The title of Dirk Hayhurst‘s third “tell-all” book, Bigger than the Game: Restitching a Major League Life, is a bit of an enigma. If you’ve read any of Hayhursts books, you’ll know that, from his self-deprecating tone, he would never think that he’s bigger than the game.
For the uninitiated, Dirk Hayhurst is a former baseball player (and Toronto Blue Jay), author and broadcaster who has garnered a lot of attention for this two previous books that gave readers and unparalleled glimpse into the life of a struggling ballplayer who is making his way through the minor leagues into the majors. Each of his books tells a cohesive story: The Bullpen Gospels tells of his struggles in the minor leagues, trying to figure out who he is as a baseball player and Out of My League tells of his ascent to the big leagues both in terms of his career and with the woman whom he married. His third book, Bigger than the Game, tells probably the biggest story of the three: it depicts Hayhurst coming to terms with who he as a person once baseball has been taken away from him by injury.
Bigger than the Game has Hayhurst dealing with depression and addiction that is brought about by a dual-edged sword of feelings of futility and ostracism. It’s the offseason after the 2009 season, Hahurst’s most successful as a professional, and things are going better than ever for Dirk: he’s just bought a home with his wife, has a good chance to return to the major leagues and has a book about to come out. When Hayhurst injures his right (throwing) shoulder while doing a non-sanctioned workout, unsupervised by his trainer, Mondo, he goes from the cusp of a steady, major league job to the bottom of the heap, stuck in rehab hell. To add insult to injury (literally), the imminent release his first book, The Bullpen Gospels, is becoming a point of division with his teammates. Hayhurst has already caught flak from his teammates for writing a book in the first place, a violation of baseball’s “code” of ethics among players. Now, trying to rehab his injured shoulder and drum up press for his book, Hayhurst is seen to be infringing on another part of the code as his teammates perceive him to be cozying up to the media without having anything to offer on the field.
It’s in this part of the book that we’re introduced to “Brice Jared” (I have my theory on who I think “Brice” is but I’ll let you speculate on your own), a young, brash pitcher who takes personal offense to Hayhurst’s spring training behaviours and behaves like a bully, trying to make sure that Hayhurst knows his place as an injured, bullpen pitcher who wouldn’t even have a guaranteed spot on the team if he was healthy. The internal toll of feeling helpless and unable to go out on the field to show that he belongs in the big league clubhouse and make amends for being perceived as a “rat” combined with his ostracism from the group leads Hayhurst down a dangerous path of depression. He turns to sleeping pills, painkillers and alcohol to try to self-medicate and forget about the endless cycle of seemingly pointless rehab exercises distractedly supervised by team trainer, “Jep Jasper.”
The rest of the book takes place away from the Blue Jays training camp as Hayhurst tries to get himself right through counseling and rehab at the Andrews Sports & Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, Alabama. With a colourful array of characters there, Hayhurst tangibly creates a completely different world than he had inhabited in Dunedin, Florida at the Blue Jays minor league complex. This is one of the two testaments to Hayhurst’s gifts as a writers. He paints the two locales as differently as possible with his words, colouring the Dunedin rehab facility as drab and aimless while the bright lights and vivid personalities of Andrews’s clinic and facility, led by Dr. Kevin Wilk, Director of Rehabilitative Research at the American Sports Medicine Institute, are offer optimism and hope. Not only is Wilk given a larger than life personality but so are the other patients.
The second aspect of Bigger than the Game that truly shows off Hayhurst’s writing talent is the humour that is consistently found within. Dealing with such dark subject matter (mental health), the fact that Hayhurst is not only able to relay funny stories but is able to depict the absurdity of his situations is what makes this book so enjoyable and, quite possibly, the best of the three. Bigger than the Game is not simply a frivolous account of the hijinx of “boys being boys” in professional baseball: it is a deeper and more thoughtful account of a player’s life on the fringes of the game and, more often than not, on the outside looking in. Hayhurst has dealt with dark subject matter before, particularly in his relationship with his own family but, in this book, the weight of the conflict takes more of a center stage than before.
So what is Hayhurst trying to say is bigger than the game? Perhaps it’s his own life as he realizes that, once the game has been taken away from him by injury, he must come to terms with the fact that there’s more to it than baseball. Perhaps it’s “the code” and by violating the unwritten rules, he’s more easily shunted to the side by his teammates and management. There are other possibilities that you’ll have to read for yourself to try to decipher.
I highly recommend Bigger than the Game. Hayhurst is maturing as a writer and, in addition to giving us a funny, entertaining read, makes this book something that might be able to help others through their own dark times.