From the Quaz’s inception roughly 1 1/2 years ago, I’ve always had a clear, open, please-suggest-people-to-be-interviewed policy. And yet, save for a couple of folks nominating themselves (which leads to instant banishment), no one has taken me up on the offer.
Until a month ago. That’s when, out of the blue, a loyal reader named Ron Evans sent me an e-mail that read, simply, “I think you should try and get Dirk Hayhurst as a guest for the Quaz. His book has been a great read so far and I think he’d make a great guest.”
You speak, I (generally) listen.
A 31-year-old native Ohioan, Hayhurst was selected by San Diego in the eighth round of the 2003 June Draft, and proceeded to bounce around baseball, ultimately pitching 29 games with the Padres and Blue Jays. The journeyman experience—and, really, the ability to deftly chronicle and convey the journeyman experience—has made Hayhurst one of America’s best baseball writers. His first book, The Bullpen Gospels, spent time on the New York Times’ best-seller’s list, and his follow up, Out of My League, was published earlier this year.
Here, Hayhurst explains why so many ballplayers are egomaniacal jerks, why he was happy to leave the game and why dancing naked for Celine Dion sounds absolutely blissful. Dirk Tweets here (whether he likes it or not) and you can visit his site here.
Dirk Hayhurst, be The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Dirk, I’m gonna start with an untraditional one. I covered baseball for Sports Illustrated from 1997-ish through the 2002 season. At the time, I knew little about PED. Now, I feel like I know a lot. That, combined with eyes and common sense, make me feel comfortable in saying that certain guys, undeniably, cheated. Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa. In my opinion, it’s so insanely obvious, it’s a joke. And since baseball had no testing, well, there’s zero accountability. My question for you—am I wrong? Is it wrong to say, “It’s so obvious that guy used, I’m gonna write it”? Or, because the union avoided testing as long as humanly possible, is it fair to say, “Well, y’all didn’t test, so … hey …”
DIRK HAYHURST: I feel you on this one, Jeff. It’s hard to look at guys that have more in common with professional wrestlers than ballplayers and say to yourself, “This guy is just a natural specimen.” Bullcrap. There are so few bulbous, big-headed, mutants occurring naturally that I can’t, with a straight face, see one squeezed into a baseball uniform and say, “Oh, that’s just the way God made him.” Yeah, right, God and a couple of well-timed injections. And lets face it, that’s why this gladiator of the ballfield hasn’t blown up on the testing radar—timing. Timing, or the right cocktail super serum.
Either way, there is no accountability. There probably never will be. Not real, hold-your-feet-to-the-fire punishment. It’s not in our nature as a people to want accountability. Baseball is a microcosm of life. In real life, we cheat, we bend and break rules, we lie about our taxes, we fleece sick days, etc … we do shady things. Things that, if caught, could get us fired or brand us as criminals. If you get busted in baseball, you get branded as a cheater, and for fat million-dollar contract, you can call me a cheater all day long.
A cheater is not the same as a criminal. Until it is, expect people to cheat. Expect them to—much like the corporations in our world that trample human rights in the name of profit—rebrand cheating into “the pursuit for an edge,” “wanting to win sooo badly,” or “owing it to the fans to be the best they can be”.
Is it fair to say that someone didn’t use PEDs just because they didn’t get caught? No. But we’re talking fairness in an unfair system. It’s not cheating if you don’t get caught—that’s a line as old as the game. Players will keep trying to get an edge up, beating rules that even if you break have no real power to hurt you. Worst of all is the undeniable fact that, even those among us who cry ‘foul play’ the loudest are silenced if the player delivers us victory.
The system is broken, but it’s a system we made. Getting caught, not getting caught—it doesn’t really matter when you think of it that way. The punishment is like getting bit on the hand by a toothless dog that can’t see or smell as well as it used to, but hey, at least you have the dog.
