The Padres selected right-hander Dirk Hayhurst in the eighth round of the 2003 draft out of Kent State University. Before Hayhurst made his big-league debut earlier this September, he was known by many fans for his off-beat and sometimes poignant stories of life in the minors.
I recently had the opportunity to “talk” with Dirk via email. He graciously responded to my questions mere hours after being treated rudely by the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine. Big thanks to Dirk for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us and to represent with class even in defeat.
Ducksnorts: You’ve worked as both a starter and reliever throughout your career. What are the differences in terms of preparation? Which do you prefer, and why?
Hayhurst: Actually, I prefer to be both. I enjoy the ‘pen, as it grants me a chance to pitch every day. I enjoy the starting rotation because it gives me a day of my own. Being a spot man is the best of both worlds.
I’ve been a reliever my last few years, and for spot starting, there really isn’t much preparation change involved. I usually don’t find out about a start until 48 hours beforehand so I can’t do much more thsn I would if I was coming into a game in the sixth. Even my approach stays the same — throw as many strikes as I can, and get outs any way possible. You’d be surprised how similar relieving and starting are when you boil them down. With either, a pitcher must have the approach of attacking the zone with his best stuff, regardless of his role.
Ducksnorts: What are your greatest strengths as a player, and what aspects of your game do you feel you need to improve to remain in the big leagues?
Hayhurst: Well, if you look at my current numbers here in the big leagues, you could argue I need to improve everything! (laughs!). My greatest strength has always been versatility. But I’m versatile because I have been a strike thrower in every situation I’ve been put in. This leads me to my struggles as of late. I’m versatile because I throw strikes, yet currently, that is not the case. I am not locating as well as I am capable, and it’s costing me. The big leagues punish mistakes quite mercilessly.
I know what I can do, what’s gotten me here. I must find and continually command the zone with all my pitches to succeed at this level.
Ducksnorts: You’ve arrived in San Diego at an interesting time for the Padres. On the heels of the best four-year stretch in franchise history, the team has struggled in 2008 and started trying to inject some youth into the lineup in preparation for next season. How do you see yourself fitting in here, and how much fun has it been to come up at the same time as many of the guys you’ve gotten to know during your time in the minors?
Hayhurst: It’s been a rough year for the Pads, and as fun as it is to be a rookie making his first go at the bigs, the season’s turbulence has rocked us all. It was amazing to come up period, let alone to be greeted by so many familiar faces. There really are no words to capture the realization of a dream come true — a dream shared by no less than 14 Padres this year, I believe. However, as great as this experience is, we still have work to do.
None of us new faces wants to stop and smell the roses of our big leaguer lives. We all want to succeed and see the Padres put back on track, pointed toward a championship.
Ducksnorts: Thanks in part to your writings at Baseball America, you gained a following of sorts before ever reaching the big leagues. What does that mean to you, and how have your teammates reacted?
Hayhurst: When I started blogging for BA, I made some missteps, resulting in many teammate detractors. At one point I thought I was going to lose my job over it. Now, however, I’ve shown my intent as a writer, the content I like to create, and the direction I have for it. My teammates enjoy my stories, and occasionally suggest and request for the next one.
I love my BA fans. My writing is one thing I am very proud of. It’s shown me I’m not a one-trick pony. I cherish the emails I get and if you ever want my attention at a game, bring up something of mine you’ve read.
I have enjoyed the experience so much that I plan to write in some capacity for the rest of my career.
Ducksnorts: That is great news for all of us. On a related note, it seems that more athletes are delivering their own message these days. How important do you think it will be, going forward, for them to do this sort of thing? What benefits do you see? What drawbacks?
Hayhurst: Sports Celebrity is a gilded title. If you ask me, sports are grossly overvalued in our country. It’s a shame that doctors, teachers, scholars, and even parents aren’t held in higher esteem. I’ve pondered what this means, what living in a society where sports heroes are celebrated more than those who cure the sick or volunteer to serve the homeless says about us. It’s a fact of culture I can question all I want, but it’s not going to change. Our society worships entertainment.
For better or for worse, we athletes have a responsibility to live up to the highest standards. We are watched and mimicked by millions. We must use the platform for a positive impact. If that starts with someone like me, some career minor leaguer who’s popped up to the bright lights for who knows how long, admitting that he’s just some regular Joe underneath his big-league costume, then so be it.
Ducksnorts: We’ve touched on Baseball America, but what other baseball web sites and/or print publications do you read?
Hayhurst: Well, I write for my hometown paper, the Canton Repository. I don’t read a lot of sports publications. In fact, I don’t read Baseball America. I get a little baseballed out! I read classics like the Count of Monte Cristo, or just good ol’ comic books.
Ducksnorts: In writing about your visit to a homeless shelter last year, you reflected that “I am nothing special,” which isn’t the sort of thing we’ve grown accustomed to hearing from professional athletes (or anyone, really). To whom or what do you owe this attitude?
