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March 6, 2014

Sobsequy

A Review of Dirk Hayhurst's "Bigger Than The Game"

by Adam Sobsey


Bigger Than The Game (Citadel, 320 pp.), is Dirk Hayhurst’s third book. (Wild Pitches, a compendium of outtakes and reprints, is not quite a fourth.) It is easily his best. Bigger Than The Game has far more depth and grip than his first two books, The Bullpen Gospels and Out of My League, which are entertaining but sometimes shaggy rambles despite occasionally serious content. Now that Hayhurst has taken off his baseball glove, he has also taken off his gloves as a writer, perhaps because his retirement from playing has liberated him from the need to protect his employment status. He hits the truth harder, and with more impact. Perhaps the greatest respect you can pay to Bigger Than The Game is to say that it is a very good baseball book even though it contains very little baseball. The majority of it takes place where Hayhurst has always been most at home: in his mind, not on the mound.

That praise given, here is an item of criticism that may seem persnickety at first. Bigger Than The Game is probably the most sloppily edited book I’ve ever read, even allowing for the “Advance Uncorrected Proof” disclaimer on the review copy. There are legion typos, and they are glaringly bad in some cases: not just “viles” for “vials,” to take a representative example, but also “Hemmingway.”

This is not Hayhurst’s fault. He is not a trained or vastly experienced writer (although his prose has improved). We read him for his personal-journal insight, and for his insider knowledge, not for his literary facility, his syntax, or his spelling, and it’s doubtful that even Hayhurst himself would claim otherwise. The work he submitted to his publisher was sound enough; his editor, whether distracted from or under-qualified for the work, did not shore it up. The editor was smaller than the game.

Perhaps a complaint about shoddy editing of an advance copy sounds insubstantial, but given the theme of Hayhurst’s book, it’s appropriate. Bigger Than The Game is, ultimately, about the failure of support systems. The narrative mostly recounts the 2010 season, all of which Hayhurst spent injured: first physically, when his shoulder fell apart; then psychologically, when his mechanical inability to pitch, and his difficulties dealing with it (and with some elements of the Toronto Blue Jays’ clubhouse and culture), got into his head and sent him into an emotional tailspin. Many doctors, teammates, coaches and others, who were supposed to support and improve Hayhurst’s work and his health as a pitcher, either neglected or undermined it; his baseball typos, so to speak, and the busted structure of his shoulder, were left unfixed.

Not long before the 2010 season started, Hayhurst felt a pop in his shoulder. Bigger Than The Game details the gory (after)math, as Russell Carleton might put it, of this attack-from-within on Hayhurst’s labrum. He didn’t pitch at all that year and ended up in Birmingham, Alabama as one of the famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews’ many rehab projects. One of the best details of Hayhurst’s book is Andrews’ habit of walking into a room and beginning his examination by smacking Hayhurst upside the head multiple times. It works as both a character description for Andrews and as a metaphor for what was happening to Hayhurst at the time: Life was smacking him around. Rather than run to his momma, which is what most of us do, Hayhurst took refuge in the soothing of painkillers, which he began abusing during the summer of 2010.

A slap in the face can also be a wakeup call. Hayhurst’s debut book, The Bullpen Gospels, came out around Opening Day in 2010, hit the bestseller list, and made him instantly famous. As Bigger Than The Game goes on, we see Hayhurst discover that a second career is calling him. It’s not truly that he’s bigger than the game; he’s different from the game. In his earlier books, Hayhurst had wrestled with his discomfort with clubhouse culture and his tortured attempts to “belong.” Here, he recognizes that he doesn’t belong, and finally that he no longer needs to try. He belongs somewhere else: not solely on the page, but in a life unique to him that partakes of both sports and writing. Self-acceptance, not ballgames or even royalties, is what Hayhurst eventually wins here.

That’s why the deepest and most satisfying parts of Bigger Than The Game connect to Hayhurst’s conflicted sense of self—his own and others’. He discovers that many if not most athletes suffer from uncertainty and insecurity about their identities. The discovery is clinched late in the book, when Hayhurst shares time at Dr. Andrews’ clinic with WWE wrestler “Triple H.” This is a multi-chapter set piece that includes some wacky-misunderstanding hilarity when Hayhurst takes to Twitter and divulges information he probably shouldn’t about Triple H’s orthopedic health.

