Review: Baseball Memoirs
This article was published in the Summer 2010 Baseball Research Journal.
The Game from Where I Stand: A Ballplayer’s Inside View
by Doug Glanville
Times Books (2010)
$25.00, hardcover. 304 pages
The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran
by Dirk Hayhurst Citadel Press (2010)
$14.95, paperback. 340 pages
Travel is rewarding but hard. Sometimes it’s impossible. So you resort to maps. Is there some place you’re curious about and would like to set foot in but can’t? One of the things you do is look at maps. Some maps are like the final standings, reflecting the ups and downs of a long season, giving you a bird’s-eye view of the grand sweep of the larger region and providing context. Other maps—think Pitch f/x and all it tells you about the trajectory and speed of hundreds of thousands of regular-season pitches and then how it pinpoints their destination in the direction of home plate—show you the fine details, how a particular street curves to conform to the bank of a river or how it’s punctuated by cross streets, the occasional major thoroughfare, and, here and there, a narrow alleyway or cul-de-sac.
Most of us know baseball from box scores, line scores, various arrangements of numbers—from the equivalent of maps. Not entirely from maps, but they probably mean more us than to most professional ballplayers, who tend to know their way around their own workplace. If you spend your workday between the white lines, you come to know the lay of the land. You may get engrossed in maps of it too, but your experience of it on the ground, in all its four-dimensional, living, noisy reality, is going to make the stronger impression. It’s something you share with your peers but not the rest of the world, because you can’t, although you could write a baseball memoir and try.
If you’re a ballplayer, you probably think more, for example, about how this or that kind of glove webbing might work for you than you do about UZR and whether that or Plus/Minus is a fairer indication of your fielding performance. So what do you do? Go to a sporting-goods store, like a civilian? Browse online at the Rawlings site? It turns out you shop for and select your glove on glove day in spring training, when the manufacturers set up shop in a makeshift exhibit area in the parking lot of the complex or on the ballpark concourse. Doug Glanville in The Game from Where I Stand: A Ballplayer’s Inside View describes the atmosphere as that of a flea market. He ended up going with an H-Web Rawlings. Jimmy Piersall, the Cubs’ minor-league outfield coach, dissuaded him from the Trap-Eze, which Piersall had a reason (read the book if you’re curious) for dismissing as “style before substance.”
“Thank goodness,” writes Glanville, who retired in 2005, “I didn’t have to choose from the 2009 Rawlings collection. There are sixteen types of gloves on its Web site. Can someone tell me the difference between a Double Post Triple Bar and a Horizontal Bar X-Laced? Ordering a Rawlings glove has gotten dangerously close to ordering at Starbucks.” The appeal of what Glanville does here and throughout the book is that, to those of us who are curious about this foreign country, he not only gives us a taste of some of its idiosyncrasies and local customs but also joins us when we step back from all that for a moment, shake our heads, and question whether we could ever really assimilate to the culture and live there successfully. Glanville shakes his head along with us, reminding us that he too entered it as an outsider, just like us, and that even now, having passed through it and come out on the other side, he still finds a lot of it to be strange and wonderful.
Among his peers Glanville is exceptional for having a degree, as most players who are drafted out of college sign before completing their senior year. He studied engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and brings to his writing, as he brought to the diamond, an aptitude for analysis. Don’t put away those maps yet. As a player, he took them seriously, looking at the game along lines that the average keyboardjockey baseball fan would appreciate. His playing career spanned the transition from VHS tapes to digital technology, which enabled him to study onscreen his at-bats against particular pitchers. “If there were a pie chart illustrating how players prepare for their opponent, scouting reports would only be one sliver” is how he puts it. After finally identifying a pattern in Randy Johnson’s pitch selection, he correctly guessed slider in real life once and got a base hit and two RBIs off him. And he studied the spray charts of opposing hitters because "as a center fielder, I was captain of the outfield and responsible for positioning my left fielder and right fielder as well as myself. Mindful of this added duty, I tackled the charts as if I were studying for a final exam in my Transportation Systems Engineering course in college. Good thing. Some of my teammates blew off their homework from time to time."
The book is like that—a carefully constructed thing that works because the author knows what he’s doing. When he tells about his personal life, is he offering it as an example of how the game exerts influence on the world outside the lines and, in turn, is influenced by it, the subject of his discourse in both cases being, ultimately, the game? Or is the idea that, no, life is the thing and, to paraphrase Jacques Barzun, whoever wants to know the heart and mind of Doug Glanville had better learn baseball? I think it’s the former.
