BY MATT LaWELL
DURHAM, N.C. | Dirk Hayhurst started talking about three minutes ago and he’s already deep in thought about baseball and books and what comes next.
“If you don’t write objectively about your own failure and doubt,” he says, “you’ll never capture the essence of the minors, which is just an industry of failure and doubt.” He explores that idea for a few minutes, then transitions to the years when he was consumed with his own perceived shortcomings and all of those games in the minors that were proof to millions that he didn’t have what it took to pitch at the highest level. “Success is such an arbitrary term,” he says. “It’s determined differently by everybody, so being happy would be a success for some, but having your own empire and being miserable would be success for others.” He stops for a second and props his left ankle over his right knee. He looks toward the outfield and a giant bull that spews smoke after every home run. This isn’t the first time he has dived into all of this. “I think a lot of us believe that if we can somehow be on top of the world, that equates to happiness.”
Hayhurst said all this late last August in the home dugout at Durham Bulls Athletics Park. He was at the stadium and in the clubhouse just about every day then, very much a part of the team, still just one step from the Tampa Bay Rays and another shot at the Major Leagues. But he was also months removed from his last game. His shoulder was banged up again, the second time in as many seasons, and not many thirtysomething pitchers with a history of shoulder injuries bounce back.
“I will probably not be playing next year,” he says. His face is calm. He’s serious. There’s no ruse here. “This is probably it for me. I’ve been injured most of the year, I’m in pain now. But I’m fine with that. I’ve had my nine years. I’m good.
“I make more money to write books now than I did to play ball, so I’m not bummed about it.”
On Thursday, about 3,000 players will start another season in the 10 minor leagues that play a full schedule of games, and about 1,500 more will join them in June after the draft. The bulk of those thousands and thousands of young men will play for three or four or five seasons and retire, well short of the Majors and the dream that defined them for so many years, most without any sort of attention. They’ll just decide that their time is finished. Dirk Hayhurst isn’t like most players. He definitely retired without much attention, but he decided he was finished while writing another brutally honest book about baseball.
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"Honestly, I don't know if getting to the big leagues is going to justify all the crap I've gone through to get there. I've seen what life is like when all you have is baseball." — Out of My League
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Hayhurst pitched in 252 minor league games between his initial adrenaline rush with the Eugene Emeralds back in 2003 and his last fix eight years later with the Bulls. Some of those games were excellent, and some of them were terrible, and some of them, even for Hayhurst, were forgotten by the end of the night. He wasn’t a star then, just another tall middle reliever with good control and a little power, an organizational pitcher who helped fill out the roster. He almost never landed in headlines or even game stories, just the box score, his name reduced to a line of statistics and little context.
Also, according to Baseball America, the journal of record for all matters of player development, he was not a prospect.
For a long time, Hayhurst allowed that to define him. He had played baseball for so many years — had learned the art of pitching from his Dad, had practiced on a mound built up in his back yard, had pitched during high school and college and summers — that he sometimes had trouble separating the game from the rest of his reality. And then, during the kind of offseason morning that blurs right on into the next, he woke up on the air mattress he slept on at his Grandma’s house and had what he refers to as his epiphany. He was deep into his 20s. He was single. He was poor. He was living on the floor of what might as well have been a closet. “This,” he said to himself, “did not turn out the way I thought it was supposed to.”
Hayhurst started to think about the game he thought he loved. There was the day in high school when scouts watched a rival team shellack him, and he brooded so long afterward that he kicked his Dad off that mound in the back yard so he could fire pitches instead. There was the season in college when he starved himself so he would look better for more scouts, and wound up passed out and in need of medical attention rather than drafted by some team. And then there were those years in the minors, living what he had thought was his dream.
“I think, looking back,” he says, “I should have realized baseball had too much of me.”
And that was when Hayhurst started to take his life back from baseball. That was when he started to write.
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The game keeps you hooked through hope, and strung out on chances. It makes you believe that just a few days in the big leagues will justify all the years you traded trying to get them. A rational man would walk away from the whole thing once he figured out what was happening to him, but baseball is not a rational place. — Out of My League
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Dirk Hayhurst writes some beautiful sentences and some beautiful paragraphs. He writes entertaining stories that stretch on, one after another, for hundreds of pages. He writes New York Times bestsellers.
Today, Hayhurst is the best baseball writer who also happened to play baseball, and there’s not much argument. He doesn’t work with any ghostwriters for his books. He doesn’t work with any editors for the blog posts that pop up regularly on his website. He just writes. The Bullpen Gospels, his 2010 debut, rocked the baseball world with its honesty and hauled in positive reviews from just about everywhere. Keith Olbermann called it the best baseball book in four decades. Bob Costas sent a blurb for the back cover. It even received praise from Baseball America. His second book, Out of My League, released in February, is being recognized less as a great baseball book and more as just a great book, no qualifiers necessary.
Before all this literary success, Hayhurst wanted to write so he might be able to work out some of his frustrations and disappointments. “I had this righteous anger in me against the institution of baseball, which I still have” he said. “That was when I first said, ‘I need an exit plan. I need to know I can get out of this.” So prior to the 2007 season, he started to write what amounted to notes about life in the minors, first for Baseball America, where his column was tabbed “Non-Prospect Diary,” then for his hometown newspaper, the Canton Repository.
With little to lose other than cramped bus rides, poor eating habits and the uncomfortable stares of teammates and coaches who watched what they said around him for fear it might wind up in his notes and stories, Hayhurst just kept writing. He proved more of a natural with a keyboard than a curveball and realized he had a particular “ability to articulate” his stories. “Non-Prospect Diary” gained a loyal readership and the attention of agents and publishing houses.
