The best writer in a baseball uniform is leaving the United States. He is doing it for many reasons, but partly because he wants to keep his love for a merciless game. Dirk Hayhurst is quitting the North American baseball scene before it quits on him. He is taking his talents, such as they are, to Italy.
“I think people want athletes to say, ‘I’m never giving up, I’m going to fight till the bitter end,’” Hayhurst said the other day. “But that’s just it: At the bitter end, you turn bitter. You’re like a junkie, strung out on baseball, because that’s your whole identity. I’ve always tried to take the hype out of it.”
Hayhurst pitched briefly for the 2008 San Diego Padres and the 2009 Toronto Blue Jays. He was 0-2 with a 5.72 earned run average in 25 appearances, and he understands that those numbers will probably be frozen in time. He is a 30-year-old right-hander with underwhelming stuff and a recent history of injuries.
Fortunately for Hayhurst, he also has an abiding curiosity about the human condition, and the talent to write engaging books about his experiences. He has followed up his first, The Bullpen Gospels (Citadel Press, 2010), with another, Out of My League, to be released Feb. 28.
The new book chronicles Hayhurst’s unlikely promotion to the Padres and the swirling emotions – personal and professional – that went with it. The story of his Blue Jays year is scheduled for a 2013 release, and this season offers fresh material for a fourth volume.
His reputation as a writer is well established in the game. When the Tampa Bay Rays assigned Hayhurst to minor-league camp last spring, they asked him not to write about the team. He joked that he would respect their wishes, unless they released him – and then he would bring them all down.
“I laughed,” he said. “They did not.”
Hayhurst went 4-2 with a 4.12 ERA for the Rays’ Class AAA team, the Durham Bulls. A strained flexor tendon in his forearm limited him to 11 starts, and although he felt strong at the end of the season, he said, a roster crunch kept him on the disabled list.
Questionable health, a humming laptop and a low talent ceiling made Hayhurst a tough sell in free agency this winter. No major-league team made an offer.
“Not only is this guy a possible injury liability, but he’s also keeping notes while he plays,” Hayhurst said, imagining what teams must think of him. “I’ve been stamped a legitimate writer.”
Hayhurst often changes players’ names in print so he can write more candidly, but he has never been ashamed to question the herd. When he reached the majors, he found himself exhausted by the unwritten paradox of the clubhouse, where veterans expect humility from rookies while insisting they act like big-leaguers. Pitching poorly did not help.
“I got a taste of it, and I realized immediately I was not cut out for this,” Hayhurst said. “I had spent all these years on this bet, and I stunk at it.
“Nobody ever dreams about making it to the big leagues and being terrible. The lows are crushing and the highs are expected. When you stink, it’s a devastating feeling and it hurts everybody around you. You think you learn that lesson in the minors, but you don’t.”
A recurring theme of Hayhurst’s first book is the carrot that sustains so many minor-leaguers: As long as you’re wearing the uniform, you have a chance. Some readers have been inspired by that, Hayhurst said, but now the thought repels him.
For too long, he said, he has based life decisions on that murky mantra. His best chance to return to the majors now would be to sign with an independent team – think of Bridgeport, Fargo, Yuma – and pitch well enough to have another shot at Class AAA. Maybe, if everything broke right, he could claw back to the majors as roster filler.
Hayhurst said he could have taken that route, but an international adventure was more appealing. He explored joining an industrial league in Japan, and he speaks hopefully of some day pitching in Australia, India or South Africa. For now, the Italian Baseball League makes the most sense.
Hayhurst will pitch for Nettuno – the Yankees of the Italian League, he has been told, with 17 titles since the league’s founding in 1948. There are eight teams in the league, three games a week and 42 games a season, plus the midseason European Cup tournament. The salary is €3,000 ($3,900) a month and housing and meals.
“I keep coming back to this thought,” Hayhurst said. “You have all these awesome opportunities, so why deny yourself? Because you have to believe you have this long-shot chance to get back to the majors – and if you don’t believe it, it says something terrible about your character? It’s Italy, man. The lifestyle is amazing.”
Hayhurst leaves March 10. He has never been to Italy, never even seen the logo of his new team. His wife will join him in midseason; she has never been there, either.
They have no children, nothing to keep them from going except the daunting distance from the major-league scene, which does not bother Hayhurst at all.
Twenty-five games are a lot more than Hayhurst ever expected to pitch in the major leagues, and he will not be defined by them. He is a writer who plays baseball, and good writers chase the best stories.
“I accomplished my dream,” Hayhurst said. “And my dream can change as I change.”
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