In the summer of 2007, a friend turned me on to a feature on Baseball Americas website that quickly became required reading for me. It was The Non Prospect Diary penned by then-Padres minor leaguer Dirk Hayhurst. Twice monthly or thereabouts, he would chime in with whimsical observations about life in the minor leagues. It was sophisticated, smart and funny. His was not the view of a pampered first round pick being ushered through to a ten-year career in the Major Leagues. His was the view of someone fighting to hold on to a job who would be content just to spend ten days in the big show. Think of Crash Davis on literary steroids! Only with a mythical creature named the Garfoose occasionally worked into the mix.
Dirk Hayhurst became a source of some fascination to me. So you could imagine my joy when the Blue Jays claimed him off waivers in October 2008. And then imagine my disappointment two months later when I left the organization.
When I asked Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos about him recently, he emailed, "Bright guy! Cant wait to read his book!"
A book, you say?
Yes, a book! The Bullpen Gospels will be coming out this spring, timed presumably to coincide with the start of a new MLB season. Already though, advance copies are finding their ways into the hands of the likes of Bob Costas, Tim McCarver and Keith Olberman. They have all cracked the spine, cracked up laughing at the stories inside and summarily declared it a cracker-jack of a book.
Playing to his obvious strength as a writer, I reached out to Hayhurst recently and got him to agree to an email interview, the full transcription of which is contained below.
Will: We will get to shameless publicity of your upcoming book in just a moment, but we have to begin with the big offseason story in Toronto. I have a belief that in the absence of Roy Halladay one or more members of the Blue Jays bullpen will actually have an arm fall off next year. Or at the very least, you'll all have the knuckles of your pitching hand dragging on the ground by year's end. Confirm or deny?
Dirk: Deny. Not because the loss of Halladay wasn't monumental, and not because we have some mythical arm strengthening program, but because losing Doc means the pen will be used like a normal Major League pen instead of a pampered one where, barring some freak turn of events, we have every fifth night off.
Will: I thought being a Monty Python fan you might run with the baseball equivalent of the knight from The Holy Grail that keeps fighting even as his arms and legs get cut off. That being said, I take issue with your use of the phrase "normal Major League pen", because I really don't think there is such a thing. From my time in baseball, I always found pitchers to be a little...ummm...different. And relief pitchers in particular. Would you agree? And if so, why is that?
Dirk: Normal... Now there is something I haven't been in quite some time. At least that's what my therapists say. I simply meant that with Halladay gone, our pen would be ran more status quo in relation to other pens. I didn't mean to imply imaginary animals would suddenly disappear, or that we'd stop doing competitive recitations of the HMS Pinafore. No, some things will never change. I know I will always have my friend the Garfoose around, if only in my head. I digress. I would agree that relief pitchers are the most eccentric of all pitchers. I contribute this to the immense amounts of downtime we have while sitting in our outfield cages. Our minds grow idle and less than normal behaviors blossom as a result. Sometimes we have great ideas (Jim Bouton came up with Big League Chew while sitting idle in the bullpen. FYI) sometimes not so great (I'd look cool if I grew a moustache). So, if you combined this answer with my previous one, the loss of Halladay should also mean a saner Toronto bullpen- but I make no guarantees.
Will: Well, seeing as you brought him up -- Jim Bouton also wrote "Ball Four" which is considered by many to be the best baseball book authored by an actual baseball player. Until now, that is. Now we have Keith Olberman declaring your forthcoming book, The Bullpen Gospels, "one of the best baseball books ever written". Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated says it's a "rollicking good bus ride of a book". And the good folks at Salon.com describe you as "the only writer in the business who can make you laugh, make you cry and strike out Ryan Howard". Do all these kind words from these really famous people begin to make up for the less than kind words scouts used to include in their reports on your fastball? Have you actually struck out Ryan Howard? And, in all seriousness, how gratifying must it be to have no less of an authority than Bob Costas say your book is "hilarious and somewhat poignant"?
Dirk: Stop, I'm blushing... In all seriousness, those quotes are really amazing and I never thought I'd ever get reviewers to react with such passion and interest. I try not to let it go to my head but it's really exciting to hear such reputable folks say such nice things- especially Keith Olberman's comments- wow. Sure, at the end of the day they are just the opinions of some reviewers- big names aside- but I hope their opinions will be shared by many. Bob Costas, Keith Olberman, Tom Verducci, Rob Neyer, Tim Kurkjian, and the rest... they've seen and read a lot of baseball and their words come from years of insight. Am I confident fans will share their enjoyment of it? Yes. Am I confident it's one of the best baseball books of all time? Well, I don't think I can make that call. I guess you'll have to read it and decide for yourself.
As for Jim Bouton, I should let it be known I never set out to write the next "Ball Four." I just wanted to tell my story as best I could. In fact, while trading emails with Jim Bouton, I told him I was not trying to clone his book. I told him I didn't want to be the next Jim Bouton, but the first Dirk Hayhurst and he respected that. I have too much regard for what he's done through his book to try and rip it off. Any similarities we share can be chalked up to the fact we we're writing about the same subject from similar stations. They are both very good reads, and very different- but lets be honest, his is still the benchmark of baseball books and I think it will be for quite some time.
Will: Does it bother you at all that people look at Bouton or yourself and seem somewhat surprised by your writing -- "Wait", they say with wonder, "A ballplayer can do more than just author a shutout?". I guess what I am getting at is the whole business of labels. People think of you as a pitcher first and foremost and that renders them startled when they hear you're actually a fabulous writer. I think that's actually somewhat insulting. My thoughts after reading your Non Prospect Diary series in Baseball America is that you can write and pitch and to label you simply as Pitcher or Author does you, and Bouton previously, a real disservice.
