Not just a box score

Dirk Hayhurst, Padres farmhand and aspiring writer, talks about pitching -- and being a human being -- in the minor leagues.


King Kaufman
July 24, 2008 3:00PM (UTC)

Last week's item about blogging minor leaguers included some excerpts from San Diego Padres farmhand Dirk Hayhurst's "Non-Prospect Diaries" at Baseball America. I had tried to reach Hayhurst without success before writing it, but he got in touch after the item appeared and we spoke by phone Wednesday as he and his Portland Beavers teammates prepared to start a road series against the St. Louis Cardinals' top farm team, the Memphis Redbirds.

In addition to his monthly pieces for Baseball America, which are columns, not blogs, Hayhurst writes a blog with a similarly self-effacing title for his hometown paper, the Repository in Canton, Ohio. It's called Misadventures of a Minor League Nobody. It's updated fairly often.

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His latest entry, about feeling like a salesman during an obligatory ballplayer visit to a kids cancer ward, was posted after we spoke and before he pitched two shutout innings in Portland's 1-0 loss to Memphis.

In our conversation below, Hayhurst complains about being reduced to what the box score says, but that's what it says.

He is, as his column title says, not a prospect. Twenty-seven-year-olds never are. But he's also pitching pretty well at Triple-A. He's one phone call away from the majors, though it's a call that might never come.

If baseball doesn't pan out, or even if it does, his next career may be as a writer. "A book has always been the goal," he said, adding that he has 800 pages of notes, 2,700 photos and 18 hours of video just from last season.

But we started our conversation talking about baseball.

You're obviously a keen observer. Give me the scouting report on you. What are your chances of making the big leagues and what's your season going like?

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Well, if I don't write something that induces a career-ending event, I might still have a chance. I'm having a great season this year. I'm striking out a lot more guys and throwing a little bit harder. All that other cliché stuff: Keep the ball down, work ahead, don't be afraid to pitch to contact. That kind of stuff.

We've got a good team this year too. A lot of these guys are proven winners. We had a bulk of guys come up from that Double-A championship team last year. It's a good atmosphere, and all those things factor in to making a good club. Good chemistry, guys that know how to win and work together.

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You talk about chemistry and experience. There's a lot of arguments about whether good chemistry causes winning or winning causes good chemistry. It sounds like you believe the former. How does it help you? When there's good chemistry on the team, how does that help you get that 2-2 fastball over the outside corner?

Baseball is more than just what happens on the field. It's a family job. You're with 25 guys that you know intimately, and there's a lot of stuff that happens off the field that "SportsCenter's" never going to give you the inner workings of.

When you're out there and you're pitching and you're in a 2-2 count and you need to really get the ball down here because it's a make-or-break situation, and your center fielder, who you live with, and your catcher, who you live with, the night before were telling you, "Yeah, man, I watch you from out there in center, and you've got good stuff. I like your stuff, dude. It'd be hard for me to handle that fastball down and away."

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That guy has big-league experience and he's telling you that, and all of a sudden you're telling yourself that. And you're like, "You know what, I'm not going to shake the off-speed pitch and bury it. I'm going to go right at this guy on the corner and make him handle it." Because I've got people that I believe in telling me that I can do it. That's the kind of chemistry, that positive reinforcement, you can get from the team around you.

Now if you have some real arrogant SOB on the team who's like "Hayhurst, man, you ain't got nothin'." And he needs to say that. Not because you got nothin', but because he needs to hear himself say that you've got nothing, you know? That's an impact, man. He's going to make an unnecessary comment like that to stroke his own ego, and the process is it tears down yours.

You call your column Non Prospect Diary. That was your idea?

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It was my idea.

That's obviously just self-deprecating humor, but why did you decide that?

If you read Baseball America -- and this is not a knock on Baseball America -- but if you read Baseball America and you read most of your media about sports, you'll find that it caters mainly toward the next big thing. The up-and-coming superstar. Who's going to be the next guy in the Yankees rotation? Is Joba Chamberlain really going to be the man? They spent a whole bunch of money on this dude and he's going to be the next Satchel Paige, or whatever it is.

The big prophesy. It's such a prophesy-based business. Especially if you've played for a while, you really feel like, "Man, do these guys really know this or are they just rubbing the crystal ball and making predictions on stats?" So there's --

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You're hitting a little close to home here.

I'm sorry. Nothing personal, but --

I'm just kidding.

-- you wonder, as the minor league guy, you're sitting there and you're wondering, I'm not putting up the numbers so no one cares about me, but I've got a lot of good stories that are valid. You know, these things really happened. I really did experience this in the minor leagues and this guy didn't. He was sheltered from it. He's been the chosen one ever since he's got here. Someone put a lot of money on his head and expected him to pan out.

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I've got friends and family who call me and ask me what's going on and say that they've read box scores and reduced me to -- either I'm a failure or I'm a winner based on what somebody read about me. That's hard, and so I thought, there's more to baseball than just that accumulation of numbers and stats, and you can't reduce a person to those things. That's something we struggle with a lot, that we're always reduced to whatever the box score says. If we blow it, we're losers.

So it was kind of an act of defiance? Saying, "I'm not the next big thing, but I'm still something"?

