It all happened so fast. Even looking back now, it feels like I dreamt it. Memories blurred together like bright lights lingering after you close your eyes. Time sped up when the manager’s office door closed, but when the words were pronounced over me, words I’d been waiting all my life to hear, time put the pedal to the floor and threw me back in the seat.
The emotion was overwhelming, to say the least. It made routine things seem foreign. Breathing was difficult, talking nearly impossible. I stumbled and staggered around the clubhouse while teammates smiled in an expectant fashion, waiting for me to pander to them. There is only one thing in baseball that can do this to a player—they wanted to hear me say it.
I was drunk in the best way possible, but when I sobered up long enough to speak, the only words that came out were, “I’m going to be a big leaguer.”
The morning I left to join the big club, I deflated my air mattress, folded the lawn chair and ironing board I used for a desk set, and threw out the few lonely groceries in my fridge. I put on a sports coat bought at Goodwill, shined shoes loaned me by a teammate, and shaved twice just for good measure. I locked my apartment door, turned in the keys, and waved goodbye to my life as a career minor leaguer.
I watched Portland pass from the back of a cab as I made my way to the airport. Yet it was not the trees or the buildings I beheld; rather, I was looking at my life, a film of memories projected on the world as it went by.
I could see myself playing Tee-ball, running the bases in the wrong direction, happy to be alive. Little League teams eating ice cream with me, even after we lost. Summer leagues where my parents fought favoritism so I could get playing time. Then there was the awkwardness of high school: hormones, egos, and the donning of a letterman’s jacket. College next, a beautiful scene of accomplishment and maturity.
I noticed a slight reflection of my face on the cab’s window glass. I had aged so much from my college days, stretched and tempered by those that followed. One cue, from the emerald backdrop of the City of Roses came the memory of my initiation into professional baseball. I was drafted, the eighth-round pick of the San Diego Padres. The contract came overnight in the mail. I signed with shaking hands and went out to eat with my family to celebrate. I was going to get paid to play baseball, and though I didn’t know how little it was at the time, I didn’t care. I would have walked through fire for the chance to play, and, indeed, I did.
On an escalator inside the airport, people passed by. I am sure I looked very real to them, but I was not there. I was someplace in the past. My eyes vacantly recorded planes through the panoramic concourse glass while I was standing in a field in Eugene, Oregon, in rookie ball, signing autographs. I was a wearing pro jersey for the first time. A blink and I was a year older and a level higher in Fort Wayne, Indiana, accepting my nomination for the all-star team. I was on the fast track, never more confident I was going to make it to the top.
Then, though the escalator carried me forward, I was tumbling back. My struggles began. Four years of my career spent spinning my wheels. I remembered the demotion I took like a punch, knocking me from a step below the bigs to a step above rookie ball. The feeling of helplessness and how the will to fight slipped away. I remembered the anger and outrage, doubt and pain. I remembered the consuming jealousy as those around me moved forward while I was left behind, written off as a washout. I was told I was a bust.
I started to resent baseball. I started to hate it.
How many times had I gone through airports like this? Traveling away from home and loved ones to try my hand at being a better string of numbers than the next guy. How many times had I sat in the back of cabs, navigating unfamiliar streets for a chance at a chance? How many bus trips to nowhere towns for nobody teams? I’d seen six years of my life pass by staring out windows, looking into an uncertain future with nothing but hope to guide me.
I was a long shot, a non-prospect, and if the things scouts wrote about me were true, I wouldn’t be standing here. I had turned my career around and put myself back on the map. I had beaten the odds, refused to be written off. My dues were paid in full, and it was time for me to take hold of my purchase. The culmination of and inspiration for every dream, doubt, and drop of sweat was waiting for me at my destination, and I was flying to meet it first class.
Read more from Dirk, including details on his coming book, “The Bullpen Gospels,” at www.dirkhayhurst.com