J.P.: I’m fascinated by athletes who become writers—because, Lord knows, the opposite career shift never happens. When did you first think, “Dammit, I can write?” Were you always a dude with a pen? A diary? Etc? Or was there a light bulb moment? And can you possibly get me a Major League tryout? I can definitely hit 45 on the radar, and my slurve is nasty …
D.H.: I started writing because I didn’t believe I could make it in the game anymore. There was this point—the wake-up-on-grandma’s-floor-broke point—that made me wonder if the dreams I’d held about baseball and it’s ability to answer all of life’s questions were true.
I guess I thought baseball was some kind of social religion. In many ways it is. People love it, follow it, act like they know how it’s supposed to be played. Act like how you play it says something about your inner qualities. Quotes from early baseball prophets are passed down to our young. And, success or failure in it reflects blessing. Kinda unnerving how much people put into a glorified game of chance.
And thanks to that chance and it’s assumed meaning, there will always be those who ask you how good you are. What you’re worth. What your numbers are. If you answer that you’re very talented, they become more interested. If you answer that you’re not, they think you’re trash.
In a game of ‘What have you done lately,’ I hadn’t done much. This made me feel like less of a person to everyone around me, including myself. I went from stardom with a bright future just after being drafted, to being a bottom forgettable name in an A-ball bullpen five years later.
It was hard on me. Not the fall, but the consequent shattering of my paradigm when I hit bottom.
I started writing because I was looking for purpose. It was my ladder out of the pit I’d fallen into. I needed to write down what I was feeling, what the world I was in was telling me I should feel, and sort things out. Baseball is the window through which I’ve viewed most of my life and so I use it as a reference point, but I don’t think of it as a solution to anything anymore. I just see it as an occupation. I’m more than what I do. We all are. I think that realization saved me a lot of grief.
In a lot of ways, I think I write for the same reasons a lot of people do anything: to find purpose.
J.P.: You’re a young dude—31. Is it weird being a retired baseball player? What I mean is, for 99% of people 31 is way early in the career. Do ballplayers go into the Majors assuming it’ll be quick? Or is there a normal, awkward adjustment to the realization that, “Dang, I’m done”?
D.H.: I’ve wanted to be done for a while, actually. I loved baseball, but it was something I’d done since I could stand up and throw stuff at the dog. I miss certain experiences the game can provide, but I don’t miss it like some guys I know who are retired.
A few days ago, in a bar, I ran into a guy I knew from college. He played indy ball for a while and then started coaching. He can’t stop talking about the game. He chewed my ear off about it. Actually cleared out a section of the place to demonstrate pitching mechanics he was teaching, hoping I could give him some pointers. His wife, who he neglected for the better part of two hours, had to reign in him. When this friend finally took a bathroom break, she leaned over the bar and said to me, “I’ve been a baseball widow ever since I married him.” That stuck with me.
I’ve never been so invested in the game that I could justify tuning out the world around me. The people, the experiences, the deep, uncomfortable thoughts. You know, life. I can’t tune it out. I’d take it out on the mound with me—a place baseball people will tell you it’s not supposed to go—and wrestle with it even while I was wrestling the other team.
Life is bigger than the game and I couldn’t rationalize life being in service of the game. The game had to be in service of it. All my attempts to make it the other way around met dismal ends. I see of a lot of rich unhappy guys in the game. Guys who make it to the top and feel this vacancy inside because they have it all and yet they really don’t have much.
In order to make it the game for any length of time, you have to sell out to it. It demands you sacrifice a lot—some things are obvious, some things you don’t realize you’re giving up until it’s gone.
I guess I got tired of giving up a lot of my life. Some might say there is no life outside of baseball, or that the life outside of baseball is filled with regrets once you walk away. I refuse to accept that. Baseball is great, but there has to be more to life that it, or life is a pretty bleak thing, and I don’t believe that.
J.P.: In 2003 you were drafted in the eighth round by the San Diego Padres out of Kent State. What do you recall about that moment? How did you find out? How did you feel? Were you confident you’d have a Major League future? Or were you just happy to hear your name?