It was kind of an act of defiance, but the only way you can be defiant is to deprecate yourself. If I was to throw the finger at the media then I'd be the jerk. I don't want to do that. I respect the business of it. It's cool. There's absolutely a place for it. But at the same time, all the rest of us guys that, statistically, probably won't make it, we're people too. What about us?

So I thought, I'm going to write the Non Prospect Diaries, about what it's like to be a real person in the minor leagues. It's not about "Uh, I hit a double today. I miss my mom. I love this game, I'm going to be a big leaguer someday and it's going to be awesome. I always wanted to be one." Like no one else ever grew up always wanting to be something.

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I'm wondering what your writing background was before this. I know you went to college. Were you a good student, good writer in class, that sort of thing?

[Laughs] You know what? Somebody else wrote me about this and they were like "It's so obvious you took writing courses at Kent State." I never took a writing course. I took the obligatory English 101, and then I was like, no, I don't really want to do this anymore.

So I tell people all the time: Don't expect anything great. I have no idea what I'm doing. I just write what I feel. If it comes out good, hey, that's great. It really is kind of nice that people that actually are good at this and know what they're doing write me every once in a while and, like, mistake me for knowing what I'm doing. That's a big compliment, but I don't.

I wanted to do it because I was looking at my career, and here's the situation, King: I'm sleeping on the floor at my grandma's house because I don't make enough money during the season to afford to buy anything in the off-season. So I've got to stay at somebody's house when I'm at home.

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So my grandma -- by the way, she doesn't like me -- she lets me stay there. I'm sleeping on her floor, and she won't even move any of the stuff out of the room. Like, I have a floor spot and that's all I've got. And I wake up at every morning at 7 a.m. to her banging on the window to get the squirrels out of her bird feeder, you know? And that's my off-season. And I'm like, this sucks. When am I ever going to move forward? This is like purgatory.

I'm an organizational guy. [That is, a nonprospect, a player whose job is to help fill out a minor-league roster.] I went from high-A to Double-A to Triple-A last year. And then I go back to high-A again this year after being in Triple-A as a starter. And you're just like: I am not a priority. If I make it it's going to be a long shot. I'm really going to have to put together some stuff.

So I'm thinking to myself, if this doesn't pan out, and it's probably not going to, what do I do with all this time spent in the game? Because there's no use for this anyplace else except here. So it was like a defense mechanism. I'm going to kind of supplement my career with writing about my career and see if that'll open any doors for me, because this is going to be a really cool waste of time but a waste of time nonetheless if I don't make it.

The most recent piece you just published, before you got to catching the tarantula in the bullpen, it was pretty harsh. You're complaining about this miserable time you're having on the road. It's raining, you're sitting in the bullpen, the motel sucks. What's the reaction to what you've written, both among your teammates and among your bosses?

The first one I ever wrote, if you go all the way back -- and it's bad. Like I go back and read it now and I can't believe I wrote that bad. "Kangaroo boys?" [He referred to some Australian ballplayers that way.] I thought that was funny? What the hell was wrong with me?

Every writer has that experience.

I wrote that, and there were some more things in there that I had to edit out because when it first got published, the reaction was horrible. I had kind of made this allusion to one of the guys having a beer and snoring, and the way it was interpreted was that Hayhurst is throwing guys under the bus and saying they're alcoholics, which I wasn't. That was like a crash course in "It's not what you write, it's what people perceive."

Once that hit, I came in and it had been posted all over the locker room, and nobody wanted to talk to me, and I got M-F'd up and down by a whole bunch of guys. I was a snake. Don't talk around Hayhurst, he's gonna -- what happens in baseball stays in baseball, King, that's the bottom line. And there's a lot of stuff that if I decided to write about it would end careers. And I never want to be that guy, and I never want to violate that. That's not what I'm doing this for.

So the first one was inevitably bad, and then I had to make sure that they changed it to Non Prospect to make sure everybody knew I wasn't trying to bury anybody and that I wasn't thinking my commentary is important, because it's not. Who the hell am I, anyway? I'm just a dumb baseball -- I really am just a dumb baseball player.

So if I am a baseball player and I'm going to say the things I'm going to say, I've got to be prepared for the backlash that comes out of it. I got it, and I got it bad. Like real bad. Like I thought it's a matter of time before I'm in a dark alley and something like "Full Metal Jacket" happens to me.

And that's why the first several posts on Baseball America are so neutral. You can tell that I'm more scared to say the wrong thing because I was afraid of getting my butt kicked. And then as I got into the season a little more, and I was like, you know, I'm not around that whole group anymore, tension isn't as high, and I can start to loosen up because guys are starting to accept that I'm not out to get them.

So I just started letting it go a little bit. I still know what lines I can and cannot cross. But now the reactions are fun.

A year later, after being back-roomed by the Padres front office and being told to be careful and watch your mouth in the media, and my teammates wanting to murder me, it's gotten to the point now where I get e-mails from some of the people in the Padres front office, "I really loved your last one, it was hilarious" or "that kid-with-cancer piece was amazing, you're a credit to our organization."

And I guess the final icing on the cake for me is that every once in a while guys will be like, "Dude, you should put me in your next piece. That'd be funny."


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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