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.
Hilariously self-effacing and brutally honest, Hayhurst captures the absurdities, the grim realities, and the occasional nuggets of hard-won wisdom culled from four seasons in the minors. Whether training tarantulas to protect his room from thieving employees in a backwater hotel, watching the raging battles fought between his partially paralyzed father and his alcoholic brother, or absorbing the gentle mockery of some not-quite-starstruck schoolchildren, Dirk reveals a side of baseball, and life, rarely seen on ESPN.
My career has crash-landed on the floor of my grandma's old sewing room. If this is a dream come true, then dreams smell a lot like mothballs and Bengay.
Somewhere between Bull Durham and The Rookie, The Bullpen Gospels takes an unforgettable trot around the inglorious base paths of minor league baseball, where an inch separates a ball from a strike, and a razor-thin margin can be the difference between The Show or a long trip home.
"It's not often that someone comes along who is a good pitcher and a good writer." --King Kaufman, Salon
"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
"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."
--Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated
"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, analyst/reporter ESPN television
"Bull Durham meets Ball Four 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 fastball 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."
--King Kaufman, Salon
"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
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I toed the rubber, turning my foot to that unique angle that marks my set position — a deep breath, shoulder wiggle, and complete focus. Ball in glove, locked and loaded.
Inner Dirk was talking, "You're a winner, you're a tiger, a champion. You can do this, you will do this." I felt awesome. I felt invincible. I felt as if I should be in a sports drink commercial. I was dominating this team, a complete force of nature punishing them from all angles, like throwing to blindfolded children. A grand symphony should have been playing in the background for my display of pitching mastery. At one point I could actually see myself from the outside, really digging myself, like an out-of-body moment of baseball Zen.
I adjusted my hat and took the sign from the catcher. I didn't like it, so I shook. I didn't like the next one either, or the next one, or the ... "Come on man, I don't even throw a three, why do you keep putting three fingers down?" I shouted.
"I'm sorry, the other guys use three as their curve ball," he whimpered back. He didn't come out for a mound visit, yelling at me from across the expanse that separated us.
"Great. Thanks. Just tell the guy what I'm throwing why don't you! Besides, no one uses three for a curveball! Three is always a slider!" I said. The batter stood awkwardly, looking back and forth between the two of us, confused.
"Sorry, you don't have to throw it. We could throw your —"
"Use your fingers, not your mouth, okay?" Stupid rookie.
He squatted back down and adjusted his mask. I reloaded on the mound. "I'm a winner. I'm a champion. I will do this. There is no try, only do or do not do. Wait, how did Yoda get in here? I'll bet he has a filthy changeup, a Jedi mind trick or something ... What am I doing? Focus Hayhurst! You're a tiger...."
I set my feet again slowly. Then for the coolness effect, I lifted my head to lock on with the catcher's fingers. Fastball. Just what I wanted. Why waste good breaking stuff on these losers when all I needed was good old numero uno to sit them down?
I nodded, then started my windup — left foot back, hands up over head, rock, pivot, knee up, and then a ferocious uncoiling down the slope to where I let loose.
In slow motion you'd see the batter's hands go back taking the bat to its proper position. You'd see my front foot land in the precise location I practiced repeatedly in front of a mirror. You'd see my torso rotate, level and clean with no balance issues. You'd see the batter's foot go up as he began to channel his weight for max power. You'd see my elbow give way to my hand as it snaps a screaming fastball into motion. It would all look so flawless, so magical, so poetic. It would leave you scratching your head, wondering how in the hell I could look that good and still drill a poor high school kid in the ribs at around ninety miles per hour.
You know that dull thud sound — the one a blunt object makes when a person gets hit real good? It made that sound. He went down hard, convulsing between screams of pain as he writhed on the floor.
"Ah, Jesus," I whispered behind my face-covered glove. "I'M SORRY!" I knew I should have made him sign that liability waiver. ... Way to go, Jedi Master. The kid was crying now. Not all-out tears but enough water was leaking out to show he was feeling all four seams. I thought we were going to have to put him down, shoot him like a lame horse.
The catcher, continuing his streak of helpfulness, came to the rescue with the comment, "Don't rub it."
"Nice job, meat," Mazz said from the next cage over. He'd been tossing batting practice to one of his clients, a big, beefy, future lesbian, the entire time I was throwing live batting practice to this group of high schoolers. This was his place, the perfect extension of his personality.
The joint was a run-down, former machine shop converted into a baseball lessons facility. The walls of the place had grease stains, and metal shavings littered the floor. The windows were old and single paned, holding in little heat. Mazz turned the heaters on only rarely, kept the minimal amount of lights, and didn't think painting over the dismal gray walls was cost-effective.
The track record for indoor baseball facilities in the area was poor. Mazz had been doing great because he only worried about the necessities. No paint, dim lighting, heaters kept slightly above freezing — it all averaged out to less overhead. He was a Scrooge with his own economic rules, which I called Mazzenomics. He was a good hitting coach, but a ruthless businessman, which is why he made such good money doing lessons. A little extra money and the place could look respectable instead of the baseball equivalent of punching beef in a meat locker, but with lessons second to none, people put up with the substandard conditions.