D.H.: After I was told, I was happy, but in that way a person gets when they’re both thrilled and unsure about what happens next.
My mom decided we should celebrate. We were poor so we went to this dive Chinese restaurant where you order everything via numbers. I had a number 15. It came on a Styrofoam plate. My mom cried. She stood up and told everyone in the place—all of them eating from their Styrofoam cups and plates with plastic knives and forks—”My son is going to be professional baseball player!” There was a poorly coordinated clap, then everyone went back to eating. My mom sat down beaming like she’d just uncorked champagne at a five star restaurant and bought a round for everyone.
I think every kid who gets drafted is confident he’s going to have a Major League future. Hell, why get drafted if you only believe you’re going to play in the Cactus League and then get a bus ticket home? You have to believe. You have to believe so hard you lie to yourself. Which, come to think of it, may just be why so many kids are crushed when it doesn’t work out.
J.P.: I’m fascinated by something: You’re with the Padres—sun, fun, beautiful neck of the woods. Then—bam—you go to Toronto. In other words, you blazed the path Jose Reyes and his Marlins pals are following. I’m always puzzled by how ballplayers don’t seem to give a damn about geography; that you go where you go. But San Diego to Toronto? Didn’t that sorta suck?
D.H.: Well, the geography that matters is always the same: bases, rubber, plate. Sometimes there are a few unique dimensions that make you scratch your head, but they all serve the same purpose.
Location has never been a factor for me. People, organization, attitude—Those are what matter. The San Diego clubhouse, at least when I was there, was so infested with social cancer it’s a wonder the whole team wasn’t on chemo. There were a lot of great people there, and a lot of not so greats … It was a losing environment with a lot of big egos. Those two things are never fun to be around. Especially not when you’re a wide-eyed rookie just happy to be there. They all stare at you like, “What they hell are you happy about? We suck!”
I liked Toronto because it was, as a town and as a team, much more accepting and inviting. I missed the beach and the weather San Diego had, but the people more than made up for it.
J.P.: Your first book, The Bullpen Gospels, came out on March 30, 2010—and really caught a buzz. Did you expect such? Hell, did you have any expectations whatsoever? How torturous was the writing process for you? And how do you go about writing? Coffee shop and a laptop? Pad and a corner of your house?
D.H.: I didn’t expect it to do as well as it did, that’s for sure. In fact, I didn’t expect it to do well at all. I expected to get fired for it.
Before I even put the book together, when I was writing the Non-Prospect Diaries for Baseball America, I took a lot of flack from my teammates for writing. Like most baseball players, they thought I would write about stuff that would expose them and their naughty, off-the-record habits. This paranoia turned into death threats and promises of ass kickings and a whole slew violence-slanted male bravado.
I found myself in a tough spot. I wanted to keep writing because I believed I had something to say. And, if I wanted what I had to say to reach anyone, I had to write in a public format. I’d never get the offer to write a book if people didn’t think I had something worth writing, or showed the world that I could write. That’s why I started writing on the Internet. I could take notes in a dark corner all season long, but those notes would eventually have to get someone’s attention. Obviously they got a lot of players’ attention. Fortunately, they got a publisher’s attention as well.
I actually wrote everything in The Bullpen Gospels on notepads, long hand, and then transcribed it to digital format. Guys would see me scribbling in my little note pads and make their jokes, but I kept it up. I’m glad I did. I’m very proud of the book even though it did make teams weary of me. To this day, some teams still are, and I’m retired.
I get a lot of letters from people who have been strongly impacted by the material. That makes all the crap I went through to write it worth it.
J.P.: Your Tweets are fantastic. Just fantastic—raw, funny. I’m wondering, as a writer, if you dig the medium, or find it a necessary evil? Do you think 140-character is a skill, or nonsense? And do you think Tweeting has been good for open, intelligent dialogue, or awful?
