Message from Dirk Hayhurst
You may have heard about the deadly floods in Pakistan that have affected 20 million people. Well, I'm doing what I can to lend them a hand. Here's the scoop: below is a rough cut chapter that didn't make into the final version of my book, The Bullpen Gospels. It's just my little incentive to bring you here. Whether you make a donation is up to you, I'm just glad you stopped by. If you do feel inclined to give, do so knowing that you are making a real impact on real lives, and if we get a good amount of donations, I'll put up another missing chapter!
Thanks for taking the time to come here, enjoy, and God bless.
The teacher shushed the class, or she tried to at least. Kids in this age group don't shush easily. They don't keep talking on defiantly like teenagers, they just can't stop spreading the passion they have for their favorite cartoon character or who's a bigger jerk-face. It bubbles out of them like a force of nature.
“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen!” She said, sternly. I could tell this was a high-end school because the teacher called them 'ladies and gentlemen.'
The place didn't quiet. A few kids stopped talking, the class suck-ups I suppose, but the rest kept giggling and trading 'nu-uhs' and 'ya-huh's'. The teacher put her hand up and started counting. I don't know what number she was counting to or what happened when she got to it, but those kids snapped silent like she might unleash the boogieman if they didn't.
“OK everyone, I want you to give a big, (pricey, private grade school) welcome to our guest, Dirk Hayhurst. He's a professional baseball player with the San Diego Padres.”
As soon as she said that last part, gasps swept through the crowd. What little attention they had dedicated to their teacher was lost in the fantasy world of meeting a real, live, pro baseball player. The kids spun around to face me as if they expected to see Batman standing in the doorway. Instead, they go me.
I signed up to come speak with these kids, just like I've signed up for dozens of player appearances in the past. Appearances are organized by our respective teams, scheduled in advance, and then dangled in front of players in hopes one may bite. Appearances are optional, and most players opt out. Not every appearance is judging a bikini contest, sometimes we stand outside used car dealerships or walk around a grocery store with a mascot named Hector the Smoke Detector. Front office's will offer perks as bait. A few bucks here, a gift card there, something to make it worthwhile.
Still, not every appearance gets a volunteer, no matter how scrumptious the bait attached to it. Speaking engagements are avoided the most, as many baseball players detest talking in front of people longer then they absolutely must. Front office interns will literally beg players to do these events.
I actually wanted to come to this one, I even shaved for it. I wanted to talk with these kids about the things I felt really mattered. Of course, the twenty-five dollar give card to Best Buy the front office was offering didn't hurt either.
I practiced my little speech the night before, looking up famous historical figures and interesting facts to stump my crowd with. My little sermon of insightfulness, packed full of transcendent truth. I was going to make the teachers wet their pants at how a baseball player could speak with such passion about things not baseball.
Some teachers don't like it when players show up to talk to their kids. I don't blame them. I guess it makes sense if you look at it from their perspective. It's kind of like if a candy company spokes person showed up at a dentist convention. Pro sports undermine the academic mantra. There were no grade requirements for me to get this job, I didn't practice my math skills or read Shakespeare for it. You could say if I didn't get good grades I wouldn't have stayed eligible long enough to play, but think that's weak argument. Look at how much money sports scholarships award compared to academic ones. I dated a girl back in my high school days who was as smart as a Star Trek computer and she had to work two jobs on top if her scholarships to make enough for school. I just had to throw a little white ball. I don't think that’s fair, and I'm on the winning side.
Sports are bigger then academics in our culture. I wish they weren't. Really, I do. I wish academic achievement were more glorious. I'm not saying professors should have a Top's Card or anything, I just think there is more value in academic accomplishment then the sports achievements we saturate our young minds with. Baseball's cool, it's hip, it's keen, but face it, it can't enrich you like knowledge can. It can't do a lot of the things knowledge can.
Ironically, that message works best coming out of the mouth of a player?
Well, stupid or not, I was going to be the player who said it today. I was going to make academics relevant. At this jaded juncture in my career, I had plenty of ammo to shoot at sports. There was just one, small problem. No one told me I was going to be speaking with third graders.
I stood staring back at them like Frankenstein. All this high-powered introspection would fly right over their heads. These are the same patch of rug-rats that come down and scream at me for baseballs until I want to strangle their parents. One kid had his finger so far up his nose I he could have been picking his brain.
“Come on up Dirk, we ready for you.”