In the process, his success on the page spurred a new success on the field. He started 2007 with the Lake Elsinore Storm of the High-A California League, then earned a pair of promotions, the first to Double-A and the San Antonio Missions, the second to Triple-A and the old Portland Beavers. “It did help me that people enjoyed reading it, and it did propel me to get enough confidence,” Hayhurst said. “Before that, I was up and down like a roller coaster. Afterward, I was like, ‘Failure? Whatever.’”
He had never accomplished more, and he had never cared less.
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"Can't lose your cool out there. That ain't you. When I seen you get mad out there, I say to myself, 'That ain't Hay. He don't do that.' Can't let things you got no control over get control over you."
"I just want to do good since the Bigs are so close."
"S—, everyone wants to do good." — Out of My League
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Two years ago, Hayhurst was a Major League pitcher with the best collection of minor league stories ever collected between two covers. He was 29 and months removed from perhaps his best season at any level — an effective 2.78 ERA in 15 appearances out of the bullpen for the Toronto Blue Jays. He was still a newlywed, married for a little more than a year to Bonnie, who had a cameo in his first book and now has a major role in his second. Everything was perfect.
Except for his right shoulder.
After decades of a repetitive throwing motion, Hayhurst damaged the labrum in his shoulder during offseason workouts, an injury that pointed him toward surgery rather than spring training, recovery rather than the regular season. His season was finished before it started. At least he had a little more time to promote his book. As he embarked on a media tour, his stories and personality both attracted attention. He looked like a baseball player, but didn’t sound like one. Consider this monologue, which spilled out during that conversation last August in a dugout in Durham.
“We all come into this knowing that only so few will get to the top, and then when we make it, that’s supposed to justify everything, and if we don’t, then we’re a failure. It’s just a really bad mental way to go through life. When you’re young, and it’s a game, and Mommy and Daddy are taking care of all the obligations, yeah, you can live and die on winning and losing. You can’t give your kids dog turds when they played their hearts out and lost. You have to give them a Happy Meal, because you want them to feel good about themselves. But this isn’t about feeling good about yourself. This is about taking the best and getting the best results. This is a business, and if you put too much of your emotion into it, expect to get hurt, expect to be afraid and doubtful.”
Or this one, which followed a couple of minutes after the first.
“This isn’t scripted, and that’s the beauty of baseball. But at the same time, it is in a sense, that there are these expectations you’re supposed to adhere to once you put the jersey on, there’s a pretense you have to keep up. When children ask you what it’s like, you can’t say, ‘Kid, it f—ing sucks. You should see how I eat. You should see how much I get paid. I never get to see my wife.’ No, they look at you with sparkling eyes, and you say, ‘Oh, it’s a dream come true. Work so hard, sacrifice, ... don’t diversify yourself, be crushed by your failure.’ But when you get older, you start to realize that life isn’t about winning and losing, that it’s about living, and that there’s more than one track to life. That’s what I did, I searched for different venues. And the writing was so therapeutic. It helped me put baseball in perspective, because I started to unravel the mystery of it, and it started to make sense.”
Or this one.
“Is success really me hanging on to this so I have the satisfaction of someday saying I never quit? Or is success being able to say I knew when my time was up? I knew when I ran out of chances? I knew that I was older and it was time for me to be a great father and to do the best I could by being a prospect in another field?”
The answers aren’t the same every time Hayhurst talks with reporters or talking heads on cable, but his general philosophy is. He always responds with full sentences, sometimes even full paragraphs, and he can carry a conversation with his experience in baseball and his thoughts about the game. He doesn’t sound like a baseball player because he isn’t one. Not anymore.
Just read his books.
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I had never thought of my life in the minors as practice. I thought of it as surviving, enduring, grinding. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized Balsley was right. The Bigs were the only level that mattered. Everything done in the minors was done to get players here. More than anyone, I knew there was no reward for those people who came close. — Out of My League
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Hayhurst lives in Hudson, Ohio, now, about 30 minutes north of where he grew up in Canton and about 30 minutes south of Cleveland, comfortably tucked away in the suburbs. He and Bonnie live in the newest house on a quiet old street not far from a redesigned downtown that was still the heart of farm country three or four decades ago. He’s neither the most accomplished athlete to ever live there — that would be Hall of Fame tight end Dante Lavelli — nor the most decorated writer — that recognition goes to Ian Frazier of The New Yorker, who has eight books and a pair of Thurber Prizes for Humor on his resume — but he’s probably the best athlete and the best writer in the city right now, and he’s certainly the best writer anywhere when the topic turns to the minors.
“No one understands what it’s like to do this,” he writes in one of the last chapters of Out of My League. “All they know is what the media has showed them. They don’t see the other side, this side. They don’t see the failure, the paranoia, the doubt — and they don’t want to see it! They don’t want to hear people talk about it.
“They only want the dream part.”
Hayhurst still has dreams, but he’s measured and mature enough to dream off the field now, more than two years after he last pitched in a Major League game. He has as many published books as he does career decisions in the Majors, and his second effort, though not on bestseller lists just yet, is richer emotionally than his first. He gives the reader more access to his life, more stories from the clubhouse and the dugout and the road, more dialogue that feels real because it probably is. The odds that he wins a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award are about as good as they are that he takes home a Cy Young Award, but he can write, and he can tell a story.
Whether he pitches anywhere this season or ever again — and it appears that he won’t, after he returned to Ohio from Italy after just a few weeks of what was supposed to be a full season with the nation’s top professional team — doesn’t really matter anymore. He has carved a niche for himself. He started writing to help himself, and now he helps all of us, even those among us who haven’t picked up a baseball in a decade or two or three, helps us see ourselves on the field, in front of everybody we love, living some of our dreams. No one understands what it’s like to do what Hayhurst did, and we want to read about it.
And though we do want to read about “the dream part,” we also want to read about everything else.
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