Nothing good ever seemed to happen to my family.
When I was 13, my dad fell off the roof of our house while laying shingles. Two years later, after countless hours spent learning how to walk again, he was fired from the job he’d held for 20 years because nerve damage sustained during the fall crippled him—meaning he couldn’t work fast enough anymore.
After my dad lost his job, my mom was fired from hers. A changing of the guard ousted her from her secretarial position at the local township. She almost burned the place down, she was so incensed.
Home became a bitter place, full of short tempers and long arguments. My brother, who never had a hard time finding trouble, seemed to end up in the center of every drama. He turned into an alcoholic by way of coping, and by the time I was a senior in high school, he’d totaled three cars, been arrested twice and, in a drunken rage, put my head through a coffee table.
I was the youngest and, by the measures we had at the time, the most successful. I was a standout student in high school, captain of the speech and debate team, a member of the art guild and, most importantly, one of the best amateur baseball pitchers in the state of Ohio who would most assuredly turn pro.
During my junior year of high school, I’d already signed to go to Kent State. By my senior year, pro scouts were in attendance at every game. The local newspapers all wrote articles about how great I was, how I had the stuff to make the majors. I’d filled out enough magazine-insert style major league baseball scouting questionnaire cards that every organization in the sport had to know who I was.
I was a star in my little pond, but a star whose parents were flat broke, borrowing money from family and collecting aluminum cans to make ends meet; a star who was used to cops showing up at the house to break up fights between an old, crippled man and his drunken, violent son; a star who was used to his mom threatening divorce and a family the extended relatives talked about like an inside joke.
Like any red-blooded American ball-playing boy, I wanted to turn pro. There was also this sense that I had to turn pro; that, after all my parents had sacrificed, I’d better not waste the chance. I was the family’s champion and if it didn't work out for me, what was the point of fighting against a life that had flown off the rails?
The good news was that the scouts who asked me to fill out their questionnaire cards told me, come June 3, 1999, I should keep my signing hand ready. I believed them, and since most high school picks got paid large sums of money to steer clear of college, I thought I’d make enough to get the family back on track.
But then June 3 came and went and nothing happened. No phone call. No follow-up. