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Broken Athletes and What it Means to be Human
on March 28, 2014
I have read all four of Dirk Hayhurst's books now and have enjoyed each one of them. Where the first three predominately focused on the lighter side of baseball (with terrific background into his troubled family, his supportive romance and subsequent marriage), "Bigger Than the Game" takes a slightly different tack. Dirk gets injured and his experiences move to the trials and tribulations of dealing with rehab, teammates resentful of his writing, and the realization that what makes one good on the field of competition is not necessarily what gives one an acceptable quality of life.
Dirk Hayhurst's writing is vulnerable and real. We are privy to the rarely seen shadow world of pro sports rehabbing and psychologists. A particularly funny section of the book takes place at the world famous Andrews Clinic in Birmingham, where Hayhurst encounters sadistic trainers, a baseball crazy nun, a living ghost of the old south, and wrestler Triple H.
The world of the injured player can be a difficult one. “I don’t think being lonely has anything to do with the number of people you’re around,” writes Hayhurst. Largely separated from the team during their physical rehab regimen, players are suddenly removed from the game they have devoted their lives to from an early age. With time suddenly on their hands basic insecurities often rise and introspection follows. Some cannot handle it. Some become depressed and turn to pain meds, some turn to alcohol, and some face difficult home lives. “Spring training for the injured is like detention. While everyone else is out having fun, sharing experiences in the game they love, you’re stuck inside doing tedious busywork.” While teams now often provide a sports psychologist to help players work through these problems, actually going to see one is seen as a sign of weakness by many in the game.
Hayhurst finally does go to the psychologist, albeit reluctantly, and works to come to terms with his difficulties. Professional sports is a business, and as a business it is performance based. “It’s like this,” he writes. “This whole industry is morally bankrupt. It’s full of fakes and bastards and arrogant SOBs who can get away with murder as long as they play great. And then, on the flip side, there’s a pocket of decent guys who deserve respect, but don’t get it if they don’t play well…but instead of trying to say we’re not a commodity, we just want to be the most valuable commodity possible…both sides say they hate it and yet both sides wouldn’t have it any other way.” Later, when he talks to wrestler Triple H at the Andrews Clinic, Hayhurst realizes that playing a sport professionally is “a job where people look at the role you play on television and feel they have the right to make up what your life should be like.”
If, as Yogi Berra said, 90 percent of baseball is half mental, the mental side of the game is much underrepresented in print. Players have to learn not only how to play the game, but how to play a role when they reach the elite levels of their sport. Many struggle off the field with this distinction, with disastrous results plucked right from today's headlines. Hayhurst encounters all of these issues and more. Instead of succumbing to his problems, he uses the time to step away from the intense competition of sport and get some much-needed perspective. “…at the end of the day, we were just grown men putting on costumes and playing children’s games. To take any of it more seriously than that was a mistake.” The money, competition, intensity and constant press coverage seems to warp perspectives and values in sports in a way that makes people glorify the game and forget that there are other things that are more important. Players coddled from a young age because of their athletic abilities often forget that there is much more out there that is bigger than the game.
Dirk Hayhurst gives us a rare and fascinating behind the scenes glimpse of broken athletes working out of the spotlight not just to return to form, but to discover and face what it really is to be human. “You know,” he writes, “I think I learned more about baseball this year than any season before it, and I didn't throw a single pitch.”