By Hannah Sung
Dirk Hayhurst is a pitcher for the Blue Jays. To get there, he struggled for eight years in the minor leagues. Anonymous and broke, he began documenting the minor-league lifestyle in a popular blog called the Non-Prospect Diary and wrote a memoir called The Bullpen Gospels that has been lauded for its humour and emotional candour. I called up Dirk in Alabama where he is receiving sports rehab for a right shoulder injury and laughing through it all.
Q.: How's your shoulder?
A.: Being injured isn't fun but it is part of the business. I'm in this place in Birmingham, Alabama, and this place is rehab to the stars. It's one of the most premier rehab places so I don't know what I'm doing here [laughs]. It's cool to rub shoulders with people. I'm not hoping anybody gets hurt but if they show up here I'll be like, Hey, how's it going? Here's a book.
Q.: You're quite funny. Is it necessary to have a sense of humour to survive the minor leagues?
A.: Oh, absolutely. I've seen a lot of guys go into the minors and take it ultra seriously and find themselves out of the game. So many people come into the game and they think they can just have this gung-ho mentality but there's just so much stuff behind the scenes and if you take it too seriously, you'll make your life a nightmare. You have to loosen up. It's a hard life and you get paid peanuts. The levity makes it bearable. And you're around 26 guys constantly. We treat each other like brothers and you're at the mercy of everyone's joke. You could get made fun of until you break. It's a survival mechanism but it's a social normalizer, too. You need it. It's a tool just like a good fastball or a good hitting eye, a sense of humour is a good tool.
Q.: What's more nerve-wracking, the pressure before a game or spilling your life in a public diary?
A.: That's a very interesting question. It depends on the game [laughs].
The build-up to my first big league game, it was just percolating terror. It was the most nerve-wracking time of my entire life. Even my wedding day wasn't that bad. You're out in front of so many viewers and if you embarrass yourself, live, in HD, you can't manipulate it. Once the ball comes out of your hand, it's out of your control. If you get embarrassed with a hitter with a grand slam or you smoke someone in the head, you're at the mercy of the chance of that chaotic factor.
I tried to be as honest and raw as I could [in the book]. I wanted people to believe me. But when you write about yourself, you have an editor who says, You may not want to go this far overboard. So you have a safety net. When you're on the field, it's real time and there's no going back. So that wins out — the on-field stuff is definitely more nerve-wracking.
Q.: What moments in the book inspire the most feedback from fans?
A.: The book is such a half and half experience. On the one hand it's really funny, and I'm only saying that because you said I'm funny, but there are other points where the emotional stuff is there. People tell me that they cried. The story about the child with cancer is the one that gets the most feedback but by a small margin. There are so many other things. People who have played the game before say, Oh, the bus trip, it's just like that, it's so funny. And people write to tell me they had a family member with alcoholism and that chapter reminded them what it's like, and that makes me feel really good.
It was a grandiose goal for a guy who's been a baseball player his whole life to want to honestly relate with people in the real world and to achieve that made me feel wonderful that I was able to do it. Beyond being funny, I'm glad it connected on both levels.
Q.: You've written a whole book about it but you also Tweet. Can you sum up life in the minor leagues in a single sentence?
A.: It's survival via attrition. And maybe death by attrition, I can't decide. You're just trying to outlast your normal life and you're either going to live or die by that. We're not big-time guys, we're just holding on as best we can and hoping that something will break loose and we'll make it. We can very well hold on for years and years and find we've killed our life and now at age 30 it's back to college to make as much as a 21-year-old kid.
Q.: You're an expert in Garfoosology, can you tell us what's your latest discovery?
A.: Apparently, there are a lot of people out there who see garfooses regularly. I thought I was the only one. They send me pictures. A lot of people dress up as garfooses or sculpt them and take pictures and send them to me.
It was just a joke but it's turned into this second identity for me. The guys on the Jays team actually call me Garfoose now.
Q.: What book do you recommend to the CBC Book Club? Any sports-related books for our Top 10 list?
A.: You're never going to believe this but I'm the absolute worst sports person to talk to. I spend most of my time reading comic books. The last book I read was Catcher in the Rye because someone compared my book to it [laughs]. I'm terrible for sports books but if I had one book that's absolutely mandatory, I'd say The Count of Monte Cristo.
Thank you, Dirk, for the interview and for just about the coolest saying I've heard in a while. When asked how well his second book was coming along, Dirk said, "Look, I'm a baseball player. I like to think I'm decent at this [writing] but it doesn't come out of me like when Uncle Jed shot the floor and oil spewed from the floor.
"I'm a grammatical train wreck. It takes time and a good editor." He also yelped at church bells bonging away, interrupting our interview ("Shut up!"), which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I hope the shoulder heals quickly, Dirk, so you can get back to pitching and to writing.