That’s not to say that Glanville loves the game more than he values his family and friends. Rather, it’s that his good manners prevent him from assuming that you’d be more interested in his life than in what, as an insider, he can tell you about pro ball. His job and the declining health of his father competed for his attention. For Glanville the man, that’s not primarily a baseball story. But for Glanville the author of a baseball book it is. In baseball, what’s important about his father’s illness is the aspect of it that’s baseball-relevant. At a closed-door debriefing while with the Texas Rangers, Glanville and his teammates learned from manager Buck Showalter all manner of potentially useful information, including an alleged domestic incident that, Showalter insisted, would render a Tampa Bay player “mentally unavailable” on the field.
Glanville writes from his own perspective but maintains eye contact with his readers, appreciating their perspective as baseball fans and adjusting his delivery accordingly. In that, his approach is like Jim Brosnan’s in The Long Season (1960) and Jim Bouton’s in Ball Four (1970), although the style of each is distinct. For Pat Jordan in A False Spring (1975), on the other hand, baseball is more the setting than the subject, which is his life as a young man—also a fair approach, and he follows it to good effect. The distinction between the two kinds of baseball memoir may be worth keeping in mind. Although, when you think about the universe of baseball memoirs long enough, you realize that none of them could ever really be so simple. Inevitably, they’re all the product of both the personal and the professional. Classifying them as one or the other is a matter of noticing which genes are dominant.
Because of its tone, your first thought about Dirk Hayhurst’s recent contribution to the genre, The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran, might be that it’s more about Hayhurst than about baseball, but it isn’t. True, Hayhurst skates lightly over in-game tactics, the fine points of pitching mechanics, and the like, but the autobiographical material he provides is sketchy too. He includes just enough about himself to advance the dazzling portrait he paints, in bold strokes, of pro ball, mostly in the minors. In the foreword he indicates that his book is not on the subject of Planet Baseball but rather is about how life here below is affected by the gravitational pull of this heavenly body. What he really means is that he’s no cartographer. He’s an artist. A certain kind of artist, actually—inspired and intuitive, as opposed to disciplined and exacting, although in fact the two categories aren’t really mutually exclusive. In this season’s contest of the baseball memoirs, Hayhurst plays Mozart to Glanville’s Salieri, a theme I might be tempted to press if the comparison weren’t so unfair to Glanville, so forget I said that.
Glanville’s book is built, like a house. Hayhurst’s is secreted, like so much sweat. Glanville by temperament is formal and button-down—-his manager in single-A ball had to tell him to stop calling him “coach,” drop the formality. Hayhurst has some instinct for decorum in him too, but his wry fascination with the frat-boy grossness of minor-league culture prevails, and that’s what he writes about, in the main. Unlike Glanville, he forgoes serious discussion of technique. He got burned when, as a rookie in an audience of minor leaguers listening to Trevor Hoffman share his wisdom, he asked, during the Q and A,
“what kind of mantras or psychological routines [do] you operate under? Do you have beliefs that you inculcate yourself with to remain focused and directed as a player?” I thought the question was deep, intelligent, and perceptive. Surely, a man of his greatness was impressed by it. Hoffman stared at me as if I just asked him what testicles were.
“Whoa, who, whoa there, buddy. I don’t know about all those big words. ‘Mantras’ and ‘inculcating,’ whew!” he chided, smiling at the rest of the guys as if to imply, what’s with this guy, huh? Brent’s head dropped, Ox snorted. “Why don’t you try and keep it down to a level we can all understand. We’re just ballplayers here, pal.”
Later in the day, I took the mound in a scrimmage against the Cubs. . . . I got blasted. . . . When the last out was made, I went into the dugout and plopped on the bench, took off my hat, and hung my head. Ox came over to me, slapped one of his big meat hooks on my shoulder, and asked, “So, what mantras or psychological routines did you inculcate yourself with to get your ass kicked out there today?”
Living during the offseason in his grandmother’s house in Canton, Ohio, he’s visited one day by some guy who’s there to drug-test him, to make sure he’s not juicing. I hadn’t thought about this before, but, to prevent offending players from submitting urine samples not their own, you need a witness. So the guy follows Hayhurst into his grandmother’s pink bathroom. As Hayhurst works on producing his sample, he asks him how he likes his job.