I'm not ready for you though is what I wanted to say; yet I found myself propelled before them by some awkward, cosmic force. I stood nervously at the front of the class like I was going to be asked to spell something. The kids stared dreamy eyed at me, or at least at my uniform top- my super hero costume to them. I smoothed it down and played nervously with the bottom of its fabric. The teacher gestured for me to sit, pointing to a kid’s sized plastic chair. I plopped onto it, knees hunched up to my chest. All the kids giggled, I giggled too, it was pretty funny, and I felt like Shrek. I made a silly face at them, accentuating my discomfort and they laughed some more. I felt more relaxed, they were just kids after all.
The teacher brought me a big chair and I gladly took it.
Reseating myself, I began to speak, “Hello everyone, my name is Dir...” That's about as far as I got when the first set of hands shot up. I should have just ignored them, but I'm a sucker for kids, which is why I get so upset when they don't use their manners at the ballpark. I act like I don't like them, but I do. I still watch Sponge Bob and buy Transformers toys.
I didn't know what I was going to say after my introduction anyway, so I started pointing at the raised hands.
“Yes sir, what is your question?” I started.
“Have you ever played with A-rod?”
“No, I've never played with A-rod.”
“Do you like the Yankees, I hate the Yankees.”
“Uh, No, I love the Padres.” I said, winking at my front office chauffeur.
“What team to do you want to play for?”
“Anyone that wants me to play for them.” Some of the adults who came chuckled at that line.
“Have you ever hit a home run?”
“No, I have not. I don't get to hit. I'm a pitcher.”
“Do you throw ninety-nine miles and hours?”
“No, I don't throw real hard. How about you, how hard do you throw?”
“I throw one-hundred... in a video game, hehehe” He snickered to himself.
“Have you ever given up a home run?” Asked another.
“Yes, several of em'.”
“Is it scary?”
“Is it scary to give up home runs?”
“No, is it scary to play in front of lots of people?”
“It can be.”
“Do you get scared?” asked a little girl, sitting Indian style. She seemed genuinely worried about me being afraid out there. I looked down at her and smiled.
“Course' he doesn't get scared, he's a player and players aren't scared, it's just part of the game to them.” Said a boy, answering on my behalf. He must have lifted that directly from some player interview, the way 'just part of the game' rolled of his tongue. You could tell he was proud of himself for saying it, like he does post game interviews all the time.
“Well, that's not true. I'm a player and I get scared a lot.” I said.
“You get scared.” Echoed the children.
“Because, you could pitch real bad and then people will think you stink.” Talking to kids made me think about it differently. Simplifying it purposefully for them made me aware of all the information I was leaving out.
In my mind, stink was defined with words like; unemployed, failure, career termination, washout, looser, etc...
“But you can't stink, you're a pro.” Said the little girl.
“Why can't pro's stink?” I asked, and I really wanted to hear the answer to this.
“Because pros are the best, and even when they do bad they're still the best.”
You never know what will come out of kids. Sometimes it's a harsh, unrefined comment that makes you wonder if you were ever that cruel when you were little. Sometimes it's something so simple and beautiful a child can't possibly understand the impact of it. I was sitting there, focused on my negatives, even dragging them out to the mound with me. Here was this innocent face, worried about being afraid, looking up at me seeing only positives. I can't stink, I'm a pro. She didn't care about my numbers; I was bigger then numbers to her. I was bigger then baseball to her. I was an avatar of something great, wielding a power reserved only for those who do a job like this.
“No, pros can stink,” said the same little boy, interrupting my Zen. “They stink when they don't get the job done and let down their teammates and fans,” he finished in his rehearsed voice.
“You're going to make a fine press agent someday, son.” I said to the boy with all the answers.
“It's one of the folks who discusses things that happen on the team with the media. They help spin...” He didn't let me finish.
“I don't want to be a press, I want to be a big leaguer.”
“Yeah, me too. I want to be a big leaguer,” said several of the other kids.
“Yeah, me three!” I said, smiling back at excited bodies.
I pointed to one of the kids and asked why he wanted to be a big leaguer. “Because they are millionaires, and they are on television all the time, and everyone wants to be them, and they get to play my favorite game.”
“OK. I can understand that.” I said. I shifted in my seat and acted confused. “What if big leaguers weren't millionaires or on television, would you still want to be one?”
“Yeah, because playing baseball is fun.”
“But you don't have to be a big leaguer to play baseball.” I said.
“I know, but I want to be one.”
“What would you like to be if you weren't a baseball player?”
“I don't know... Ummmmm. I want to be ninja!”
“Well I don't think there is a high demand for ninjas right now, but you can be one if you want to be. Still, I think it would be wise if you thought about a back up plan in case ninja doesn't work out.”