But the comedy points to a more serious conclusion in the clinic, when an unguarded Triple H speaks frankly and even a little gloomily to Hayhurst about the bitterer realities of the WWE life. It’s a truism that pro wrestling seems like an overscripted “sport” in which the participants come off as fictional characters rather than athletes; but the final scene with Triple H drives home the point that all professional athletes—anyone, really, who holds down a job that involves significant public exposure—are “just grown men putting on costumes and playing children’s games,” Hayhurst writes. (See The Great Vizzini’s Wallace Shawn’s engaging essay, “Why I Call Myself A Socialist,” for a fuller and more political treatment of this phenomenon.)

For Hayhurst, the splintering of character is even more complicated. There’s “Dirk Hayhurst” on the mound pitching, and there’s a different “Dirk Hayhurst” writing books and appearing on television and tweeting as The Garfoose. There’s yet another Dirk Hayhurst (presumably without quotation marks) who goes home to his wife and dissects the effects of protein shake flavors on fart aromas—and of those farts’ effects on the romantic mood (that’s in the book, too). Deeper down still is the Dirk Hayhurst who sleeps through a springtime of private agonies and anxieties over his injury-halted pitching career in an oxycodone-and-alcohol stupor.

Baseball Prospectus folk, and the whole sabermetric community, tend to be primarily concerned with numbers and analysis. We are well served by Bigger Than The Game’s clear reminder that these big-league performers we measure by WARP, and these unfinished prospects we videotape and rate and pigeonhole and argue over, are very real people who are forced to negotiate the vast distance between themselves and the roles they play. Some of these roles are imposed upon them without their permission. The reminder Hayhurst’s book issues is especially timely during fantasy-draft season, when players become more abstract than ever: commodities to be bought and sold based on narrow statistical projections—not even who the players are, but who we predict they might be.

It doesn’t help that many ballplayers, especially (but not only) the young ones, are “untested, immature, and naïve minds,” as Hayhurst writes, ill-equipped for intense public scrutiny. Yet even major leaguers are subject to anxiety and doubt about their identities. One of the most revealing scenes in Bigger Than The Game—perhaps even more revealing than Hayhurst intends—portrays a meeting in the Blue Jays’ locker room in 2009. Rumors were flying that Roy Halladay was going to be traded (which he was, but not until after the season ended), and a fake Twitter account had “confirmed” a trade to the White Sox. A Major League Baseball security rep held forth—“We’re going to get that fucker”—first making sure none of Halladay’s teammates was the Twitter imposter. (“A few sets of eyes lingered expectantly on me,” Hayhurst observes: his habit of carrying around a voice recorder and a notebook had earned him a loose-lips reputation.) The MLB rep gives the players a mixed message: first he tells them to be careful on Twitter because “saying stupid stuff… can really hurt your career.” Then he advises those who don’t have Twitter accounts—Hayhurst claims to have been the first Blue Jay to have one, so presumably just about all of his teammates in 2009 did not—to open one.

“Think about going on [Twitter] to make sure your name isn’t being used, or saving it [your name] for yourself,” the rep says. “This way, even if you don’t use it, no one else can be you.”

It sounds like simple advice—even allowing for the inherent contradiction and temptation involved in opening a Twitter account and then trying not to use it to any great purpose. But it isn’t simple at all. How does a ballplayer choose to represent himself? It’s advisable to make it so “no one else can be you,” but can you “be you”? And what is the best way to interact with fans? (“Fans have perceptions of us,” one of Hayhurst’s teammates cautions.) How does he maintain a healthy distance between himself and the celebrity role he’s forced to inhabit, and refrain from lashing out at often unfair, mean-spirited criticism? Many ballplayers aren’t savvy enough to walk the public line. “They were worried they were going to get impersonated,” Hayhurst writes of his teammates in the locker-room meeting with the MLB rep, but the deeper problem is that, to some degree, many of them were already struggling to impersonate themselves. “All these guys were so gripped with fear,” Hayhurst observes, “the best they could hope for was that the imposter was more articulate and thoughtful than the genuine article.” The fear mutates into paranoia, which partially explains Hayhurst’s teammates’ vehement objections to his writing about them.

