pitcher from oblivion to the brink of the major leagues.
The typical player playing professional baseball is not "living the dream" of twenty-five men on the major league roster, but more likely with the other one hundred and fifty plus souls in the organization looking for deals on Ramen noodles and wondering if their meal money will be enough to cover eating at Burger King twice a day.
Bullpen Gospels will provide any hard-core baseball fan with more than enough depictions of Bull Durham type moments from the fetid locker rooms and juvenile bus trips to a hilarious bullpen insult session with redneck fans in Midland, Texas. But the core of the story is really about the roller coaster ride of attempting to chase the dream of any former little leaguer, to play in the big leagues.
Hayhurst makes you feel like you are sitting with him in the dugout chatting after a bullpen session. There are a few too many flatulence and bathroom tales, and my life would be complete without knowing the "Spiderman" move, but the purpose of all these stories is to provide insight on how players cope with the stress of constant evaluation and the fear of not being good enough.
In 2007 while writing for MadFriars.com, a website that covers the Padres minor leagues, which Dirk has some unfair and less than flattering remarks, I had a chance to interview him along with most of the players and coaches on the teams that are in the book.
He was the type of pitcher frequently seen in the minors, a good college pitcher that has the ability to place an average fastball with so-so secondary pitches. These guys tend to do very well in short-season leagues or Low-A, which Dirk did in 2004 with the Fort Wayne Wizards, but when promoted as batters become adept at laying off of the other pitches and hammering meiocre fastballs on the inside part of the plate.
In 2007, a few things changed. In the Bullpen Gospels, he attributes this to a quasi-Zen approach – if he is not going to make it, it's going to be about leaving the game of baseball on his own terms; throwing strikes and not nibbling on the corners.
That is part of the story. The other, which really isn't in the book, is about his re-invention as a pitcher.
One of the few physical gifts Hayhurst posseses is a rubber arm; the other is an ability to realize what he had a chance to become and what he could not. He would never have enough "stuff" to be an effective starter to go through line-up three times in a game, and he lacked the a true "wipe-out" pitch to be a great closer.
What he did find was that he had an ability to learn and throw four serviceable pitches, fastball, changeup, slider and curveball (scouts say the hammer was a plus pitch) to have a chance to fill the narrow niche of long relief; where a pitcher is expected to face more than three batters but not have to go through a line-up twice. Hardly any middle relief pitchers can throw that many pitches, and the ability to do so can keep the batters off-balance.
The Bullpen Gospels doesn't do enough to explain Hayhurst's transformation from someone that was nearly out of professional baseball to a player that had a chance to find this path to the major leagues, which he eventually did with the San Diego Padres and Toronto Blue Jays.
After returning to Lake Elsinore, which was a step backward but provided him dibs on quality bus seating by seniority, Hayhurst proved to be effective coming out of the bullpen, which led to a promotion to the Double-A San Antonio Missions, a team that eventually won the Texas League championship.
Recent reviews that have compared the it to Ball Four, while flattering, are also inaccurate. Ball Four was about puncturing long held myths and personalities of the game. The controversies surrounding its publication in the early 70's were about what should and should not be repeated outside the sanctity of the locker room.
The Bullpen Gospels, where a majority of the characters are pseudonyms, is not about revealing secrets but more of a person attempting to define themself for the first time away from baseball.
By letting go of his fear of failure, Hayhurst is finally able to see his reflection away from a nightly box score while at the same time coming to the realization that attempting to live your dream can have some serious downsides.
Yet baseball is also something that he can't quit until someone tells him he can't play anymore.
If you are a baseball fan, or really just want to find out what it is like to pursue childhood dreams, buy the book and get on the bus.
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