The book is one long series of related anecdotes told by a comic genius. The spirit here, part Bull Durham, part Animal House, is conveyed in a droll manner, which makes everything funnier. Some of the characters are composites (“for the benefit,” Hayhurst explains, “of those who may not want to deal with any extra drama this book brings their way”), and the episodes, “based on actual experiences,” have a fictionalized feel that suits the book’s definition of itself just fine and that discerning readers will take as their cue that, no, this is not Ball Four.
Hayhurst’s charm may put you in mind of Mark Twain or Garrison Keillor, whose success as humorists is bound up with their affection for their characters. That someone makes you laugh means that you have contempt for him—or that you like him. It all depends. Hayhurst’s crew are a piece of work and, in the aggregate, conform to a type that is familiar enough and that for most men, at least in theory, triggers an instinctive response: I want to belong to that, I want to travel with them on the team bus and get sick of their company already and know they think of me, though they’d never say it, “He’s one of us.” Lionel Tiger in Men in Groups (1969, 2005) studied male bonding, a term he coined, or at any rate popularized, and he reported his observations as anthropological insights. What Tiger told about, Hayhurst shows.
Membership in a fraternity, which, in one of its aspects, pro ball is, tends to raise your status in the eyes of women you’d like to impress. In turn, your standing with them tends to affect how you rank with your brothers in the fraternity. It’s a feedback loop. Glanville makes some interesting observations in this regard. He makes note, as do his peers, of the beautiful women who are the wives or girlfriends of various players. And he soon finds that his own major-league credentials enable him to do as well. What’s going on, he explains, though he doesn’t use this analogy, is that along with the major-league uniform comes a medal from the Wizard of Oz, who, pinning it on the player’s chest, declares, “You’re the man,” thereby transforming the Nutty Professor—to borrow from another movie—into Buddy Love. Sign a major-league contract and "suddenly you have a free pass to social acceptance. It gets you into those inner circles; it most certainly will get you into the good graces of the girls who once seemed out of your league. They may have been unapproachable because they didn’t think you were cool enough, but more than likely you struck out or never even took a swing because of your own insecurity, your conclusion that you had no chance."
What there is of that dynamic in Hayhurst’s world is for the most part commensurate with that world’s minor league character. From what we see and hear of them, the women in the lives of his teammates are a shifting cast of characters, sometimes colorful (does the hermaphrodite count?) but seldom stunning. Actually, the only thing in that department that his buddies are stunned by comes when they explain to him the superstition that sleeping with a fat girl or playing with a hangover will pull you out of a slump. In a Tim Tebow moment, Hayhurst divulges that he doesn’t drink and he’s saving himself for marriage. Wow. “The bullpen was staring at me as if I walked into a party I wasn’t invited to and the record skipped.”
“Are you religious or something?” Slappy asked.
“Baseball god religious or real religion religious?”
“Real religion religious.”
That’s all we hear from him on the subject of religion—his reticence is eloquent. It’s at least as powerful as anything Tebow, bless him for trying, accomplishes through words, whether spoken or painted on his face, although the comparison is not entirely apt, as Tebow’s message, besides being intentional, is theologically pointed and specific.
More disturbing to Hayhurst’s peers is his declaration that he doesn’t drink.
"Your sex life is private if you want it to be, and I could always cite religion to make the skeptical questioning stop. The drinking thing, however, was a male-bonding ritual. Tossing back a brew with the crew was part of donning the uniform, and guys would frequently remind me that even Jesus put down a glass of wine now and then. The fact is, a lot of guys, baseball or otherwise, don’t feel comfortable around a guy who won’t throw one back occasionally. Baseball and drinking go hand in hand."
The book ends with Hayhurst at his wedding, married to a woman he met apparently through an online dating site. They communicated by e-mail and phone for months before meeting in person, after the season was over. In his speech to their wedding guests, Hayhurst talks about Trevor Hoffman, with whom, we learn, he eventually developed a relationship of mutual respect. The last time they spoke, Hayhurst asked him, “Do you remember a few years back, during spring training, coming out to speak with the minor league pitchers?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Do you remember being asked a certain question about psychological routines and inculcating yourself?”
He looked at me funny, then smiled, “Yeah, I do remember that. You were the one who asked me that huge question. Now that I know you, it doesn’t surprise me at all!”
So Hayhurst finally gets the girl, as in the conventional happy ending, but what distinguishes this tale is how that outcome is linked to that other dimension of male psychology—to the need for, even before a bride, a big brother, who gives you his approval in return for your admiration and says, though without saying it, of course, OK. You’re OK. You’re one of us.
NICHOLAS FRANKOVICH is SABR's Publications Director and editor of the Summer 2010 edition of the "Baseball Research Journal".