Out of My League

Dirk Hayhurst on the life of a fringe player in the Majors.

Out of My League

Baseball may be a game of failure, but most of the guys who make it to the Show have known nothing but success before arriving in the big leagues. So it’s not surprising that those who struggle find it a core-shaking experience when life at the top of the baseball world doesn’t live up to their expectations.

That was the case for pitcher Dirk Hayhurst, an eighth-round draft choice out of Kent State, who spent six years in the minors before getting called up by the San Diego Padres in August 2008. In ten appearances that season the right-hander posted a miserable 9.72 ERA, all the while enduring the hazing of his veteran teammates, who didn’t hesitate to remind him of his lowly rookie status.

In response to the stress both on and off the field, Hayhurst turned to writing, which he says not only enabled him to put the experience in perspective, but helped him succeed during his second stint in the Majors. (In 2009 he posted an impressive 2.78 ERA in fifteen appearances with the Toronto Blue Jays.)

In his recently-released book “Out of My League: A Rookie’s Survival in the Bigs” (Citadel Press), Hayhurst recounts his stint with the Padres, providing the reader rare insight into what life is like for a struggling major leaguer. Last week the pitcher-turned-author was gracious enough to speak with Failure about the harsh reality of experiencing failure on baseball’s biggest stage, noting that “how you handle your failures shapes how many times you are going to succeed.”

Why did you write “Out of My League”?
I wanted to show people what it’s like for the fringe players in baseball—the guys you never hear about. All the public hears about are the success stories. But there are a lot more tales of not overcoming than there are of overcoming. I think those stories are important too, but nobody talks about them.

I also wrote “Out of My League” as a kind of cathartic justifier of the horrible rookie season I had. It was really brutal because I got my butt kicked. And I was horribly insecure about the whole experience. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like more of a failure.

And when I started to stink at baseball I lost my direction as a person because baseball was what I held as my god for so long. When it wasn’t working out I needed to turn to something else to help me make sense of it so I started writing. Having it in front of me in black and white helped me dissect everything and analyze the pressures I was putting on myself as a player.

How did your teammates feel about you writing a book?
A lot of them were angry with me. They were convinced they were going to be in it, and not in a flattering way. I had people threaten to kill me if I wrote about them. Jim Bouton [author of “Ball Four”], who came before me, really colored how I was received. As soon as I picked up a pen to start writing it was assumed I would follow in [his] footsteps and destroy reputations in my quest to make a buck. I wasn’t out to do that, but it didn’t matter what I wanted to do, it mattered what the paranoia was. It would have been different if I had ten years in the Show. I could have said and done what I wanted and no one would have challenged me. But because I was a rookie I had virtually no power and had to take the abuse.

How was being in the major leagues different than you expected?
Well, they tell you to do what you did to get yourself to the big leagues—what made you successful enough to get called up. But it’s impossible to do that, because at the big league level it’s all about staying there and everything is hyper-analyzed. What I wasn’t expecting is how scrutinized everything was going to be. I don’t mean just your play on the field. Everybody up there thinks they are somebody important and everyone thinks their opinion is to be obeyed. As a young guy trying to find your way you are basically at the mercy of every ego bigger than your own because you have no place in the hierarchy yet. You are the lowest of the low.

What really caught me by surprise is how much ass-kissing I had to do to appease guys who were really no better than me but had been there longer. You are running around kissing butt, sucking up, trying to be nice and it’s hard. It’s tiring. And it’s not baseball, which you’ve been training to do all your life. But it’s important nonetheless.

Meanwhile, everyone around you assumed you were on top of the world.
People think: You must be so happy. You must wake up every day feeling good, doing just what you’ve always dreamed of—just what I’ve always dreamed about. To complain and say, “This isn’t really what I thought it was going to be” is like heresy. You’re asking for social backlash, so you keep your mouth shut.

Did you feel like you were not cut out for the Majors?
I felt like I could handle myself on the baseball side of things—not my first time around [with the Padres], but later on, especially after having success with the Blue Jays. But I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t like it as much as I thought I was going to.

I always had this guilty feeling about it. There are people who are researching a cure for cancer that are begging for funding and getting paid virtually nothing. And here I am throwing a little white ball for a living against some other guy who is on the back of a piece of cardboard that your kid collected, and that makes us worth millions? It just didn’t make sense. I’m sure other people would say: “You’re an idiot; just keep your mouth shut and take the money.”

What was the most disappointing part of your major league experience?
The most disappointing part of it was me and my reaction to it. It was me not being confident enough or arrogant enough or oblivious enough to just enjoy the experience. I really wish I would have been stronger and more self-assured. But I was always worried about people’s perceptions of me to the point where it probably hurt me. When I was with the Blue Jays I finally came to the conclusion that if I don’t play well I’m not going to be here so it doesn’t matter what people think.

What was your most memorable moment?
When I got called up to the Blue Jays I checked in to the Renaissance at the Rogers Centre and they gave me a room with windows onto the field. I watched [former Blue Jays star] Roy Halladay pitch from my hotel room, which was such a weird experience because I was there and not there at the same time. I thought back to being in my hotel room the night before my major league debut and how terrified I was and how nerve-wracking it was.

I remember saying to myself: “I don’t care what happens [this time around]. I refuse to let myself go through that again. I made it back, I’ve got a second chance, and I’m not going to put pressure on myself.” I was trying to catch all the mistakes and coach myself out of them before they could happen again. I finally felt the slightest hint of peace at that moment. So what I look back at most fondly is when I was able to make my first peace with baseball on the biggest stage.

Do you think your writing is hurting your chances of getting another offer from a major league team?
I know for a fact that organizations are leery of me because I’m a writer. They are not shy about telling you that when they do business with your agent. I’m sure that if I was talented enough they would put me back in the game. But I’ve always been a fringe guy, and between my being a writer and my history of injuries [shoulder surgery, 2010; strained forearm flexor tendon, 2011] it’s a cocktail of unemployment.

I understand you’re going to Italy to pitch in the Italian League. Why Italy and what motivates you to continue pitching?
I see baseball in a different light than a lot of people do. I realize that baseball is not my best strength anymore. Instead of saying that I need to stay in it any way I can, I’m happy to say it’s finally a side project. I don’t want to say I was miserable playing baseball professionally but it’s a grind in the minors and in the majors it’s a hyper-analyzed profession if you’re not good enough to stick there.

But going over to Italy I can use baseball as a passport. I will be a star over there because the league is significantly weaker than the American equivalent. The food is great, the towns are historic, and how many people get to play baseball in Italy and enjoy the game? I got a taste of the big leagues and now I’d like to taste Italy, and from all the reports I’ve received it tastes really good.

Dirk Hayhurst’s Web site