Interview with Dirk Hayhurst

In happier times with the Padres

Dirk Hayhurst was drafted by San Diego out of Kent State in 2003 and spent six long years in their minor league system before finally getting a brief shot with the Padres in 2009.

But that is not what made Dirk famous.

It was his book published last year, Bullpen Gospels, which chronicled his time with the Lake Elsinore Storm and San Antonio Missions during the 2007 season.

What differentiated his story from others was that it was told from the point of view of someone that was considered a "non-prospect", which was also the title of his column for Baseball America, and dealt honestly with just how tough lives are in the minors for players with little money and a slim chances of making the big leagues.

The book became a New York Times' bestseller lauded by everyone from Sports Illustrated's Peter King to liberal political pundit Keith Olbermann. Because of its success it spawned a sequel, Out of My League,about his tenure with the AAA Portland Beavers and his brief stay with San Diego.

While Out of My League is also about the minors, its not the same book as The Bullpen Gospels. This time the setting is in Pacific Coast League, which is the netherworld of professional baseball. Rightly or wrongly, most players believe they should be in the majors and by now have had their fill of surviving on $16,000 a year and rundown apartments.

Also, better than any book I am familiar with, it shows the tremendous gap between AAA and the major leagues. Between ordering hundred dollar breakfasts at luxury hotels in San Francisco to having work at Circuit City in the off-season to have money to visit his girlfriend.

After his time with the Padres Dirk went onto to pitch with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010 and with the Durham Bulls (AAA) in the Tampa Bay Rays organization last season before being released.

Injuries seem to have shortened his chances of returning to the majors and instead, at thirty, he is off to Danesi Nettuno in the Italian Baseball League but before he departed he gave us a few minutes to talk about his new book and time with a bad Padres team.

Quite a few people are going to think this is kind of a repeat of Bullpen Gospels but I found Out of My League about a really different aspect of baseball because it is about Triple-A.

How is Triple-A so much different than the rest of the minors?

Dirk Hayhurst: It's unique that your immediate goal is right in front of you. You start to get bitter when you see that certain guys are moved up ahead of you that you believe you have outperformed; why him and not me?

It's also where you first start to encounter some older guys who have gone back and forth between the big leagues that are actually making a living out of playing the game. Most of the guys on the roster have been to the big leagues so they have seen the Wizard of Oz and know what it is. They are not going to approach the game as a wide-eyed rookie.

They you start to think that I should be in the big leagues and not here and it can lead to a really bad environment if you are not careful.

For example when I came up briefly with the Portland in 2007 for a few games they were know as "the Bitter Beavers" because so many guys thought they should be with the big club.

When you get called up to the Padres it's really a strange experience. The money is great and just making it is quite an accomplishment. [Of the 50 players selected by San Diego in the 2003 draft six made the majors and with the exception of current Padre Tim Stauffer, all for a very short period of time).

On the other hand it seemed an incredibly uncomfortable place to be. Was it the pressure to perform what made it the most uncomfortable for you?

Dirk Hayhurst: I just could not tune everything out. It was strange because I was both living my dream and ruining it at the same time. I kept thinking this was my shot and I just couldn't make the game small; going pitch to pitch.

If you take out two types of players, the ones that are so arrogant that they think they should dominate anywhere and the others that aren't smart enough to realize what is happening; you have to break down the game to the smallest levels because the enormity of it is just huge. If you don't you are going to get killed, which is what happened to me.

Throw in the fact that I've struggled somewhat with anxiety and depression and I just couldn't turn it off. That was the toughest thing and the minors don't prepare you for it because you can't really learn to deal with the pressure until you get up here, where it's much bigger and meaner. Everything you do is going to be magnified and at the same time it is what you have wanted your whole life.

When people stop talking to you in the clubhouse it's either because you are not liked or your performance makes you irrelevant. The particular team that I was on, the '09 Padres was particularly toxic. When you are up in the big leagues you start to think that you have graduated to some type of "godhood" status and if one of the other guys is not performing, especially a rookie, then you aren't going to get any respect in the clubhouse.

There were some guys that were really nice but on the other hand we had so many rookies up that year and with the team not doing well changes were going to be made, so not everyone was in the best of moods.