Mazz played pro ball for several years, then coached it, and then coached college ball. Currently, he was coaching an independent team called the Washington Wild Things when not peddling lessons. Since his life had been spent in the game, his default tone was that of the thick-skinned ballplayer crowd where "What's up assbag?" is just as good as hello. He's never been away from the game long enough to be in any danger of civilizing himself, so screwing up in front of him still warrants high school, bully-style chastisement.
"I wasn't trying to hit him. It was an accident," I said.
"I know you didn't mean it. That's why you've got a career 7.00 ERA — poor command."
"It's not a seven, it's ... well it's not a seven."
"It's a six, you're right. That's way better."
I never played for Mazz, but he told me I would soon. "Don't worry," he'd say, "you can still be the ace of the Wild Things after you get released this year." He tells me that every year, mercifully, as if the thought of him as my manager should somehow make me feel blessed.
"You know, it probably wouldn't have stung so bad if you'd turn on the heat in here."
"You guys are here to train. Exercise makes its own heat. If you were working hard, you wouldn't even feel the cold," came the Mazzenomics principle in response. The boy continued moaning on the ground.
"Just like if my lungs were tough from working hard, I wouldn't feel the iron shavings chewing them up?"
"Exactly." Mazz nonchalantly flipped another ball to the war club of the she hulk.
I walked over to the boy I drilled, who, with the help of his coach, was on his feet now and trying to walk it off. The blow was to his ribs, but baseball law requires players to walk off all wounds, even those not related to walking. When I got beside him, I slapped him on the butt and said, "You alright kid?"
"Yeah, I'm okay," he squeaked, trying to act tough. I probably scarred him for life, and he was only a sophomore. He'd never crowd the plate again, that was for sure.
He and the rest of the high schoolers, whom I subjected to this face-off, didn't realize what a favor they were doing for me. I wasn't going to tell them I needed them or that I felt bad about the beaning. I'm a pro; I have an image to maintain. I had to remain strong and impassive like some general. Part of war is casualties, and part of baseball is hit batsmen. If I acted too concerned, it would look as if I weren't in control.
"Hey man, my bad," I offered magnanimously. "I just wanted to brush you back. I was afraid of your power. Didn't mean to come in that far." No need to tell him the pro guy missed his spot by four feet. "If I gave up a hit to you, I'd never hear the end of it." And I'd feel like a complete joke. If Opie here got a knock off me, I might as well call the Padres and tell them I'm done and save them the trouble. Pro pitchers should never give up hits to fifteen-year-olds who weigh as much as the bat they swing.
Now that we were talking, I tried a little misdirection, some smoke and mirrors to change the subject from potential lawsuits. "Go grab a Gatorade, it's free today," I said, squeezing his shoulder as if we were pals. Sugar still distracts kids up to at least age eighteen. I think.
"No, it's not!" Mazz said, cawing from his cage. He was still sacrificing balls to the she-wolf, but he never missed a beat of my conversation.
"I'll pay for it you cheap bastard."
"Then I'll take it out of your next lesson," A buck fifty spent to make a wounded soldier feel better, and he was itemizing it like Satan's CPA.
The boy walked over to grab a cold one out of Mazz's mini fridge. The big softball orc smiled at him. From the way she looked him up and down, I couldn't tell if she thought he was cute — or edible. The rest of the group followed suit, grabbing more Gatorades that I also ended up paying for. Mazz said happy customers are good for business, but he was only saying that because I was paying for their happiness.
I wanted to keep throwing to hitters, but the boys lost their nerve after watching one of their own reduced to tears. I only had a week before spring training, and this would be my last chance to pitch to live bats before shoving off. However, with no one brave enough to stand in, I had to settle for a standard practice session, tossing openly discussed pitches to the genius behind the plate for the remainder of our time As I threw, the boys stood sipping their Gatorades outside the cage, watching me do my thing. Their coach pointed at me during key points in my delivery, going as far as to mimic my motion at certain points. Some of the other boys followed suit. It's a good thing they didn't know much about the business of baseball, or they'd see something completely different.
One year had passed since that 3–1 loss in the Cal League finals. During the following season of 2006, I managed to climb up to Double-A, even a short stint in Triple-A. I was, on paper, a Triple-A pitcher, something I could proudly declare whenever asked about my level of experience.
What I couldn't say, however, is that I earned it. My promotions were gilded. Dig a little and you'll discover I really didn't have any tangible success last year. I had poor stats in Double-A. Atrocious ones in TripleA, and despite my good ERA in High-A, I had a win/loss record of 1–7. I didn't move up because I was a prospect — quite the opposite actually.
Injuries and call-ups drained all the talent from the system. I, not being a priority guy the club felt like focusing on anymore, was the perfect choice to hop around the system and mop up spilt innings. At one time, the Padres may have kept me securely planted on the developmental track. That was back when I was an All-Star in the Midwest League and a choice conversational piece for media covering up-and-comers in the Padres organization. I was someone to watch out for then. Now four years into my pro career, I was tagged with lines like washout, roster filler organizational guy. The only all-star team I belonged on was the winter batting practice bruisers who bean high schoolers in rusty machine shops. Maybe not even that.
