Last week, I mentioned that I had ordered The Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst and that I would soon write a review. I found a copy at my local Borders on Thursday, and I was done by Saturday. I normally read books slowly in my spare time, but I had trouble putting this one down. That was from my Twitter feed on Saturday afternoon:
Just finished The Bullpen Gospels, one of the best personal narratives I’ve ever read.
The Bullpen Gospels is better than it has to be. I expected no more than a fun and straightforward account of life in minor-league baseball: first-hand stories of pranks and celebration, boredom and failure, maybe even some dirt. The book does contain those things—with one notable exception: dirt—but they are just the backdrop for a bigger and more interesting story about a particular minor-league player. The baseball content alone should make The Baseball Gospels a good book, but Hayhurst takes his story deeper to write a great book.
I expected the book to be a minor-league Ball Four, but it has more in common with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Baseball serves as a backdrop for a deeply personal narrative that almost anybody can relate to. It turns out that the inner struggles faced by baseball players are not much different than struggles we all have. But through the lens of a minor-leaguer with a less-than-perfect life—this is a guy who’s living a dream denied to so many die-hard fans—the reader sees how a young man struggles to battle his “what am I doing with my life?” daemons that trouble us all.
At the beginning of the book, Hayhurst hasn’t come to terms with his own status of being worshiped and hated by others. Handing out autographs to people who don’t know who he is becomes hollow after a while. He’s got an alcoholic brother, a crippled father who can’t accept his fate, and a mother who tries to hold it all together by pretending that everything is fine. To Hayhurst, baseball has always been an escape, but moving from prospect to roster-filler status has soured his love for the game. He keeps his family at a distance, yet desperately craves their approval. Baseball seems to be his only life-path.
Hayhurst is an interesting character, a 26-year-old virgin who doesn’t drink, but appears to be right in the middle of all the people you’d think he’d avoid. He lives in the heart of a raunchy world where young men have a lot of time to kill and need more than mild entertainment to cure their boredom. Yet, Hayhurst appears to fit right in, embracing the lifestyle without booze or sex, shocking most teammates when they learn he’s sober. It’s as if they didn’t notice that he was the only one with a soft drink at the party. Yet, Hayhurst revels in the misbehavior of others, as he laughs along with drunken binges, slump busters, practical jokes and kangaroo court that fans aren’t privy to. Yeah, it looks like good time.
Yet, in the middle of all this fun Hayhurst is confused, even as he begins to figure things out. Caught between having too much and too little self-confidence, he slowly begins to find a balance. If he’s going to make a run for the big-leagues, might as well do it now. He cares about winning, but he can’t win unless he stops caring about winning; it’s a koan where he finds peace. He eventually finds his chief enemy in a vision akin to Luke Skywalker’s visit to the Dark Side cave on Dagobah (there are several Star Wars references in the book). He doesn’t believe in the baseball gods, he has to appease his personal baseball reaper.
What makes this book work is not the baseball, psychology, or philosophy; it’s the writing. Most athletes who hire ghostwriters to pen their “autobiographies” don’t get writing as good as Hayhurst’s. He leads the reader to the inevitable only to reveal the unexpected. I frequently laughed out loud as a joke appeared from nowhere. His speaks fondly of his teammates and coaches, empathizing with them. And he disguises names to keep potentially embarrassing moments private. This book isn’t about dishing out dirt. And even as the book ends with great success—Hayhurst makes it to the big leagues—the success is an afterthought. It’s as if he said, “Oh yeah, I made it; but, that’s not important.”
A good book is one you that can’t wait to finish but fear its end, and that is how I felt about this book. I especially recommend this book to young adults trying to find their place in this world. Living on little for the hope of so much more is frustrating, and Hayhurst accurately documents the experience. If you are looking for a description of life in the minor leagues, you’re going to find it here, but you’re also going to find so much more. The Bullpen Gospels is a soon-to-be classic, and should be coming to a movie theater near you.