One of the great baseball books of modern times hits North America's book stores this week. Shockingly, it was written by a guy who was more interested in growing up to be Trevor Hoffman, not Peter Gammons.
The book is called The Bullpen Gospels, published by Citadel Press. The author is a fellow named Dirk Hayhurst. And if the name sounds familiar, it isn't because you've ever seen his name in a Barnes & Noble near you.
Dirk Hayhurst pitches for a living. Or at least he did until he frayed his labrum while working out this winter and had to spend his spring recuperating from shoulder surgery. So for the next few months at least, you have a much better shot of catching his name on the best-seller list than in a Blue Jays box score.
That's not a good thing for the Blue Jays. But it's a great thing for all of us who have always wanted to have some player unlock the gates of a minor-leaguer's universe and let us in.
I first heard about this book a year ago, when my buddy Gammons and I were spending a day in the Blue Jays' spring-training camp, and we noticed a player we didn't recognize was borderline stalking us for about 15 minutes.
Before we could call security, Dirk Hayhurst introduced himself and said, "I don't want to talk to you guys about baseball. I want to talk to you about writing." He then told us about this book he was working on, about his life as a minor leaguer who spent years thinking he might get released at any point in the next 30 seconds.
Who knew that in the next year, he'd actually A) get his first extended big-league opportunity, B) rack up a 2.78 ERA in his 15 appearances for Toronto and C) get that book published? It's a beautiful world, ain't it?
Well, I don't know what the future holds for Dirk Hayhurst on the mound. But he has such a great future as a writer, I'm now worried about my own job.
This book is the long-awaited, much-needed minor-league equivalent of Ball Four. It's eloquent. It's insightful. It's poignant. It's hilarious. Sometimes all in the same paragraph. I loved it. All of it.
Mostly, it takes us along as Hayhurst journeys through his 2007 season in the Padres' system -- a ride that carries him (and us) all the way from spring training to the California League (for the fourth straight year), from Double-A to the Pacific Coast League, through lows and highs and triumph and disaster.
I can pretty much guarantee that unless you've done this for a living yourself, Dirk Hayhurst will take you places you've never been and paint his pictures with astonishing honesty. This book is for mature audiences, by the way. So don't hand it to your 9-year-old. But if you think you qualify as officially mature, this is mandatory baseball reading.
There are so many highlights in this book, I could cite about 50 of them. But for some reason, my favorite chapter involves the day Trevor Hoffman marches over to the minor-league camp in spring training to impart some words of wisdom to the dreamers. Let me give you just a taste of what you're in for:
Hayhurst sets this visit up by laying out his never-ending obsession with failure: "I had a lot of failures in my career," he writes. "Even my successes felt like failures, seeing how I had nothing to show for them. When I failed, it felt so colossally taxing, I became afraid of the slightest potential of it happening each time I took the mound. ... Thus, each success I had this spring was tempered by the looming shadow of my possible meltdown." I've never heard the fear of failure expressed more vividly, or painfully, than that.
So as Hayhurst contemplates Hoffman's visit, he knows that "if anyone could shine a light into my baseball universe, I knew it would be Hoffman." Uh-oh. Anybody see trouble coming?
Hayhurst then recalls his first encounter with Hoffman, a couple of years earlier, in a spring-training lunch room, where "he looked at me with that 'destined to be bronzed on a plaque' face of his and said, and I'll never forget it, 'Hey, can I borrow your salt?' " Magical.
Finally, Dirk Hayhurst's moment arrives to ask Hoffman a question about the secret of life: "I set my vocabulary to stun and threw my hand up. ... 'I was wondering,' I said, "what kind of mantras or psychological routines you operate under? Do you have beliefs that you inculcate yourself with to remain focused and directed as a player?' ...
"The minor leaguers surrounding me began chuckling, partially because I just went Rambo with a thesaurus and partially because if Trevor had simply snapped his fingers like the Fonz and said, 'Laugh now!' everyone would have.' "
Needless to say, there wasn't anyone within earshot who didn't make massive fun of this question -- including Hoffman himself. And, naturally, none of what happens to Hayhurst through the rest of this day would qualify as a dream come true -- including a brutal outing against the Cubs. Here's how this tale ends:
"When the last out was made, I went into the dugout and plopped on the bench, took off my hat, and hung my head. [His teammate] Ox came over to me, slapped one of his big meat hooks on my shoulder, and asked, 'So what mantras or psychological routines did you inculcate yourself with to get your [butt] kicked out there today?' "
This, friends, is real life inside a baseball dugout, laid out for you with honest, laugh-out-loud eloquence by a man who has lived that life, has no problem making relentless fun of himself and has not just a Rambo-esque internal thesaurus but a brilliant way with words.
I can't force you to head for the mall and buy a copy of The Bullpen Gospels. But if you don't, it's your loss -- not Dirk Hayhurst's. And that's the gospel truth.