Dirk Hayhurst is not your run-of-the-mill big-league pitcher. He also happens to be an accomplished writer, having penned regular columns for Baseball America and the Canton Repository. Now, as Hayhurst looks to establish himself as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays staff, his first book—The Bullpen Gospels, due out in March 2010—is drawing praise from some heavy hitters.
I first became aware of Hayhurst during his time in the San Diego Padres organization. I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with him twice. Those first two were so much fun, we’ve decided to go for a third round.
Geoff Young: When last we spoke, you had just gotten married (belated congratulations on your first anniversary) and been picked up by the Toronto Blue Jays after having spent your entire professional career to that point in the San Diego Padres organization. How has the change in work environment been for you so far—in terms of people, organizational philosophies, your role, etc.?
Dirk Hayhurst: Baseball is baseball. That’s something I try to tell myself whether in an attempt to calm down after a call-up, in commentary to little leaguers, or after changing teams. The game doesn’t change. However, things around the game—people, living arrangements, marital stressors—those things change quite frequently. That said, I enjoy the Jays very much and I find their openness and candor very refreshing. Spring training in Florida is a nice change of pace, and a big-league city in driving distance from my home is also welcome—though a passport is required. My role has not changed much. The Jays want me to get outs, just like the Padres did. Some folks get caught up in roles, but I don’t worry about my pitching title. I start against the first batter I face, whenever I go out to face him. I enjoy being a swingman, and the Jays have used me as such to date.
GY: We’ve talked before about the importance of balance in life. Writing seems to be a good outlet for you to express things in a way that is different from what you do at the ballpark. How did you get started down that path? Who were some writers or teachers that inspired you to use words to convey a story, to connect with others?
DH: The best teacher and inspiration I had for writing was poverty, and I mean that both figuratively and realistically. I spent so many nights dreaming of what it would be like to be a pro player. Then I found myself sleeping on the floor at my grandmother’s in an effort to hold onto the title, which, at the minor-league level only told me I was lackluster and inconsequential. I had no money, no life save the one revolving around my sacrifice, and no future (if you read the reports on me). Things were bleak.
The business around the game has turned players into used cars, evaluating their worth in terms of performance, miles on the engine, and trade-in value. It didn’t feel much like a dream after I spent five years parked on the used lot of minor league nobody. I decided that I was just as relevant as anyone else, and I had stories to share that were just as impacting. Besides, people buy books on baseball, and If I wasn’t going to make any money from playing it, at least I could milk a dollar or two out of writing down what it was like to play it.
GY: One aspect of your writing that stands out to me is how true to life it is. This hasn’t escaped the attention of others, either. Keith Olbermann recently said of your upcoming book, “I’m not sure that he hasn’t written the best baseball autobiography since Jim Bouton‘s Ball Four.” How are you able to tap into the essence of a story, and how crazy is it that someone like Olbermann is singing your praises?
DH: The essence of the story, as you say, is something that is in a writer’s style and nature. I am not a great writer grammatically. In fact, without a copy editor I’d probably get flunked in many college classes. Speaking of college writing classes, I never took any. What I am is a good storyteller by nature. I’m not trying to boast, I’m simply saying that if I was neither a good storyteller nor grammatically capable, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. I also have a disdain for heavy-handed baseball pandering in writing. I don’t wax philosophic about the game and its constant statistical worship because I feel that the struggles of people are more interesting than who hit what when. The game is a vehicle to the story, not the other way around. Furthermore, if the people playing are interesting, regardless of what happens on the field, the story will also be interesting. Luckily, I have the luxury of interesting events in both venues in my book, but I stand by my personal principles.
I can “tap into” the story here, because it’s my story. It’s autobiographical. I know exactly what it feels like to win and lose on a ball diamond and the results to the world around you. How things turn gray like smog when you fail or how you feel invincible when you win. But, I’ve also lived what it’s like to take punches from a drunken brother or to watch a loved one contemplate suicide. Consequently, I know, without a doubt, baseball is not the most important thing in life, even though the attention it garners will make you think otherwise. I think the book will show (not tell) this, using my own broken and relatable existence as a map. I think by not forcing this book to be another baseball diatribe, it may actually be one of the most honest books to come out in recent time.
As for Keith Olbermann, I can’t say enough about the guy. The positive reviews he’s given me are stunning. I am in his debt. I did not know him before the book was sent to him for consideration so his words are as honest and untainted as it gets. I don’t care what you think about his politics, he is an impressive, intelligent person with a unquestionable sports pedigree. His review means so much to me because he, to use your words, can see the essence of the story and the persons in it.
GY: Speaking of Bouton, you had some exchanges with him while writing your book. How was that experience? What pearls of wisdom did he share?
