I recently chatted with former Padres, Blue Jays, and Rays right-hander Dirk Hayhurst about baseball, his new book, and his upcoming move to Italy. I've talked to Dirk (who has a blog and is active on Twitter as TheGarfoose) a few times over the years, and it's always good to catch up with a fellow “Monty Python” fan. (Sadly, we did not discuss “Python” this time, so you'll have to settle for Sir Not Appearing in This Interview.)
We did discuss Dirk's decision to make Italy the next stop in his baseball career. This strikes some people as an unusual choice, but Dirk views it as an adventure. Although he has never been to Italy, he looks forward to working and living in a country whose culture moves at a more relaxed pace than the United States.
Among the reasons Dirk cites for making the move is the fact that Italians have a radically different outlook on baseball. It is less of a business there, with more emphasis being placed on fun, which is as he believes it should be with sports.
Teams in the Italian Baseball League are allowed to have a limited number of foreign players (four as of 2010, according to the league web site) on the roster. They are typically the best players in a league that Dirk puts between High-A and Double-A. “Players have day jobs.”
Dirk consulted with others who have taken their skills to Europe. He noted that Kyle Farnsworth's brother, Jeff, played in Italy last year. Jeff Farnsworth pitched for Danesi Nettuno, Dirk's new team, which went 25-17 and finished fourth out of eight in 2011. (Former big-league pitcher Kris Wilson also played on that club, finishing fourth in the league with a 1.68 ERA. A quick check of the leaderboards reveals a smattering of other former big-leaguers: Edgard Clemente, Darwin Cubillan, and Josh Phelps.)
“Taking a step back” and looking at his career objectively also factored in Dirk’s decision. He found himself asking, “Why am I chasing this dream?” With a wife and potential family to consider, his perspective had shifted. He discovered that what got him into baseball wasn't what was keeping him in the game at age 30. Dirk noted that it is “easy to rationalize the pursuit of a dream” and that depending on where you are in life, “having a dream can be noble or it can be selfish.”
He asked himself a battery of questions: “Do I believe I can pitch in the big leagues? Yes. Could it take a long time? Yes—at least a year or more, and I'd have to hope others ahead of me got hurt. Could it not happen at all? Yes.” This honest self-assessment may not have helped advance Dirk's career in a conventional manner, but it did lead him to explore opportunities that others might have dismissed or ignored altogether.
“I'm not stepping out of baseball,” he noted, “just the big leagues.” For Dirk, the game and the promise of fame it bestows on its brightest weren't the answers. Although he acknowledged that he could earn more by working to return to the majors, he also opined that he would need that money so he could spend it on things to distract him from how miserable he was in that environment. By playing in Italy, he can achieve what he calls “sustainable happiness” by earning enough to support himself and his family while still being able to enjoy life.
Besides, if nothing else, he will get a book out of the experience. And he promises there will be a book based on his time in Italy. He even threatened to play in other European leagues and write books about his experiences in those as well.
As for the North American part of his journey, Dirk, a former eighth-round pick out of Kent State, finally reached the big leagues in 2008 after being considered a fringe prospect for many years. He got into a handful of games for a Padres team that lost 99 games, but was placed on waivers after the season and claimed by the Blue Jays. He enjoyed some success in a brief 2009 stint in Toronto before missing 2010 due to shoulder surgery.
On the bright side, Dirk had his first book, The Bullpen Gospels, published that same year. It became a New York Times bestseller and helped launch a second career as a writer, which he finds fulfilling because, “In baseball, people forget you when you're gone. The written word endures and inspires.”
In continued pursuit of that dream, and on the strength of his first book, Dirk has a follow-up due out at the end of February. Out of My League features more of the behind-the-scenes humor that made The Bullpen Gospels a favorite, but packs a stronger emotional punch.
One of Dirk's goals as a writer is to humanize athletes, who often are seen as larger-than-life figures due to the value our society places on entertainment and entertainers. Behind the fame and fortune are people who go through all the same things the rest of us do, only with a lot more folks watching. “Failure in sport wrecks your identity, and you take it out on your family. Highs are high in the big leagues, but failures are massive and crushing.” It's a side of the sport that many fans do not or cannot bring themselves to see.
Dirk's values as a writer and as a person don't always mesh well with what is expected of him as a professional athlete. While he was recovering from surgery in 2010, the fact that he had written a book and that it was doing well didn't always endear him to teammates. He says that guys “cornered” him and told him to apologize to the team. Dirk apparently had violated some rule that was both unwritten and unquestioned.
Still, even though it isn't the easiest or most expected path, he believes that he can make more of an impact at the keyboard than on the mound. “You can change someone's entire life with writing. No one says, 'I watched Halladay throw a bullpen and it changed my life.’”
As for his own baseball career, Dirk again is self-effacing and honest to a degree not often seen from professional athletes. He laments that he didn't look at his own career with enough self-confidence, noting that when you're working your way up through the ranks, you are constantly worried about what other people—scouts, writers, “the brass”—think about you. Because of such concerns, Dirk admits, “I didn't enjoy it as much as I could have.”
In the end, Dirk feels that writing is a better fit for his personality. So much of a professional athlete's focus is on doing one thing and one thing only. That doesn't suit Dirk, who prefers to keep doors open and experience all that life has to offer. If that entails playing baseball in Italy and writing about it, so much the better for him and those of us who read his books.
As goals go, it's a pretty good one. Almost as good as achieving sustainable happiness.