“Well, what would you want to be?” Said the kid in question, other kids jumped in with him, hoping to put me on the spot. They really seemed to care about what I had to say. It may not have been for the deep reasons I had in mind when I showed up here today, but they cared nonetheless.
I went with it.
“Me?” I said, turning my thumb to my chest. “You want to know what I would want to be if I couldn't play baseball anymore? Well, that's pretty tough; baseball is a very cool job. But! There are lots of things that are more important then baseball. In fact, I'm willing to bet you would all be just fine if none of you could ever play baseball again.”
Sacrilege! The kids panicked, their shock stricken faces contorted in horror as if they expected a band a baseball snatchers to burst in the room with Dr. Seuss style equipment and suck all the joy out of them. “Listen kids, listen to me. Baseball isn't going away. But, if it did we'd be OK. I promise. You see the world could keep spinning if there were no more baseball players, however, it may very well stop if there were no more doctors, or scientist, or peacemakers, or teachers.” I said, gesturing to their teacher.
“Kids, playing baseball is great, it's fun, and you all have my blessing to grow up to become big leaguers if you really want to. But, think of some of the other professions out there that have changed the very face of the world. You hear about baseball players on the news all the time, but what about this guy?”
“Let me read something to you.” I said, pulling out a piece of paper I'd written piece of my speech on.
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…”
Chapter "WE MADE IT TO $1000! WELL DONE!"
Quit, a verb meaning to leave, depart, or withdraw from. For the competitor, the word quit carries a meaning so potent, it seems something closer to suicide or euthanize would better define it. I guess it depends on how it relates to your life. Quitting doesn't belong in an athlete’s vocabulary, but I had been throwing it around a lot lately
I never felt more guilty for using the term then there in his office. The place was a shrine to overcoming adversity, full of pictures of long shot guys hosting trophies over their heads. But this wasn't like beating an undefeated team or hitting the goal in overtime. This was life, outside the playing field.
I wasn't defeated, not broken or beaten by the game itself. Maybe before I got started with the game I believed it was something it wasn't. I guess you could say I was infatuated with it. I thought it would make sense of life, like young lovers think marriage will fix everything. But life is too complicated for any career change to make sense of. After five years of baseball, there seemed more loose ends then tied ones.
I was ready for the game to divorce me, maybe even looking forward to it. No more workouts
in rusty weight rooms or cold, dreary machine shops. No more sleeping on the floor eating high calorie mystery meat. No more poverty level pay checks. If the Padres organization gave me the axe, that might not be a bad thing and I wouldn't have to be a quitter.
I could move forward with life instead of keeping everything on hold, which is the other untold anguish of this game. I'd parlayed my life, waiting for my baseball lottery ticket to pay out. Who knew how long that could be, or if it would ever pay at all? It's a long time to hold your breath. In the end, it could very easily be all for nothing, and I'd be right back where I started. Was it wrong to think that way? If not, then why did I feel so guilty?
I exhaled deeply. “I don't think I'm ready to quit, but I'm ready to be done. Is there any shame in me feeling that way?”
“I don't think there’s any shame in changing your mind for real reasons. But you've invested so much into this dream, do you just want to walk away from it?”
“I don't know.”And I didn't.
I felt like some instinct was keeping me committed. Some deep fear of letting go. Like I was a contestant on a game show and the audience knew the answer and I didn't. If I chose wrong, I'd always be the guy who did the stupidest thing ever.
“I know there is a lot of sacrificing involved in this game, but....” I looked away, into some distant space that people look to when the words they want to use are hard to lift. “I could play and be fine, but I could stop and be fine. I look at it like a job. Actually, like a bad job. It's the ‘once in a life time dream’ mantra that keeps you locked in. I don't look at it that way anymore. I look at the rest of my life like a once in a life time thing now. Do I want to spend all of it chasing something that may never happen?”
Mr. Miller took off his glasses. He had looked rather like some old sage staring down at me through the bifocal lenses. He placed them down on his desk and smiled. “Well, I don't think I can answer that question for you.”
“I know you can't. You'd be the best teacher ever if you could.”
“You mean you don't think I'm the best teacher ever, now?” he said, smiling again.
“You’re up there, but I'm sure Jesus or Gandhi is edging you out.”
“Gandhi doesn't have guns like these,” he said, flexing again. He did have some guns, bigger than mine anyways, but that's not setting the bar very high.
“I don't know if it's good to look at my career this way, but I think I’d be OK if I was released right now.”
“Really?” Mr. Miller was slightly taken aback.
“Yeah,” I said sheepishly.
