One of the greatest baseball books of modern times hit North America's books stores this week. Shockingly, it was written by a guy who was more interested in growing up to be Trevor Hoffman, not Peter Gammons. Those aren't my words. They are the opening sentences of ESPN baseball analyst Jayson Stark's review of The Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst.
The book is receiving rave reviews not only for its baseball-related content, but also for Hayhurst's pained, personal story. But don't be confused. This story is neither an over-the-top expose on today's players, nor a "aw shucks" feel-good tale. In fact, it is not easy to put this book into a single category.
The book centers around the 2007 season when Hayhurst moves between different levels of the San Diego Padres minor league system. Hayhurst use pseudonyms and composite characters (e.g. Pickles, Rosco, Slappy, & Maddog) to protect his teammates' identifies. This is raw stuff, some times cringe-worthy, sophomorphic fun, other times cringe-worthy pain, delivered in machine gun bursts by a gifted writer. A particular passage about an octopus copulating a bagpipe had me laughing so hard I couldn't catch my breath.
Bullpen is compelling because of the style, or "voice" with which it is written. Hayhurst's style is disarmingly conversatinal and self-deprecating; exposing the reader to the lighter side of baseball, but also to his inner most fears and demons. He does so in a manner that makes you feel like you are in the room with him and his teammates shooting the breeze. The style draws you in, his stories are intoxicating, and the result is a spellbinding read.
The grit and realism starts right from the prologue.
"I was the team's long relief man. A nonglorious pitching role designed to protect priority pitchers. If the starting pitcher broke down or the game got out of control, I came in to clean up so the bullpen wasn't exhausted. Despite feel-good semantics supplied by the organization, my main job was mopping up lost causes. Why waste a talented pitcher when there was a perfectly useless guy for the job? I could pitch five innings in a blowout or face one batter in the seventeenth inning. Put it this way: if I could have done any other role successfully, I wouldn't have been the long man."
Usually, when I review a book, I take notes to remind myself of things I might want to weave into the review. That approach was hopeless with this book. There are far too many memorable moments to keep track of. Below is an excerpt of a comparatively tame episode amongst the many:
"As we made our way to the pen, fans splashed against the stadium's fenceing, begging us for autographs. We signed everything from hats and programs to ticket stubs and sandwich wrappers. It always boggles my mind how fans will fight all over themselves at a chance to get one of our names scribbled on their souvenirs. If only they knew what we were under these jerseys. Just hours before the game, the team debated the question of when a protein shake should be consumed--before or after sex? During, we decided, if you have a hand free."
Hayhurst is currently with the Toronto Blue Jay organization, but on injured reserve. He has been in the bigs with both San Diego and Toronto after a 4-year up and down minor league career bouncing between A, AA, and AAA.