Bigger Than The Game flashes back from Hayhurst’s injury-lost 2010 to the 2009 season, Hayhurst’s second (and last) in the majors. He pitched in 15 games that year for the Toronto Blue Jays, 60 percent of his career appearances. It doesn’t take long for Hayhurst to run afoul of a few of his teammates, who discover that he carries a voice recorder with him. (Most of the Blue Jays, it should be said, don’t seem to care at all; those are the secure ones, comfortable in the roles they play.) Adepts of the game will have fun solving the aliases Hayhurst invents for his enemies. He prefaces the book by disclaiming that “some characters are composites” and that he has concealed some of the dramatis personae’s identities.

Yet the alias Hayhurst gives B.J. Ryan, “TJ Collins,” is so transparent that it actually does the opposite of what it’s nominally intended to do—makes it quite obvious who he really is—and it seems like a deliberate salvo fired at his former teammate. Another, later antagonist, “Brice Jared,” is strongly suggestive of Rommie Lewis, a reliever who flamed out after a career even shorter than Hayhurst’s. Jared calls Hayhurst “Media”—as in, “Hey, Media”—a nickname derived from Jared’s regular grievances that Hayhurst, who in 2010 was trying to promote The Bullpen Gospels, had a habit of distracting attention from teammates by “whoring out to the media.” Ironically, Jared shows up at Andrews’ clinic with shoulder inflammation around the same time Hayhurst is getting out.

“Collins,” “Jared” and some others take Hayhurst to task for his need for attention that seems, well, bigger than the game. Their ire isn’t surprising. In this context, the operative word of “ball club” is “club,” and they fear that Hayhurst is exposing it, perhaps the biggest taboo of all. A few times, his teammates worry aloud that Hayhurst is going to put them in his next book. He takes pains to soothe their anxiety, but that’s exactly what he’s about to do. Hayhurst may be “out of my league,” as the title of his previous book put it, but he’s no innocent here. His willingness to portray himself as an accomplice to his own ostracization—as a gadfly and contrarian—is as gutsy as it is occasionally unappealing. (And it’s gutsy, too, and touching, to admit that he had to fight back tears more than once in clubhouse conflicts: crying in baseball!)

Hayhurst is not the quiet wallflower we often imagine writers to be. He provokes and contests, here interrogating a teammate’s extreme (and apparently ludicrous) superstitions, there questioning the desultory methods of his (clearly uncaring) clubhouse trainer. With tensions coming to a boil, he tells his archenemy Brice Jared to “go fuck yourself,” getting the last word in before striding out of the clubhouse to avoid a fistfight. Nor was Hayhurst’s oppositional demeanor limited only to the clubhouse or his playing days. As a broadcaster last year, his criticism of the Blue Jays’ J.P. Arencibia so angered Arencibia that the struggling catcher took to the airwaves and fired back at his former teammate. Later in 2013, Hayhurst’s televised analysis (along with WTBS colleague Tom Verducci) of David Price’s poor performance in game two of the ALDS playoffs set off a minor “SAVE IT NERDS” firestorm.

Around the same time, the icy glare Verducci fixed on Hayhurst when Hayhurst peremptorily disagreed with him showed the effect Hayhurst’s manner can have on his colleagues. Hayhurst is a natural provocateur. He has a knack, an irrepressible gift (or curse) for getting under people’s skin. That habit of Hayhurst’s is what gives Bigger Than The Game its dramatic tension: He is never very far from stirring up trouble. The book even ends with him threatening, right to the face of Tampa Bay Rays general manager Andrew Friedman, to “burn down every one of you” if the Rays, who have a notoriously secretive front office, release him. He’s joking, but the joke has a Hayhurstian edge. The Rays did release him, and you figure that book is probably next.