To me it seemed like everyone had a judgment or comment on what you were doing at all times and it just made me think that there were two ways to survive. Either play really well, which I wasn't doing or kiss as much as ass as I could, which I attempted to do.

And that didn't always work either.

One of the better parts of the book is when you casually bring up to another young player that maybe you guys could make a little less on the big league level and more money could be sent to the minor league players which he doesn't really approve off?

Why is there so little concern among big league players about what guy in the minors make?

Dirk Hayhurst: Because it is an individual job. It's about you even though it's a team game. The romantic concept is that everyone is just playing for each other but the reality is everyone is playing for themselves. You have to be because if you are not performing you are removed.

In my estimation I can see why they would think that the players in the majors deserve everything but at the same time it is just amazingly lopsided. So many players are really suffering to try to reach their dream and for many the financial aspects of it just become too much and they leave. Others find a way to get it done.

I'm glad I made when I did because I don't know how many more years I could have gone playing for what I did in the minors.

What I have always found most interesting about you is that one of your greatest strengths is to be very self-critical about what you can and can't do. In my opinion that is how you made it the majors.

However on the other hand you seem to have quite a few problems with outside criticism or even commentary on how you pitched – be it from your family, media or even Bonnie. Isn't that just part of the deal with being a professional athlete?

Dirk Hayhurst: It's a game that is seen by so many but really understood by so few. My parents always see me as the high school athlete and it's so rare that you have talked to someone in your shoes. People mean the best but when you are angry about not having a good performance it's tough.

Even when someone is nice and trying to help you it doesn't work because you don't believe that they are connected to the process. Also as you go higher you start to realize that there are people that want to give you advice because it means something much more to them as opposed to you.

I thought the biggest strengths of both books is that you are not afraid to make yourself look bad if it attempts to convey the point that you are trying to make.

For example when you were with the Padres Darren Balsley, who is fairly popular in San Diego,comes across as rather cold and aloof but at the same time you are pretty hard on yourself too for not pitching well.

I thought as a reader what was interesting you can see Balsley's point that it is about results but on the other hand he's not doing much to help either. As a writer was that your goal to let the reader make up his mind on who may or may not be wrong?

Dirk Hayhurst: I wanted to create that atmosphere. Most of the time I thought he hated me and every once in awhile I would spot a crack in his facade. I never knew which the real Darren was; he was allergic to ass kissing, which I tried.

I wanted him to be like Abby [Glenn Abbott, the pitching coach with the Portland Beavers] to be this type of self-encouraging entity but he wasn't and that wasn't really his job either.

When you are a big league coach you are really much more of a facilitator, someone to count pitches, monitor health and maybe do some minor tweaking with mechanics. The younger guys look at them like gods and it's hard for them to shift gears and morph into those roles as kind of a cheerleader. That isn't what they do.

Balsley tended to like guys that didn't have needy personalities like me. He put the burden on me to figure out what I needed to do to survive and it was a really brutal experience.

I remember leaving the team that year just being scarred of playing pro ball. However if it wasn't for him and forcing me to become more sure of myself if I was going to play again I never would have had the success I did the next year with the Jays.

It's strange I kind of have one hand that want to shake his hand and the other one is a fist.

You are going to go play baseball in Italy this year and you probably have quite a few more options about what to do outside of the game than the time of your life that is described in both of your books.

What still makes you want to pitch because at times it seems it's very much a love-hate affair?

Dirk Hayhurst: I really play now more for the experiences. For me it's not the game but the lifestyle around the game. I've never been an obsessive fan of baseball but have always liked the human elements of the game. If I can experience some awesome stuff while I'm playing that is good, the roar of the crowd is really fleeting for me, but it's what I am.

Most of my life I thought making it to the top would fulfill me and while it was a great experience I realized there was so much more that I wanted. The big desire that for me is adventure and some of my best experiences were in the minors. The big leagues became more dehumanizing; the shield of money kind of put a curtain between me and normal folks which I didn't like.

We tend to equate celebrity, wealth and power with happiness and it's not. I was lucky enough to learn that and I'm happy.

No matter how good you are, you can only play in the big leagues for so long and you have to figure out what you're going to do to make the rest of your life exciting.

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