Dirk Hayhurst’s previous outing, The Bullpen Gospels, was a success largely due to its ability to relate a deeper life story through the framework of a minor league baseball season. The book was not without its flaws; namely, it didn’t have much of a narrative arc. Still its effortless humor and sentimentality made for a charming memoir that was one of my favorites of last year.
Out of My League, a direct followup, addresses the shortcomings of its predecessor, but falls a little short of recapturing what worked so well before. It’s a very good book, just one that suffers from trying a little too hard.
Hayhurst picks up right were he left off, in the offseason following a AA championship. There’s little glory–or money–for your average minor leaguers so he’s sleeping on an air mattress in his crotchety grandmother’s house and making ends meet pitching to highschoolers in batting cages and selling TVs at Circuit City. There’s an upside though, he meets a girl, a perfect match for him (Hayhurst is a virgin in his late twenties, and religious, though he never discusses his faith, much less proselytizes). Within a few months they’re engaged and planning a wedding.
Bonnie’s entry into his life furthers Dirk’s doubts about whether he wants to continue his pursuit of a shot at the big leagues. Though she comes from decent means and has a job she loves (teaching music to the handicapped), he wants to provide for her, something that’s not so easy on a minor leaguer’s salary. Suddenly his personal dreams and ambitions feel like a distraction. Where before he saw a tremendous challenge and a source of hope, now he sees a long-shot from which he has something to lose, and he quavers at the possibility of failure. But, Bonnie doesn’t want him to give up his dream for her, she says it’s part of what makes him him. And with her support an patience he climbs out of his shell and keeps at it, finding success in AAA and eventually getting the call-up he’s chased his whole life.
Dirk struggles mightily for the San Diego Padres, however. He becomes wracked with anxiety, and eventually prepares himself to give it all up. And here’s where I found myself disappointed. Where before he found hope and life lessons in a tough but rewarding situation, now he’s searching for them so hard–through a defeatist’s lens–that it detracts from the story. He’s an affable narrator throughout, but the depression and constant reminders (mostly expressed somewhat sappily via Bonnie) that he’s decided there’s more to life than baseball start to get stale pretty quick. You want to feel for the guy, but you also want to slap him and tell him to stop being a pussy.
Thankful he’s doesn’t linger on self-pity long enough to ruin the book. Instead, he gives you a reason to look at his situation from another angle. That reason comes in the form of an antagonist. Dallas Preston is a made-up character, supposedly an amalgamation of a handful of actual young players. Hayhurst very deftly makes him into an excellent foil for himself. Dallas is a prospect, so unlike most of his teammates he got a big chunk of change as part of his rookie contract. He is brash, a womanizer, a crappy, young father, self-indulgent and selfish, and he’s also not all that great a pitcher. Dallas and Dirk are similar in a lot of ways, but look upon the world from very different perspectives.
Dallas, as the other side of Dirk’s coin, is the most interesting aspect of the book. It would be easy to see him as just another means of propping up Hayhurst’s there’s more to life than baseball schtick, but that would be a mistake. Neither man is really able to look far enough outside himself to see they larger context, though they both think they know it all. Thus, Dallas brings with him a balance to the story that lends itself to a nice little narrative arc that was so lacking before. Through his story, the book does eventually express a nice emotional depth, but only after the reader can get past Hayhurst’s heavy hand and see the relationship with Dallas as a comparison rather than the point of contrast intended.
There’s still plenty of locker room buffoonery and inside baseball stuff to keep baseball fans happy, and the story and narrative candor are enjoyable. If you liked The Bullpen Gospels, there’s not much chance you won’t enjoy this as well. It’s a fun ride, just a bit bumpier this time around.