Monday, August 2, 2010

Hayhurst presents minor league reality in Bullpen Gospels

If life in the minor leagues looks at all glamorous from where you sit, Dirk Hayhurst would like you to know it's not that way for everyone. There may be a few high-round picks living large off of six- and seven-figure bonuses, but the majority of players on the average minor league roster are grinding it out, day by day. Okay, most of them don't spend the winter sleeping on an air mattress at their grandma's house like Hayhurst, but their experiences from March through September probably aren't all that different.

Hayhurst, who made 15 appearances for the Blue Jays last year, turned his 2007 season into The Bullpen Gospels. Alternately poignant and hilarious, the book provides insider's access to a minor league clubhouse. But as Hayhurst declares up front, the "book's purpose is to entertain, not to name names." This isn't a tell-all, and it was never intended to be. Names have been changed in many cases, and he has even combined some teammates into composite characters, though Hayhurst claims "everything in this work is based on actual occurrences."


Most of the players, in fact, are assigned only nicknames. There is Slappy, Pickles, Maddog, and Rosco, and they pull a lot of the sophomoric stunts you might expect from guys named Slappy, Pickles, Maddog, and Rosco. It's safe to say that Hayhurst, who has at least a couple of years on most of his teammates, is the thinker in the bunch.

He thinks too much, in many cases. The book opens on the eve of spring training, with Hayhurst, then the property of the Padres, doubting his own ability. Though he reached Triple-A the previous season, he knows it wasn't because the organization believed in him as a prospect. Quite the opposite. It was because they didn't envision him as a rising star that they felt comfortable moving him around to fill needs at three different levels. He's troubled at all hours by the Baseball Reaper, whom he often sees sitting in the stands while he pitches. This unwelcome guest breaks his concentration, derailing promising outings and spiraling his ERA out of control.

On the eve of his fifth professional season, Hayhurst even wonders why he keeps at it. The only reason he can come up with is that it's better than staying at home. After all, his family is so dysfunctional that staying with his batshit grandmother was an upgrade over remaining with his parents and alcoholic brother. So it's off to Arizona for another fun-filled spring training.

Hayhurst depicts minor league spring training as most of us would imagine life in the army. Every testosterone-laced day is spent trying to impress the brass-and avoid embarrassing himself. Certain coaches take sadistic delight in his inability to cleanly field grounders or lay down a bunt. Drills aside, however, he has a strong camp, pitching well in most of the games. Hayhurst survives a solemn cut-down day, in which a number of his compatriots are sent packing.

But that night a call from the trainer alerts him to a change of plans. He's told not to pack for the Double-A bus the next morning, despite having worked with them all spring. Of course, the trainer's not authorized to tell him any more, and Hayhurst endures a torturous night, envisioning his last-minute release. Instead, he's assigned back to Class A Lake Elsinore, his fourth tour of duty in the California League.

This is where the funny kicks in. The bus-riding and bullpen episodes are so funny I had to stop and re-read parts of them because I was laughing so hard. Mix some overly tired players with a lost bus driver and the movie Midnight Express and hilarity will ensue.

The shenanigans continue in San Antonio, when Hayhurst finally catches up to his Double-A mates midway through the first half of the season. The club does more than laugh together, of course. They play some fine baseball, winding up the season as the champions of the Texas League.

Hayhurst wraps his tale up by jumping ahead a year to his stint with the Padres, a big leaguer at last. Somewhere along the line he learned to believe in himself. Perhaps the introspection required to write a book helped him work through his doubts.

A gifted writer, he spins metaphors as easily as sliders-even moreso lately in the wake of his shoulder injury. Hayhurst has been on the disabled list all this season following labrum surgery in February. If his pitching gig doesn't work out, at least now he's got a fallback plan.

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