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Book Review: The Bullpen Gospels, by Dirk Hayhurst

"Away he went, turning out all the lights save for the one cage I was in.  I stayed, who knows how long, alone in a cold, dark building, throwing sliders that wouldn’t slide into a worn, plastic tarp, trying to figure out more than just pitching."   - Dirk Hayhurst, the Bullpen Gospels

The Blue Jays managed to get through their 2009 offseason without signing a single major-league free agent.  They were the only team in baseball to do so.  Nor were there any particularly big trades. However, that particular Jays offseason was a big one for me, because during it, the Jays acquired righthanded pitcher Dirk Hayhurst. 

Because he played in the inferior league and all the way out on the west coast, I didn’t actually know much about Dirk’s pitching, other than he had come over from the San Diego Padres organization where he had pitched mostly in relief.  But I had been following his "Non-Prospect" Diary on Baseball America for months and I loved it for the way it seemed to me an entirely new form of baseball writing – honest, hilarious, and touching, while avoiding all the usual sports clichés.  So I was very happy to see the Jays bring Dirk into our scold (as a group of Jays are called – hey, better than our closest relatives, crows (who group in a murder) or ravens (a grief) – but I digress).   

Hayhurst, who pitched quite credibly for Toronto last season, was kind enough to send me an advance copy of his book, The Bullpen Gospels, which is due out at the end of March.  With stellar reviews from Keith Olbermann, Rob Neyer, Tim Kurkijan, Tom Verducci, and Trevor Hoffman, among others, the book hardly needs my seal of approval to cement its place in baseball’s literary canon.

But it sure has it.  The Bullpen Gospels is hilarious, touching, unflinching in its honesty, and unapologetic in its basic decency.  Major league athletes are expected to be confident to the point of arrogance – in fact, we think of it as essential to their success -- but in Gospels, the author turns a hard, narrow focus on his own self-doubt.  The hilarious minor-league antics and touching tales of stepping out of his uniform to act like a real person, I had come to expect from Hayhurst’s "Non-Prospect Diary", but I wasn’t prepared for the raw honesty regarding offseason life back in Ohio or the nagging self-doubt that regularly accompanied the pitcher everywhere, including the mound.  

I was even less prepared for the extent to which I related to that part of the story and how many of the same experiences I had myself had – the messed-up family life, the sometimes crushing self-doubt.  And, most of all, the way that those things cause the desperate need to prove oneself by succeeding to the fullest in one’s career – how that drive for success leads to ever-greater outward success without ever fixing the problems that caused that desire for success in the first place – because, how can it?  

But, in a way, that’s the point – strip away the media persona and the trappings of the professional baseball player, and what is a minor-league player?  A young man, probably in his early-to-mid 20s, with sporadic but near-crippling self-doubt, equally intermittent feelings of invincibility, a desperate need to prove himself without a full understanding of why, little money, and, playing the percentages, serious father issues.   And here I thought that all Dirk and I had in common was our love for comic books.

None of this is to take away from the fact that The Bullpen Gospels is very much a baseball book.  The ball scenes are exciting, the moments of team camaraderie genuine and memorable, and the bullpen hijinx hilarious.  I have no doubt that the former and current players who have extolled how accurately Gospels captures the essence of playing baseball for a living are completely right.  But I thought the book was much more than that.  As Hayhurst himself mentions in his conversation with Trevor Hoffman late in the book, it’s not only about what baseball is, but also what it’s not.

When the book starts out and Hayhurst’s career is scuffling, he looks to baseball success as a stand-in for life success – a shortcut to solving his problems and becoming the man that he wants to be.  But it’s only through baseball success – the Texas League championship, the minor-league all-star selections, the promotion to the bigs (spoiler alerts!) - that he comes to realize that baseball success isn’t some key to life success.  Life is both starker and richer, more complicated and more fulfilling, than the baseball mythos.

It’s difficult to write an autobiographical book in which you are fair about yourself.  I speak from experience – although I was a biochemistry major in college, I lacked the scientific inspiration to do my honours thesis in that field, so I fell back on my other major, English, and wrote a book of creative autobiographical non-fiction.  I had the stories to tell but not the willingness to make myself look bad, nor the dishonesty to make myself look good, so I ended up writing as little about myself as possible.  But full credit to Dirk – The Bullpen Gospels tells the stories that make him look good and doesn’t shy away from the ones that make him look bad.  I can’t believe I spent the 2009 season rooting for a guy who yells at his grandmother to shut up!

As a lawyer, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the unbelievably hilarious Kangaroo Court scenes -- some of my favourites in the book – where players bring one another up on "charges" -- ranging from the effects of eating too much Mexican food to talking about oneself in the third person to rank stupidity -- and try them before a jury of their peers. 

I can’t encourage you enough to pick up a copy of The Bullpen Gospels.  You will speed through it and, if you are like me, gain a new appreciation for ballplayers, not for the work that they do, but for the men that they (at least, some of them!) are.  You will laugh your tail off on one page and, quite possibly, tear up on the next. Most of all, laughing with the guys on the team, suffering through uncomfortable bus rides and fleabag motels, experiencing the agony of letting a game slip through your fingers, the despair in getting busted down a level, and the joy in victory, you’ll feel like you – an ordinary person – are a ballplayer.  But you’ll also feel like the ballplayer is, for once, an ordinary person.   

Pre-order The Bullpen Gospels.

Short Update:  I received an e-mail from Dirk that confirmed the length of the book is 340 pages, to allay some fears in the comments that the Garfoose ate a hundred pages.  Too bad, I was hoping I just got the special Director's Cut edition!