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Book Review: Dirk Hayhurst's Bigger Than the Game

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Dirk Hayhurst's new book, Bigger Than the Game: Restitching a Major League Life, is being released today. It is the third in his 'behind the scenes look at the life of a ball player' books. I loved his first book (The Bullpen Gospels), I liked his second (Out of My League) but this one is favorite of the three.

This book covers 2010, his second year as a member of the Blue Jays, and if you are looking for a love letter to the Jays organization, this isn't it. As always, Dirk is very honest and some of it doesn't present the Jays in the best light.

It starts out on a very happy note, Dirk is in a pretty good place (for him, the boy does tend to worry a lot), his first book is soon to come out, he's coming off a good season where he split time between Las Vegas and Toronto (putting up a 2.78 ERA in 15 games for the Jays) and he gets a pretty positive phone call from Alex Anthopoulos, telling him how much he likes Dirk and that he would likely start the season Vegas but that things could change in spring training, but life for Dirk goes downhill in a hurry after that.

Pumped up by the conversation he had with Alex, Dirk heads to the gym, and, pushing more weight than he really should, injures his shoulder, and it all goes bad from there.

The story line of the book is how an admittedly overly sensitive player deals with injury, surgery, rehab, and all that goes with it.

But the main focus of the books is the depression that Dirk falls into. Bell just had their "Let's Talk" campaign, well, Dirk talks, as always, with an honesty that is refreshing.Dirk falls into a very deep depression, which is understandable--he's so close to his dream of being a major league ball player and an injury has taken it away from him. He's at spring training, but he can't pitch, his rehab isn't going well (or really isn't going anywhere), and some of his teammates are creeps.

A major character in the book is a player that Dirk calls Brice Jared . Brice is a jerk. Brice is a bully. Brice calls Dirk 'Media', because Dirk has written this book (a breaking of the unwritten rules, in Brice's mind), and because Dirk promotes the book to reporters (another breaking of unwritten rules). The little fantasy that all players pull for each other and hope the best for each other is, apparently, just a fantasy. Just like anywhere you work, there are people you like and people you can't stand. Baseball players, it seems, are a gossipy group. Of course, not all of the Jays players were jerks and some that were jerks were going through their own stuff at the time.

Dirk, at first, deals with his depression in the time tested manner that most of us men tend to use: he drinks (and uses sleeping pills) to get away from his thoughts. He's kind of slow to catch on to the fact that he has fallen into depression. He describes a phone call to his wife, where she obviously has figured out he's depressed (one of the things I didn't understand is why she didn't come down to Dunedin at that point, he's clearly not dealing with things well, and he has no support system there). Dirk, himself, doesn't realize how bad the depression had become until thoughts of suicide start coming up.

The depression and recovery are a large part of the book and it is an important issue to discuss. Dirk isn't the first and won't be the last athlete to deal with those issues, but there is a perceived weakness in talking about it. Without being able to talk about it, it's hard to deal with.

Some folks (and at times me included) want our sports heroes to be the strong silent types. When I told Dirk how much I enjoyed the book he said 'Honestly enjoyed or just being nice? I can feel the blow back from fans calling me a weak whiner'. Personally, I don't see it as whining, I think he is just being honest about his feelings, and having a potential career ending injury is something that you should be allowed to whine about.

As much as we'd like to think they are above such things, it must be incredibly difficult for ballplayers to deal with injury and failure. These are guys that have been the best at what they do all their lives. Can you imagine how hard it must be on Ricky Romero to go from staff ace and All-Star to what he is now? And it can't help that random bloggers and Twitterers keep giving their opinions of what he's doing wrong or, even better, telling him what a lousy person he is. It would be hard, maybe impossible, not to fall into depression.

The parallel story line is his rehab and this is where Jays' organization looks really bad. I'm not sure if Dirk intended to point out how crappy the Blue Jays were at rehab, but it really reads like the Blue Jays need to overhaul what they are doing in that area.

Dirk, at the start of spring training, was working with the major league trainers on getting his arm back into shape. Then he, and the other rehabbing players, get sent to the minor league side of the camp and he works with the 'head minor league trainer and director of rehab', who Dirk named Jep Jasper (his real name is Hap Hudson who is no longer with the team) . Honestly, there doesn't seem like a system, or any real well thought out procedure, for getting Dirk back to where he could pitch. In his words:

...we didn't have much of a routine. Some days we'd do laser. Other days we'd do ultrasound. Others we'd do electric stimulation' At first I didn't think anything about how little consistency there was, but eventually I started wondering if it wasn't a result of how much demand there was on the training staff. It seemed when things were slower, I'd get laser, ultrasound, and all the other things that whet into the rehab process. Then, on days when more emails and phone calls showed up, I'd be told things like, "I'm not sure if I put too much stock in this laser" OR, "the ultrasound is just a way to warm you up, but you can get warmed up on your own without it." Maybe. Maybe not. We had the machines and I had the time. Why not use them.

At very best, it seems like the training staff is overworked (or at least were overworked, maybe the Jays have fixed things since then). With the amount of money spent on the players, you would think they could hire a few more training people. Maybe have one guy that would put together a routine for each player to follow and enough other people to make sure each player gets the best help. And, perhaps, they could arrange for a psychiatrist or someone to have a short session with each player, during rehab, just to make they are handling the mental side of rehab.

After Dirk gets his depression issues somewhat sorted out, the Jays send him to Andrews Sports & Orthopaedic Center, where he, finally, gets the rehab help he needs and the book takes a turn to the positive. There are several funny stories that come out of his time at the rehab clinic. My favorite bit is where Dirk's rehab trainer has Dirk convinced that, fellow rehabber and wrestler Triple H is mad at him for telling the world, through Twitter, that Triple H is rehabbing. He has Dirk convince that Triple H is a little deranged (too many hits in the head with folding chairs). I laughed hard at Dirk working himself up into a state of fear and then finally meeting Mr. H., who plays along with the gag of being a wrestler who acts like he's on stage at all times.

The time at Andrews Clinic is a fun read. Dirk is having a good time and the trainers working with him are enjoying being with him and, more importantly, actually helped him. The humor in this section is a nice change from the rest of the book.

It really is a good read and talks about some important issues. It must be hard for someone in a 'macho' sport like baseball to talk about issues of depression. Dirk does a good job of it.

Honestly, get the book, Dirk is a very good writer and does a good job of balancing the honest description of his depression with enough humor to make it a great read. As a Blue Jays fan, the inside stuff about the Jays make it that much better.