In four years, I'd failed to impress the people who do the promoting. I was a cold product, and folks who knew the game from the inside, folks like Mazz, knew where a guy like me, an aging, senior college signee with a small bonus and unattractive career numbers, was headed.
Mazz understood how the game works. He knew the outward appearance of success was just that, the appearance of it. He knew I was trying desperately to make sure people didn't know the rest of the story, and he loved to call me out on it.
Sure, the game isn't fair and guys who don't deserve it move up all the time. Several players in my situation have hopped up levels, paying no thought to the opportunity or to the way they got it, only to have a run of unprecedented success. I wish I could say I was one of those players.
The vast majority of people who love this game care only for big-time players with big-time numbers. I wasn't one of those, but I was faking it as best I could. The way I carried on, you'd never know I was back in the same situation I was a year ago, standing at the edge, staring into the pit of my career's end. For all the Gatorade-sipping boys knew, I was shooting through the system. Three levels in one year. Triple-A time was just a step away from the big leagues. Sounds impressive, especially when presented in a way that, again, misdirected attention from the whole truth. Yet, no matter how much smoke, mirrors, or sugary sports drinks I used, I couldn't misdirect the truth away from myself. Every opportunity I had last year, I failed to impress. I was on my way out barring something inexplicable. As soon as the organization found a younger guy to do my job better, I'd get chopped, and there's always a younger guy.
The boys' coach pointed at me, "Watch his finish. See how he gets through each of his pitches?" He bent over in imitation, balancing on one leg.
"Yeah, he's going to look great in a Wild Things uniform isn't he?" Mazz said. He had finished his lesson and now came to mock.
"Why don't you grab a bat and stand in here, Mazz," I called to him.
"No thanks, I don't want to embarrass you in front of your fans," he said. "I might be older, but I can still turn on your eighty-six."
"I thought you said you threw ninety-two," the coach said.
"Whoops," Mazz said, tittering.
"I, uh ... well ... I can. I mean, I don't right now because it's cold and I'm still getting into shape and ..." I stammered out some hyperbole on pitching that ended with, "Besides, velocity isn't everything, you know."
"Neither are K's or Wins, which you also don't have. Funny how that works." If I did have Jedi powers, I would use the Force to choke Mazz until his head popped off.
I ended my practice session with a dazzling array of big, loopy curve balls. The kids oohed and aahed over them; Mazz yawned. Finished, I strolled over and addressed my crowd. "Thanks for coming in tonight guys. I appreciate your time."
"It was our pleasure. I think the boys really learned a lot from hitting off you." I nodded and told him they looked good and had a lot of potential, which I would have said regardless. "Hey!" the coach said, forming his hand into a pistol and shooting me as he talked. "If you make it to the big leagues, we expect tickets!" If I had a dollar for every time I got gunned down with that comment, I wouldn't need to make it to the bigs.
They left, and I went back to my cage to keep throwing, trying to make my pitches obey. Fastballs that wouldn't go down and away, curves you could hang on a coatrack, and a slider I had been tinkering with for years with no luck. I was trying to get better today, but I felt worse than when I came in. The ball felt wrong in my hand, and all the grips were like math problems I couldn't solve. The game didn't even feel right to me anymore.
Mazz, done for the night, said, "I'm leaving. Lock the place up, turn off the lights —"
"And turn off the heat, and enter the alarm, and make sure there's no penny unaccounted for, I know. I'll take care of it Ebenezer."
Mazz stopped and looked at me. In an extremely rare moment of genuine care, he dropped the surly routine and said, "Easy Dirkus, you can't force it. Relax."
"All the same, I'm going to stick around for a while and see if I can." It was kind of him to let me keep working. I won't deny, he did support me in his roundabout, borderline abusive way. Maybe he wasn't that bad after all.
"Well don't blow your arm out. The Wild Things can't use you if you have a bum arm."
Then again, maybe he was.
"I'll remember that — top of my priority list." Right under leaving the door unlocked, turning the heat all the way up, and dumping the rest of his Gatorades.
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.CHAPTER 2
When I woke up the next day, my arm was sore from throwing. I lost count of how many sliders I peppered into Mazz's tarps, but the big knot by my scapula and the stiffness in my elbow told me it was far too many for this time of year. I would've loved to have fallen blissfully back to sleep, let my body mend the way God intended it too, but the unholy antics of my housemate wouldn't permit me.
Considering how old my grandma was, you would think her house would be shaped more like a pyramid than a split-level with a leaky basement. God knows how long she'd been up, watching over her precious bird feeders. I honestly didn't think she slept. She just waited, hanging upside down in her room at night, devising more ways to make my life a living hell come sunup. Pounding on the storm door at squirrels at the crack of winter dawn was just the latest development on a long list of tortures.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bullpen Gospels"
Copyright © 2010 Dirk Hayhurst.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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