D.H.: I think Tweeting is a necessary evil. I hate it, actually. Maybe that’s why I Tweet so raw. I hate feeling like I must always be entertaining to this throng of faceless, fake-named, digital citizens because I need them to buy my product. It’s even worse now. The publishing houses monitor my Tweets. So do potential media employers. It’s a gauge of a person’s “reach” and the more reach the better the chance that person has of selling something, which, in turn, gauges how much you’ll get paid.
I understand and accept it. It’s mostly an ideological thing that leaves me shaking my fist. I feel like the impetus to create should be your desire to express yourself, not because you have some digital yoke strapped on you, forcing you to tread out entertainment to maintain relevance.
I think I have a problem with digital media as a whole. Yeah, yeah … I know it’s been useful for mankind and Social Network was a good movie, but, frankly, I don’t want to know what everyone is thinking all the time. I don’t want to hear their snappy comments and I’m pretty sure they don’t want to hear mine …
Hold on, that last sentence was pretty cool … I need to tweet that …
J.P.: How do you explain so many professional athletes having ludicrously large egos? I mean, day’s end, a baseball player has this odd, quirky, unique ability to toss a round object past a man with a wood stick. Is that really worth thinking you’re the cat’s meow?
D.H.: Frankly, because they think of themselves entirely too highly. Again, this goes back to lying to yourself to make such huge sacrifices pay off.
Some players have always been good, and in a world obsessed with sports, their egos are stroked to a ridiculous high.
Others get into the business and see how the elite handle themselves and try to mimic it. There is a saying in baseball that goes, “Fake it until you make it.” Well, lots of players take this to mean that you should act like a Big Leaguer until you actually are one. What does that mean? To most players it means be full of swagger, egotistical, overly self-assured, and elitist. In essence: winners make their own rules. Then, when you get to the Bigs, you are then told, “Son, just keep doing whatever you did to get yourself here.” In other words—keep acting like this perceived Big League avatar you have in your head, which is something between a hip-hop star, an action movie hero, and whatever Maxim magazine tells you.
In other words—act like a douche bag.
Actually, It’s also a survival mechanism. Most players are treated like villains when they lose and heroes when they succeed. In order to survive the roller coaster effect of life lived on the whimsy of a little white ball, you have to have a massive ego capable of telling the world around you to piss off.
J.P.: You identify yourself as a Christian. My question—Why? I mean this with no disrespect, but—for context-a few weeks ago I sat in synagogue with my kids and listened to the rabbi talk about the earth being made 5,773 years ago (not true), about Noah loading his boat with every existing animal (impossible), etc … etc. You’re clearly a smart guy. How do you buy religion?
D.H.: Wow, big question there at the end. Butter me up with all the baseball stuff then drop the, “how can you believe that crap” on me.
No offense taken. Glad you asked.
First, in regards to the context some might be viewing your question in—the 5,773 years ago part. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that God made the heavens and the earth in a week since, well, the calendar that tracks a week wasn’t around when God made the heavens and the earth. Clearly there’s some storytelling here. In fact, the creation story is a story. I don’t think you can take it literally, especially not the week timeline since “a day is like a year and a year is like a day” to God. Also, (this may sound like Star Trek, but think about it) if God operates outside of time, he doesn’t need to worry about how long it takes to do something.
I do, however, believe he created the heaven’s and the earth.
How? Well, I’m not quite sure.
But that’s the beauty of faith. Which, for the record, I buy into because it gives me hope and comfort and inspiration and even a challenge. I believe in Christianity as my chosen faith because I think that the teachings of Jesus are just as hard to follow now as they were thousands of years ago—despite all the modern advances. I mean, sell everything and give it to the poor? I can’t do that. Love your enemies as yourself? I might pull that one off as long as the enemy in question is buying the drinks. Give your life for another… dang. I believe the people who do this stuff are doing miracles because it’s totally against our nature.
The Jesus I know is a radical, challenging, loving God who’s just as relevant and tough to follow now as ever. I wish I was more like him, honestly. I wish I was free like him, inspired like him, and consumed like him. I’m not, but I could see how much better the world would be if I was. If I, and if many others who call themselves Christians were.