DH: Jim and I have traded letters. Most of them long on my end and short on his. He’s a busy man, and I’m sure everyone who writes a baseball book comes knocking on his door with their book under their shoulder, hat in hand. I’d be a fool not to ask the author of baseball’s literary benchmark for his blessing. While Jim did not have time to read and review the book prior to the blurb cutoff date, he did tell me, after reading a few chapters, he didn’t think I’d need his help to get people interested. He also told me I shouldn’t let my editors clean it up too pretty (meaning colloquially), or else it will lose that baseball edge. I agreed wholeheartedly, thus, the book is very much liken to if you were actually a player on the team, participating in the conversations.
I also made it a point—this was very important to me on a personal level—to tell Jim I was not out to write the next Ball Four. I want to be the first Dirk Hayhurst, not the latest Jim Bouton. I’m sure comparisons will always be a factor, but I wanted him to know, as a matter of integrity, I was not trying to copycat his book. I feel like a real artist can innovate while paying homage to things that have preceded him, and that’s what I’ve tried to do here. He respected that.
GY: Pitching is a craft. Writing is a craft. Obviously they are not the same, but I imagine there are some similarities in terms of preparation, process, etc. What skills from one arena have you been able to apply to the other?
DH: Oddly, the two don’t seem to share anything for me, and I like it that way. I like writing because it is a complete escape from pitching. I control all the letters and words and can assemble them any way I like. With pitching, however, I have to let go of the ball, at which point I no longer have any say in the matter—good or bad. I know there are many arguments for both being an art form, and I suppose that’s true in some cases. Yet, I don’t know many painters who are called in to get the starting painter out of a jam with runners on base.
One thing writing has taught me about pitching is how small pitching is. I’ve said things along the lines of this, but it’s true. Writing about baseball is a great way to put thoughts and feelings which seem so large and overwhelming into the confines of small, unremarkable print. Seeing events, whether big or small, in words lets me look at them more objectively. Writing has the power to diffuse and explode things, a power I use frequently.
GY: A character you invented, The Garfoose, has taken on a life of its own. Have you considered—now or in the future—writing children’s stories based on this mythical creature?
DH: *Smiles to self* Ah yes, the Garfoose. He is joy of mine. I actually have penned out two Garfoose children’s books starring him. I don’t know when I’ll be able to get those to print, but I am very hopeful it will happen, and soon. I love the Garfoose and so do fans. I will have more dealing with him coming in the future, including T-shirts, toys, etc. I have already copyrighted the name, image, and likeness along with trademarks.
His origin was, basically, a joke between my wife and me. Next I wrote an article about him for Baseball America which accrued an underground following. Then I started doodling him on things. Finally, as part of my already eccentric nature, I started placing him on baseballs. The rest is history. Now I have a Twitter handle named TheGarfoose where I keep fans apprised of the Garfoose’s happenings on a daily basis.
For those who don’t know what a Garfoose is, you can check him out at www.garfoose.com and if you see me at a ballpark, don’t be shy about shouting down for a Garfoosograph—one of the rarest (definitely strangest) signatures in baseball.
GY: Some players—notably Kansas City pitchers Brian Bannister and Disco Hayes—have mentioned the impact that being aware of and using advanced baseball statistics has had on their games. How useful (if at all) have you found such tools in your own career?
DH: Greatly useful. Watching videotape of guys consistently swinging at bad pitches, their leadoff tendencies, their propensity to steal. I love that stuff. It makes me feel confident when I take the mound, and in a game where you can’t control what happens once you let go of the ball, confidence is very important. I’m not the type of pitcher to melt radar guns with seven circle fire balls. I need all the help I can get and using my brain more than my arm is fine by me. Granted, there is only so much information you can take in and use once you’re in the thick of battle, but as you get older, you learn to slow the game down and use your head. I’ve spent time watching [former teammate Roy] Halladay go through his routine, and what people may be surprised at (because of his immense natural talent) is how much time he spends researching hitters. He’s got a bible of notes on hitters. He knows lineups like the back of his hand because he studies them thoroughly, observing even the smallest changes.
GY: If you could meet with one historical figure, who would it be, and why?
DH: I think I’d like to meet Orson Welles or Bob Dylan—some artist that is just out there brilliant and in no danger of being trapped in some box under societal expectations. I really respect people who can shed the whims of the vox populi and go their own way. I wish I was creative and talented enough to do that myself.
GY: I understand you are a Monty Python fan; I have to ask: Holy Grail or Life of Brian?
DH: No brainer for me: Holy Grail. “Huge tracts of land!”
Thanks again to Dirk for taking the time to share his thoughts and insights. His book, The Bullpen Chronicles, is due out in March 2010. You can also catch him at a ballpark near you or follow him on Twitter.