It's easy to become disillusioned about sports when night after night you watch the likes of Carlos Lee loafing around the outfield while making an insanely obscene amount of money. But you watch the guys like Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence going full speed every night, the care and concern from their actions clearly evident on their face.
Nobody cares more about what happens in game than the guys who play a sport than those who play it on the minor-league level. They care because their future is on the line. It's not whether the team wins or loses, though that does matter, it's because a good game on their part could mean a promotion the next day up to the big club.
I learned about Dirk Hayhurst, a minor league pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays, from Barry Brust, the former goalie for the Houston Aeros, who I've had the fortune to know the past several years while covering the team. We got together just before he headed home for Canada several weeks ago, and he told me about The Baseball Gospels, Hayhurst's book detailing his 2007 season as minor league pitcher in the San Diego Padres organization.
And Barry, if you're reading this, thanks for the recommendation because this was a really good book.
Photo from wikipedia Despite some flaws, a highly entertaining book
While the start of the book is somewhat serious, things take a comedic turn when Hayhurst arrives in Arizona for spring training. And while what happens for the rest of the book reads like a pastiche of clichés from movies like Bull Durham, Major League, and Slap Shot, what's really happening in this book is real. There are locker-room adventures and toilet adventures. Teammates pick up groupies and get drunk. They play games -- most not involving baseball -- in the bullpen. ut what is most important to all is that they perform so they can make the majors.
Hayhurst starts the season in High-A ball, playing for the Padres club in Lake Elsinore, California. Then he's promoted to the Padres' Double-A affiliate, the San Antonio Missions, which is where Hayhurst plays the rest of the season, playing a key role as the Missions go on to win the Texas League title.
The writing of the book is sometimes sloppy. Paragraphs can go by without knowing who Hayhurst is talking about, or talking to. Most of his teammates don't have names, just nicknames -- Hayhurst doesn't want to give away the identities of those pulling pranks and performing some rather disgusting acts (though Chase Headley, who helped the Padres take two of three from the Astros this past weekend, is singled out by name) -- so it's sometimes hard to figure out just who he's talking about.
But those problems aside, there's an infectious sense of fun and joy to the book. You pick up, you start reading, and you can't put it down until your finished. While his teammates and coaches are hard to get a handle on, Hayhurst is a fully drawn character in his own book. His highs, his lows. His moments of deepest despair and his moments of greatest joy. They're all there in this book, and the reader is in the moment as it happens.
Hayhurst walks us through the hierarchy of the minor league trip on the bus. We're standing on the mound with him as he gets bombed with the Padres brass sitting in the stands and evaluating him. There's the heartbreak of his family and his alcoholic brother contrasted to the joy he gets out of a relationship with Padres legendary reliever Trevor Hoffman (now a closer for the Milwaukee Brewers).
Sure, The Bullpen Gospels is just another book about sports, written by just another player with aspirations of greatness. And sure, the book has its problem in style and structure. Ultimately, Hayhurst succeeds. He makes the reader care about what he's going through. He gets the reader to pull for Hayhurst and to delight in his success.
But what Hayhurst does, more than anything else, is remind us about just what it is we like about baseball, and sports. It's not Carlos Lee walking around the bases after a home run. No, it's seeing the joy on the faces of guys like Hayhurst when they make that perfect pitch, a pitch they didn't think was possible.