I hope this review makes up for the couple of months I missed there.
Title: The Bullpen Gospels
Published: Citadel Press 2010
# Pages: 340
Availability: Right now it is very widely available indeed.
Written By: Dirk Hayhurst
Who Is: #58 for your Toronto Blue Jays. Hayhurst is a right-handed pitcher who came over from the Padres on waivers after the '08 season. He's pitched in 15 games for the Jays and did very well; he was a good candidate to go north with the team this year until labrum surgery shut him down.
Technically speaking, The Bullpen Gospels isn't part of the Blue Jays Library. Hayhurst wrote it as a Padres minor-leaguer and there's no Toronto content in the book at all. But we can say it's a Blue Jays book via adoption.
What It's About:
Well, that's the crux of it, really. Most baseball books are factual accounts; here's what happened in such-and-such season, or here's how Joe Badoitch became a star. Sometimes you get baseball books that are about the search for some kind of meaning through baseball. Sometimes you get books that just want to be funny and entertaining and use baseball as a vehicle for that. But none of those are really what's going on here.
Hayhurst is up to something else here, though. He has a point to make (which I won't spoil here), and the good thing is that he makes it an organic part of the book and not something that's just stapled on awkwardly. What's odd is what he does and does not choose to include in the book; it ought to be unsatisfying but it's not.
It's a baseball book, but there are very few descriptions of actual play-by-play action. He talks a lot about his teammates, but usually does not identify them by name. Hayhurst's own pitching ability is of paramount importance to the story, but actual information about how he's pitching is given very sparingly. There are hints (including the title!) that religion is an important aspect of Hayhurst's life and of the book itself, but Hayhurst refuses to go into this any more than is absolutely necessary. The Bullpen Gospels refuses to be about what it's about. (Maybe that's why the pitching hand in the picture on the front cover is crossing its fingers.)
So then what does fill up the 340 pages?
Mostly it's Hayhurst's descriptions of minor-league life. Not the on-field action, but the bus rides, the kangaroo courts, the conversations with his teammates (whom, characteristically, he usually refuses to identify in any definitive way). It's funny stuff, and Hayhurst paints the picture well. It's also about Hayhurst's own life: his family, his struggle to make it to the big leagues, his attempts to figure out his relationship to baseball. Hayhurst insists on keeping the story one hundred percent grounded at all times, but it's a great coincidence that one of his minor-league teams is Lake Elsinore.
In one of the review blurbs on the first page inside the cover, Bob Costas compares Hayhurst to Jim Bouton, Crash Davis, Jim Brosnan, and Pat Jordan. I can't say he's wrong about any of those, but it's the Bouton and Jordan comparisons that do the most for me (especially because who's heard of Pat Jordan these days? Costas has been paying attention!). I've been spending a lot of time thinking about Hayhurst and Bouton and Jordan and their excellent books (Ball Four for Bouton and A False Spring for Jordan (which I had to reread before writing this)). There's so much to consider that I've been having a hard time holding it all in my mind.
Bouton was the biggest star of the three, with two years as a big winner for Mickey Mantle's Yankees. Jordan never came close to making the major leagues. Bouton's book was motivated by a genuine affection for the game combined with a need to question some of its conventions, and its story is the story of Bouton trying to hang on to his career by reinventing himself as a knuckleballer. Jordan feels the same attachment to the game, but his book was written about fifteen years after the fact, and he seems motivated partially by nostalgia and partially by trying to expiate his own immaturity. Hayhurst doesn't feel what Jordan and Bouton feel, and that's part of what his book is about.
I see the biggest difference between Hayhurst on the one hand and Jordan and Bouton on the other as generational. Jordan and Bouton were born in the last years of the Silent Generation (born 1925-42). They came of age in a High era, when institutions were strongest, and while the Silents did question those institutions, they weren't interested in tearing them down. Hayhurst, on the other hand, was born in 1981, which puts him in the last year of Generation X (along with Paris Hilton and Buffy Summers), and he's encountering the institution of baseball in the first few years of a Crisis era, when institutions are at their weakest. The typical GenX (born 1961-81) attitude toward the crumbling institutions they inherit is to keep them barely running if possible and to get what they can out of them, but not to trust them or care about them. Certainly Hayhurst's compartmentalization of the various parts of his life (by which I mean his elision of information about his love life, his spiritual views, etc., even though they're relevant to the book's themes and ending, as well as his attitude towards baseball's role in one's life) is typical of GenXers.
This generational separation shows up in other ways, some instructive. For instance, all three authors spend a bit of time talking about how they don't quite fit in with their teammates. Now, I expect this from Bouton and Jordan; the Silent generation is full of people who feel like they don't quite fit in. The Lonely Crowd. And it's true that Hayhurst doesn't worry about it as much as Bouton and Jordan do; he doesn't see it as any kind of a deficiency in himself. It's just something to be managed. But we can say one of two things: that ballplayers who might tend to write about their experiences are prone to being noticeably different from their teammates, and/or that the necessity for those in the insulated baseball lifestyle to bury their differences and conform to the norms of the group transcends personalities and generations.
One of the big lessons Hayhurst learns in The Bullpen Gospels also seems to be a cross-generational one, and I have to conclude that it's a universal truth of competition. Hayhurst learns - and this lesson is part of what he calls "the bullpen gospels" - that if you play scared of failure, if you play not to lose, you'll never succeed. The only way to succeed is to accept the chance of failure and play wholeheartedly to win. Jordan says the same thing, explicitly, in A False Spring, and it's implicit in Ball Four (Bouton, the Bulldog, never had a problem with competitiveness, but had to learn an analogous lesson: the only way to be a knuckleball pitcher is to give yourself up completely to the knuckleball.) So that's another common thread.
Hayhurst claims on his website to have a sequel in mind. I don't know about that. I mean, I'm sure he's capable of filling a book with funny stuff just as skillfully as he does here, but what's the book going to be about? It really does help for a book to be about something; it's one of the things that makes this one so worthwhile. Not that I'm dismissing the possibility that Hayhurst has an answer to this very question in mind.
There are no mentions of the Garfoose in the book at all. Just, you know, if anyone was expecting there to be.
How's the Writing:
It's very good. Hayhurst seems to have done it all by himself, and any time a baseball player does that, you have to give him credit, but even without adjusting for that I'm impressed.
There's a part in which he's describing his stint volunteering at a homeless shelter where he pulls off a very nice flourish with the writing. It's a cheap trick but it's an excellent cheap trick and I take my hat off to Hayhurst for it. (I don't want to describe it to you. Bottom of p. 36; top of p. 37.)
I hope Hayhurst recovers well from his surgery and makes it big as a Blue Jay. I also look forward to his next book. As for this book, I'm definitely going to be rereading it. I'd reread it now if I didn't have so much other stuff to read. Strongly recommended!
The book is almost all anecdote. I'd like to pick out a good one to put here, but after flipping through the book for a while, I can't come up with one I like that's Safe For Work. The funniest parts are probably the ones where he's talking about his grandmother.