It was screenwriting guru Syd Field who introduced, to the best of my knowledge, the notion of the cinematic “plot point.” Hollywood movies have two of these, the first coming roughly a third of the way in, the second two thirds through. Watch any mainstream cinema product, and you can practically set your watch by them.
Dirk Hayhurst’s second memoir, Out of My League (Citadel Press, 406 pp.), the follow-up to his best-selling debut, The Bullpen Gospels, is expertly constructed just like a movie. The plot points are easy to spot. We arrive at the first on page 126, when Hayhurst finds out, after much suspense in 2008 spring training, that he has made the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A club in Portland, Ore.
There follows a traditional Hollywood midsection, a “confrontation” period (as Field calls it), the long stretch during which Hayhurst strives and excels on the mound all summer long. This narrative is conjoined to a secondary, but no less important, personal development, Hayhurst’s courtship of his girlfriend, Bonnie, which culminates in Hayhurst proposing to her, almost exactly halfway through the book, when she visits him in Portland. She says yes. That’s another movie move, to put a big event right at the midpoint.
To be honest, I found myself impatient and sometimes bored with Out of My League for much of its first two thirds. There’s nothing wrong with it at all, it’s just that it covers some of the same clubhouse-color territory already staked out in The Bullpen Gospels (and many other books, including Jim Bouton’s seminal Ball Four); and the subplot about the Hayhursts’ courtship has little drama in it. Bonnie agrees to marry Dirk well before he formally proposes, and she is compassionate, understanding, warm, and funny—great for Hayhurst, not as good for his narrative.
His scenes with Bonnie do, however, include the moment that is perhaps the book’s most revealing about Hayhurst. The way he eats pancakes, “pour[ing] syrup over cuts in the grid, ensuring each piece got optimal syrup penetration,” all the while paying only cursory attention to what he’s telling Bonnie, shows a man who is extraordinarily meticulous about even (especially) the most frivolous and frustrating pursuits—like pitching, for instance—and who is quite prone to overthinking it (as my colleague Ben Lindbergh is wont to do), even while he’s half-oblivious to more important things that might require his attention. This hyper-attentiveness to what is sometimes the wrong thing pops up in multiple places in the book.
The second plot point hits about 250 pages in: Hayhurst is called up to the major leagues, and the book’s grip tightens immensely. Hayhurst, a long reliever who had made three spot starts in his previous two minor-league seasons, is informed by the Beavers’ manager that he will be required to make another one—for the Padres, at AT&T Park in San Francisco. He’ll be filling in for the Padres’ regular starter, who is about to be traded (although Hayhurst doesn’t mention that). His name is Greg Maddux.
Yikes. Hayhurst passes a night of desperate anxiety in a posh San Francisco hotel room, although he is too overwrought to enjoy the perk. From there, Out of My League gets heavy, as Hayhurst is repeatedly shelled in his trial run with San Diego (he compiled a 9.72 ERA, which computes to a 40 ERA+, in 10 appearances in his 2008 debut) and struggles with his performance, his self-confidence, and the convoluted and often unwelcoming culture of the major-league clubhouse. Hayhurst finds himself out of his league in multiple ways.
This last third of the book has the grip and drama that the first 250 pages lack. It’s tempting to criticize it for its early flatness, but books written honestly contain the key to understanding how they work. In two different, but complementary, ways, Out of My League shows why it succeeds as written.
First, this key moment, an example of Hayhurst’s misplaced attention: not long after he is called up to San Diego, Hayhurst finds himself in conversation with a fellow Portland Beaver who had also been promoted, earlier in the season. The teammate, referred to as Bentley (a pseudonym), asks if Hayhurst is “enjoying your seven-and-seven”—the seven nights of luxury hotel plus per diem (about $1,000) provided gratis by the Padres by way of allowing callups to get settled in. Hayhurst is clearly overwhelmed by the extravagant treatment and isn’t even sure it should be granted:
“Maybe I’m wrong for thinking this, but it makes me wonder why there is such a huge gap between the guys up here and the guys in the minors. I mean if you just spread out the smallest portion of all this to the guys below, it would make their lives so much easier, don’t you think?”
“That’s a terrible idea,” said Bentley.
Moments later, Bentley explains:
“This is the only level you can make an impact at. It’s the only one that matters—the only one people care about. All the rest of that stuff is just practice to get here.”
“No buts.” He stopped me. “This is the only league that matters. Your career in baseball starts here.”
So it makes perfect sense that the minor-league portion of the book, its first 250 pages, lack the punch of the post-promotion finale. The first two thirds of Out of My League are “just practice,” the long unsexy toil toward the big time, which is where Hayhurst’s book begins anew. When he joins the Padres, it all kicks in: the pressure, the stakes and the trauma are ratcheted up to almost unbearable—to major-league—levels, and Hayhurst comes close to collapsing altogether. (Hayhurst is clearly susceptible to extreme emotional responses: In an illuminating recent interview with the Toronto Star, Hayhurst is candid about the fallout from the 2009 injury that ended his first successful big-league season. After he went on the disabled list, he found himself belatedly ostracized by teammates for the supposed apostasy of The Bullpen Gospels, which had come out before the season started, and “there was a dark time where I really wanted to kill myself,” Hayhurst says. Around the same time, “I had some addiction issues as a result of some of the poor choices I had made.”)
Hayhurst wrote in The Bullpen Gospels that he was still a virgin in 2007, when he was 26, saving himself for marriage. Throughout his courtship of Bonnie the following season, he remains chaste, at times intransigently so: He shuts Bonnie down when she tries to jump the gun, so to speak, a night or two before he proposes to her. (The loins of his resolve are girded by the fact that his Triple-A roommate is asleep—along with his visiting wife and two children—in the adjacent bedroom.)
Thus Hayhurst is waiting for a pair of callups: one to the major leagues, and the other to marriage and the sex accompanying it. He’s a minor leaguer in both his public and private lives until late in the book. It’s a nifty parallel, so apt that it almost seems unintentional, but one appreciates that Hayhurst’s wedding takes place just after the season: not long after his first ascension to the Show—which goes miserably for him—he consummates his love with Bonnie. That scene is skipped, thankfully; but the next morning, after Bonnie tells him “last night was amazing,” Hayhurst responds, “What can I say, I’m a natural”—a regular Roy Hobbs in the sack.
I would like to know, though, whether the Padre Hayhurst calls “Jilly” who, on a team flight, strips down completely, fashions an airplane blanket into a cape, charges up and down the aisle, accosts a rookie with “his bagpipe dangling ominously before said rookie’s face,” screams in mock (or maybe half-mock) outrage, “I’m just tired of us dicking around!” and other exhortations, and whose “entire body was tan and shaven, and when I say entire body, I mean entire body,” Hayhurst notes, is Brian Giles.
And I would also like to watch Hayhurst eat pancakes sometime.