Look, I know how crazy it looks to believe in something that you read about in an ancient book, and convinces you to talk to a lower case t from time to time, but maybe I’m crazy. The bottom line is, I like this kind of crazy. It works for me. What’s the point of living a perfectly sane and utterly unfulfilling life? Faith in Jesus makes mine better. I’d much rather be a crazy person who dies full or purpose and fulfilled, than not. I’m sure many people thought Jesus was crazy, and he’s the most influential person in history.
J.P.: What was the greatest moment of your baseball career? The lowest of the low?
D.H.: Why, this interview, of course.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DIRK HAYHURST:
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. I was taking off from Washington Dulles and the plane went into at thunder storm. It was a two row prop jet. We got smacked around so hard the lights went out and we nose-dived and everyone screamed for their life. The stewardess actually fell down in the aisle and all her drinks tumbled through the aisle.
I didn’t think much of anything, to be honest. I did press the back of the seat hard, like I could somehow cushion the fall.
The plane leveled out after a couple seconds. The lights went on again. The stewardess got up and brushed herself off. Some children cried. Some adults, too. Then the captain came on the intercom and said, “Sorry folks, we ran into a couple broken clouds back there. We’ll try and get those fixed.”
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Mike Ditka, chicken pot pie, Mayo Clinic, Juaquin Andujar, 7th grade, San Diego Chicken, Krusty the Clown, strawberry milk, Ralph Sampson, Toledo, Ohio, fingers, Mississippi River, Chicken McNuggets: Fingers, San Diego Chicken, Krusty the Clown, Strawberry milk, Ohio, Chicken Pot Pie, Mayo Clinic, Ralph Sampson, Toledo, Mississippi River, Chicken McNuggets, the 7th Grade, Juaquin Andujar, Mike Ditka.
• Have you ever intentionally thrown at a hitter? If so, story, please: Yes. It was my first start of my pro-career. I was supposed to hit this chirpy SOB second basemen who took out our catcher on a play at home. I didn’t pitch the day the event happened, but I was supposed to pitch the following and I had orders to bean him. I was also told I was to prepare for a brawl since the game in which the event happened, we had to break-up several mini-altercations and a bean ball event would surely spark a full on fight.
I was told that if I got charged—which had never happened to me before in my life— I was to get off the mound, stick and move, and let of the position guys handle the mess.
I was so nervous initiating a fight that I hit the hitter in front of the mark, and the hitter behind mark. The guy I was supposed to hit I walked on four-straight pitches, which, counting the two hit batsmen, loaded the bases. Two doubles later, my day was over. I didn’t make two innings.
• Five favorite sports writers: Jeff Pearlman. Hunter S. Thompson.
• Five best ballplayers you ever played against: Evan Longoria, David Price, Ben Zobrist, John Mayberry, Jr., some Korean kid on the Internet who crushes me in MLB The Show.
• If, in 2013, we give you 30 starts for the University of Delaware baseball team, what’s your line?: 17- 6 with a 3.23. 150 innings, 145ks, 43 walks, I balk, 3 HBP, and I’d raise their team GPA.
• Could an openly gay ballplayer survive in the Majors?: Yes. Absolutely. And, he and the team would probably become so comfortable with each other that, over time, they’d make jokes about it, which would of course start a media firestorm about how sexist and prejudice baseball locker rooms are by people who don’t understand the dynamics of baseball locker rooms.
• What worries you more—climate change or the price of gas?: Climate change. Climate change and it’s potential to thaw out giant, radioactive lizards encases in ice near the polar regions.
• We offer you $5 million a year to dance naked on Celine Dion’s upcoming, “Dance Naked as I sing the Titanic theme over and over” tour. You in?: Hell yes I would! $5 million to inflict the kind of nasty I would bring to Celine Dion’s world … I’d do it for way less.
• List every nickname you’ve ever had: Diggler. Dirkster. Digs. Dirkenstein. Keeps. Dirk Hater-hurst. Garfoose. ‘Foose.