Dirk: Well, I haven't authored very many shutouts lately... but that's beside the point. Labels, as you say, are insulting. They are also demeaning, and degrading- even those we think will empower us. All of us, pro athlete, writer, or otherwise are more than the sum of our professional parts but all too often, that's what we are measured by. The relevance is not the label we achieve, but the person doing the achieving. One of pro baseballs most dangerous side effects is its ability to make you think you are above or beyond the world around you. Pro Baseball may feel like its everything, and it may demand you to take a knee in its presence, but its not. Its a job with a steeper list of sacrifices and a media industry magnifying all its production, but a job nonetheless. Baseball cant tell you who you are. If it does, youre in trouble. Baseball has a tendency to tell you youre a failure more often than not. Untrue. You can be a poor baseball player and a fantastic human being or a fantastic baseball player and a terrible human being. Im sure you can cite some individuals? I think the same holds true for Dirk Hayhurst the writer. I'm just a person recording his thoughts and doing it as best I can, if I have success or failure, I am still me in the end. In your fictional conversation above, it's true people do tend to scratch their head in wonder when they see their athletes have other sides, but they really shouldn't- athletes are people, and I have yet to meet one person that is not complex and dynamic in their own right.
Will: OK. Let's move this back into more lighthearted fare. Lightning round! First word or phrase that comes to mind when I say....Alex Anthopoulos?
Dirk: Alliteration. (please don't fire me)
Will: Rogers Centre?
Will: Blue Jays fans?
Dirk: Are very Snake Plisskin-esque.
Will: Wait, what? The lead guy from the movie Escape from New York?
Dirk: Sure. That doesn't make sense to you? He's the right mix of tough, sexy, and ruthless. He also caries an Uzi with a scope on it. I mean, it makes sense to me. Well, I suppose there aren't many Blue Jay's fans with eye patches so... Maybe your confusion is justified.
Will: Travelling in the Minor Leagues?
Dirk: My seat-back is broken.
Will: Travelling in the Big Leagues?
Dirk: I'll have the salmon, please.
Will: The Garfoose?
Dirk: Chuck Norris doesn't stand a chance.
Will: In addition to being a fire breathing half giraffe, half moose, whose only known prey is man and who vigilantly protects the supply of baseballs in a hidden tropical grove, the Garfoose is also your Twitter handle (www.twitter.com/TheGarfoose). I'm really curious about your thoughts on Twitter. And please don't feel obliged to stay within 140 characters in your response....unless you really want to.
Dirk: I think Twitter is fascinating and I'm confident I'm not using it to its full capacity. I thought about using my name as the handle, but The Garfoose is so much better because it allows me to tell people right up front I can be out there, random, and imaginative. It lets me shed that baseball player label we discussed. Also, Twitter's 140 character roof helps me reign in my rambles. All these writing avenues are a lot of fun to master: books, articles, blogs, and now tweets- each has its own unique flair. I will say, I have to be careful as athletes can get in trouble for their tweets, but, if managed properly, I think it's a good way to connect more directly with fans
Will: And moving quickly towards our big finish. Required reading, please? Name three books everyone reading this column should crack the spine on, save, of course, for The Bullpen Gospels, available for online pre-order now and in better bookstores everywhere this spring.
Dirk: My definite number one is "The Counte of Monte Cristo." That's a true masterpiece. "Catcher in the Rye" for two, as it captures the young, crossroads, angst of youth in way I think many can relate too. For three, I'd pick "Ethen Frome" because I absolutely hated it. I still do. I think you need to read a few books you hate to find out what you like, why it appeals to you and why. Reading "Ethan Frome" made me wish I could ride a sled into an elm tree...
Will: Top three albums, save of course for the eventual ITunes recording of The Bullpen Gospels as read by Tim Robbins...or maybe Kevin Costner.
Dirk: Oh that's tough. Not the who reads my book part- I'd want that to be Orson Welles (if he were still around) - but the albums part. I'm a big Radiohead fan and I'd say their most recent, In Rainbowsalbum is must have, though Kid Ais also a classic. Achtung Baby by U2 is one of my favorites, and then, there's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band- that's innovation, and I love the Beatles. I've thought about what it would feel like to run from the pen to the sounds of I am the Walrus.. except people would replace Walrus with Garfoose.
Will: Top three movies, save of course for the epic blockbuster version of The Bullpen Gospels starring....hmmm, who would play you and who would get the privileged role of The Garfoose?
Dirk: OK, this is a little easier. First, I'd want Darth Vader to play me. I may never get his chance again, so I have to take it. People may be a little thrown by Darth Vader in a baseball uniform, but I think the charisma and strength of his acting will make up for the character stream issue. Besides, he looks just like me. As for the movies, I'd go with Braveheart, V for Vendetta, and Transformers The Animated Movie- Now that's a real Transformers movie (curse you Michael Bay!)
Will: Dirk Hayhurst, this has been a real pleasure. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! And all the greatest success to you and The Bullpen Gospels in 2010! Now please, please, please tell the Garfoose to back off! He's really scary and somewhat smelly. I've given you and him all the shameless publicity I can muster.
Dirk: Thanks Will, this has been a treat for me as well and I do appreciate the publicity. We'll have to do it again and I'll be sure to feed the Garfoose before we start. Have a Merry Christmas and Blessed New Year. And if you hear heavy thumping on your roof top instead of reindeer clicks, just know the Garfoose has been looking for a new off-season job. You might want to leave extra cookies.