I never actually played for any team Mr. Miller coached, but I felt like he was just as much a coach to me as any other. In fact, we may have been good friends because I was never coached by him. Sometimes you can't be as open with your real coaches, like an employe doesn't tell their boss all the detail they feel about work. I knew him as a PE teacher and always liked talking because we could extend our topics beyond sports only. He wasn't connected to the beer buddy coaching rat pack that ruled the local school system so I could be real without fear of fall out.
Furthermore, he was a true role model for me because he gave freely of himself for the betterment of the kids. I saw that about him, even when I was young and arrogant. If I needed help with weights, he'd spot me. If I needed help with times, he’d man the clock. If I needed help with life, he'd supply an open ear.
Even though he was a great councilor, he was still a dedicated coach and like any good one, he did not like the sound of the quitter talk. What he said next though, shocked the hell out of me.
“Well, looks like you’re in a great situation then.” The irony. Of all the things I expected from a man with a poster of mountain climbers screaming “Achievement!” on it to say, I didn’t think it would be that quitting put me in a good spot.
“Whaddaya mean?” I was afraid I was walking into something.
“Well…you can try whatever you want now, be dynamic because you’re not afraid of the worst case scenario. You’re playing with house money, Dirk.”
I hadn't really thought of it that way. I was too caught up in my fears about looking like a quitter or an idiot. I was afraid that walking away from my big dream would make national headlines: “Dumbass blows one big chance! Women vote Hayhurst most ineligible bachelor.”
“Dirk, it's common to have second thoughts about things. One roll in life doesn't define the rest of it. I've dealt with a lot of winners in my time, but I've also dealt with a lot of losers too.”
I jumped forward, pretending to be extremely offended. “Are you saying I'm a loser?”
“No. Well maybe- I'm kidding! I'm just saying, what do you think happens to the people on the other side of the W in the box score? They go on to live their lives too.”
We sat there in silence for a minute or two. He turned back to his emails just so we both weren't staring at each other like two fruits in a tiny, overly positive office. I half expected Barney to come in and sing a song with us.
“Do you think I should keep pushing?” I asked.
“Have you seen my office?” he pointed sarcastically at the motivational posters wallpapering the room.
“Well, I want to play, but with the right perspective. If I'm not hell bent on it, what other way is there to play?”
“There are other ways to play; you'll find one that works for you.”
“I don't know Mike, I mean, all the talk about fire in your belly, being hungry- I don't have much of an appitite.”
“You just aren't hungry for what you used to know. Things are changing for you now. You are looking at the game differently. You aren't a kid anymore. Some people never allow themselves to look at the game as something smaller then the rest of their lives. The game is their life. When it ends, for whatever reasons, they have no idea what to do next. You're just putting things into perspective.” He smiled at me like he knew something I didn't, which wasn't that hard to pull off.
You're a bright kid, you'll figure all this out. I have faith in you.”
“Aw shucks, that's the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” I came at him for a big, goofy bear hug. He put his hand in my face and shoved me back to my chair. “You know what I like about you Mr. Miller? You always seem to say like ten words but it makes the same impact like a thousand.”
“It just seems like ten because you always talk so much.”
We chatted for a while longer, but nothing deep. He told me the high school baseball program was going to have a new assistant coach. When I found out who it was, I remarked that I felt sorry for the team. The new selection was another parent-coach vying for more control of their son's destiny. So many of the coaches in my town were parents who didn’t know much about the game, trying to live vicariously through their children. They believed they should have been stars themselves, but since they couldn’t be anymore, their kids would have to carry on the torch whether they wanted to or not. I've seen a lot of talented athletes hang up their cleats, burnt out by the pressure of an expectant parent. I promised myself I wouldn’t do that to my own kid, no matter what happened with my career.
I'll admit, for a moment, I contemplated coming back to high school full time and saving the kids from the terrors of parent coaching. But while I may have had questions about where my life was headed, I knew the answer was not moving back home and becoming the next high school assistant coach.
Mr. Miller looked at his watch and then abruptly got up to go teach his badminton class. He explained that if he showed up late, the kids would start clubbing each other with the rackets. Before leaving, he unlocked the room with the stereo in it for me.
“Keep the volume at something respectable, and no gangsta rap, or I'll be out of a job.”
“Sure, no problem. I'm a strict death metal man anyway.”
He smiled, grabbed his clipboard and whistle, then jetted off to his badminton appointment. I turned the radio to NPR.
It was leg day, and in between reps with the rusty, outdated weights, I thought about the conversation we’d had. Mr. Miller was right, the way I was looking at the game had changed. My perspective was different. I could not define what was happening, but I was unable to relate to the game the same way I once did. The question was, would I ever be able to relate to it again?