It’s different with pitchers.
Everyday players face a host of athletic challenges in every game, and they react with a variety of movements and adaptations.
Pitchers don’t react. They act. They don’t have movements; they have a motion, as repeatable as they can make it.
If an everyday player hits four home runs and makes two running catches, he’s had a tremendous day. But only a pitcher can have a perfect game.
Whatever great things Bryce Harper might do in his likely major-league career, he will still fail two times out of three. Not so for pitchers; a success rate of seven outs per ten at bats is a description of miserable failure for them.
Every now and then, a pitcher comes along who holds out the image of perfection. Bob Feller, striking out fifteen in his first big-league start at age seventeen in 1936, offered one of those moments of thunderous revelation; a Hall of Fame career followed. Dwight Gooden, twenty years old in 1985, had a blazing fastball and knee-buckling curve that made him seem he would be unhittable forever; the gravitational pull of life left him with a good career, not a great one. Kerry Wood struck out 20 and walked none in his fifth major-league start in 1998; a suspect motion that had made scouts nervous resulted in elbow woes that cost him his whole next season and parts of five others.
Stephen Strasburg is only the latest to burst onto the scene as though sprung fully-armed from the head of Zeus. Tuesday’s game had been eagerly anticipated since last August, when Strasburg signed his Nationals’ contract. Whatever expectations a viewer might have brought to the game, Strasburg exceeded them. He pitched seven innings, gave up four hits and two runs, walked none, struck out fourteen, including his last seven in a row. After Delmon Young’s two-run homer in the fourth, Strasburg retired the next ten hitters on eight strikeouts and two balls played by the infield. He then healed the wounds of two of his teammates, turned water into Gatorade, and levitated into the heavens to await his next start.
Bad things will happen to him. Pitching is injury; the days between outings are for recovering from that injury. It is impossible to predict with any accuracy the path of a pitcher’s career. But Stephen Strasburg has injected a big dose of Wow into the baseball season, and whatever he does next time out, I know I’ll be watching.
Dirk Hayhurst won’t. He’s not much of a baseball fan, really. That’s part of what makes him such a keen observer of the people who play the game.
Where Strasburg’s successful journey through the minor leagues seemed like an anticipatory victory lap, Hayhurst’s was more like the middle hours of a big city marathon. An eighth-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres in 2003, he started the 2007 season as a 26-year-old in High-A ball, back to a level he’d reached three years earlier. He thought seriously about quitting, more sure of his status as a non-prospect than he was of what he hoped to gain from continuing.
Readers can be glad he kept on, because his chronicle of that season, The Bullpen Gospels, released by Citadel Press in April, is one of the funniest baseball books since Jim Bouton reinvented the player diary by being honest in Ball Four.
Hayhurst, a right-handed reliver, isn’t interested in recounting pitch-by-pitch details or fine points of strategy. He’d rather share the raucous and raunchy arguments and debates that help a group of young guys get through the season’s long bus rides and procession of games viewed from the bullpen. The obscenities flow freely, the topics rarely stray from sex or flatulence, and the gonzo quality of the banter reflects jock humor in all its adolescent glory (one memorable discussion is halted for a clarification of the phrase “a very feminine penis”). The tone throughout is “Bull Durham” by way of “Clerks” and “The Hangover.”
There are uncomfortable moments when Hayhurst deals with his troubled family, and some of the dialogue seems a little too perfect. But he does a wonderful job of capturing the contradictory essence of life in the minors, of apprentice heroes struggling on a burrito budget, thrown together and whirled apart by an impersonal business that eats its young.
There are a few recognizable names in the book – Trevor Hoffman serves as a kind of bracket around Hayhurst’s experiences – but others have been altered and a few characters are composites. His aim isn’t to dish dirt, but rather to embrace the down-and-dirty nature of the whole strange enterprise. The best testament to this vivid picture of minor-league life is that his ultimate ascension to the major leagues comes as an anticlimax.
This spring, Hayhurst underwent shoulder surgery and is on the Toronto Blue Jays’ 60-day disabled list. Read The Bullpen Gospels, and you’ll root for him to come back strong. By making the majors, he overcame longer odds than Stephen Strasburg will ever know.