I’m keen to read it. I spent some time around Hayhurst when he was in the Rays organization. They signed him to a minor-league contract before the 2011 season and put him in the starting rotation for the Triple-A Durham Bulls, the team I covered. He pitched well early on—he even took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of a game in mid-April—but arm soreness sent him to the disabled list after just four starts. He came back in June, was ineffective despite some extra days off between starts, and was shut down again in early July.

Hayhurst was never sent down to the Rays’ training complex in Florida, where injured ballplayers usually go if it’s clear they aren’t going to be healthy enough to play in short order. The reason Hayhurst stayed in Durham may have been that his injury went undiagnosed, which created two potential concerns for him: one, that awful feeling that comes from not knowing what’s wrong with you, or how serious the injury is; two, that you’ll be thought of as faking or jaking it. Hayhurst hung around with the Bulls for most of the summer, unable to do much of anything except sit in the stands during games and take video of his teammates—not for his own use as a writer, but for the Rays’ internal scouts and analysts. The front office wanted footage of their Triple-A pitchers in action, and Hayhurst’s arm was at least healthy enough to hold a camcorder, so they put him to work that way. During games, while the Bulls were at bat and there was nothing to record, Hayhurst would sometimes wander around the stands. A few times, he stood or sat by me and we chatted a little. Almost invariably, after a few minutes, his voice would take on an edge and his commentary might turn mordant or mildly needling.

The Bullpen Gospels, Hayhurst’s debut, was more than a year old by then, and Out of My League was two years away from release, so his author celebrity was fading. Some bitterness about that was understandable, and certainly the restlessness athletes feel when they aren’t healthy enough to play must have contributed to Hayhurst’s visibly disaffected mood, as well. But he seemed bluer and blacker than his immediate circumstances appeared to warrant. There was no way to know, at the time, that Hayhurst was coming off such a difficult 2010. Reading Bigger Than The Game imparts a deeper appreciation for what Hayhurst might have been going through in that summer of 2011. He had nearly retired after 2010, made the choice to keep playing, and now was paying a heavy price for the decision: He could neither pitch at all nor write full-time, caught in career limbo and in disabled-list limbo as well. He was in a new organization where he probably had little familiarity with most of his new teammates, and the 2011 Bulls seemed like a rather disjointed clubhouse anyway, perhaps not the easiest of teams to get comfortable with as a newcomer (especially a newcomer with a publishing history).

When Hayhurst’s mysterious elbow ailment cropped up almost immediately after the season started in 2011, it is easy to imagine how troubling this might have been for him, as it sent him back toward the emotional turmoil catalyzed by his injury in 2010. He may have regretted his choice to try to play again, as all it did was further delay the transition into his much stronger second career. Bigger Than The Game collects and arranges all the inner emotional cargo Hayhurst was carrying around with him just before coming to Durham, and it inspires more retrospective sympathy for him that season than he probably got at the time. His struggles in 2011 had all of 2010’s trials behind them.

On August 28, 2011, Hayhurst, who hadn’t played in seven weeks, published a new post on his blog. It was called “For the Like of the Game,” and it showed a further and perhaps irreconcilable disillusionment with baseball. “I have come to understand,” he wrote, “that playing baseball professionally is as much about keeping up pretenses as it is [about] keeping your ERA down.” Injured, there was nothing he could do about his ERA, so he took aim at the pretenses instead. Of Durham, whose Bull Durham mythology didn’t change his experience of playing there, he wrote:

Do I love it here? No. It’s not the big leagues, it’s not my hometown, and it’s not a dreamscape where reality doesn’t factor in. Do I like it here? Yes, it’s a great place to work, the fans are great, and the sleeper buses beat the red-eye flights in the PCL any day. Would I trade this experience for anything else in the world? Well, the world has a lot to offer—if it puts something good on the table, I’ll give it a look and let you know.

Two days later, the Rays released him, and it was hard not to see a connection. In the comments under the blog post, a reader asked, “Did this article cost you your job?”

“Probably,” Hayhurst replied.

But it also helped put something good on the table, and Hayhurst has been devouring it ever since. His new diet, and his new book, have put him—dare I say—in the best shape of his life.

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Adam's other articles. You can contact Adam by clicking here

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