Hayhurst: Well, the short answer is Jesus Christ. Look, I know it’s cliche, almost expected that sports figures throw out the God reference. Heck, I hear Gangsta Rappers talk about killing people, then toss out the obligatory “God gave me all my success” garbage all the time. It makes me scratch my head, too. But really, when it comes right down to it, Jesus is one heck of an inspiring dude. The concepts he had were radical — caring for others at the expense of himself, going out of one’s way to love others, mercy without limit? Sounds like nothing new, until you try it.
The stuff actually works, and it changes YOU more than the person you feel like you’re blessing with your time. That was a big moment for me. There I was, a professional baseball player, a title revered by so many, finding out how pathetic I really am because I feel like I should be treated special while folks just like me starve to death. What’s so special about me that’s not special about them? Is it just that I play ball? What a crock. Baseball’s great, but it’s misleading and I feel it’s misled many of us into believing things that just aren’t true. We may feel like people with better jobs, like baseball, or better titles, like professional athlete, are somehow better human beings and more deserving than the rest of us. I don’t buy that. I can’t. We are on the same footing when we strip off the titles and costumes.
I’m not saying I’m perfect, or that I’ve got something figured out no one else does. I’m not implying that I’m saintly and we all should sell our possessions. I’m just saying, if baseball is the only thing that makes me valuable, that’s sad. There is so much more to all of us than our titles. I figured the best way I could say that is to tell you right up front, yeah, I’m a pro baseball player and it doesn’t make me special because if it does, what does it say to those who aren’t pro baseball players?
Ducksnorts: One aspect of fandom I’ve always struggled with — and I can’t imagine what it’s like for those of you in uniform — is the sense of entitlement some folks seem to have, the feeling that because they paid for a ticket to watch you play, you somehow owe them beyond what you give on the diamond. How do you deal with that?
Hayhurst: This is dangerous territory we are getting into, because folks who feel like they are entitled to our time beyond the diamond will be awfully upset if I say they are not. I am in the grey zone here because this job is so public — there are aspects of it that are “come with the territory” items and aspects that are “intruding into my personal life.” Signing autographs is come with the territory. Being interrupted when out with family is intruding. Of course, the burden is on the player because his reaction will be scrutinized more harshly than the fan’s intentions.
I think it’s important to keep in perspective that graciousness and humility can take you a long way, on both sides of this player/fan relationship. Fans who respect and treat players like people are usually responded to in positive, rewarding ways. Players who humbly accept fans’ requests are loved. It doesn’t always operate this way, though; most fans chastise players for not responding to their demands, consequently resulting in a general visage of obliviousness to all fans. A point of advice is, do something for a player. Seriously, bake cookies, make a card, bring up that article I wrote. Don’t just show up and demand attention or a souvenir. There are thousands of other people doing the same thing, and even if we are feeling generous, there is a lot of competition for our time. If you go above and beyond with something that establishes yourself as a caring human being, we’ll respond to you with more frequency and sincerity.
It’s not technically in our contracts to stop and accommodate any fan, but a friend with cookies and a gracious smile? Well, I’m sure I can find an extra ball around here someplace…
Ducksnorts: You refer to yourself as a “non-prospect.” Those of us who evaluate such things tend to lump players into categories out of convenience. I know it goes with the territory, but how does it feel to be judged constantly by scouts, coaches, and the like?
Hayhurst: I hate being summed up. One fundamental issue about baseball is, the stats seem to define your existence. Bad ERAs mean you suck, and good ones mean you are great. Not just as players, but as people. If you want to make it in this game, you’ve got to realize people are always going to be judging you, evaluating you, summing you up, and writing you off. There will always be those who define you by your title, your numbers, or your last outing. You must be able to separate your worth as a baseball player from your worth as a person. It’s just a game.
It’s a simple concept, but hard to do. Especially when you’ve been working your whole life to become a baseball player. It must be done, though, because it’s no way to live. You can’t believe you’re worthless when you pitch bad and a hero when you pitch well. It’s a roller coaster ride.
As I mentioned above, I don’t like reading publications like BA, or other sports media, because they tend to objectify players. The people in this game, be it scouts, coaches, or managers, who I’ve learned from, and been inspired by all do one thing well — they treat us like individuals. I realize there is a necessary evaluation process involved in the game — it is a business after all — but we are more than just commodities.
The reason I billed myself as the non-prospect in my writing is because I grew so tired of hearing only about the next big players. It seemed like so much of baseball media revolved around prophesying over great talent, it forgot about the built-in magic of the game and the individuals who play it, be they prospects or otherwise. It’s true, I was not a prospect when I started writing, anyone who reported on baseball would have told you that — they would have looked at my career, evaluated the numbers, and made a judgment call. Yet here I am, a testimony to the great stories we miss when all we concern ourselves with is the next great thing. There are a lot of non-prospects out there whose stories are no less evocative.
Ducksnorts: Finally, I just have to ask: Can you get Chase Headley’s autograph for me?
Hayhurst: His autograph looks so much like mine, I’ll bet you won’t even tell the difference.
Thanks again to Dirk for stopping by to chat with us. Here’s hoping for future success in whatever life brings his way.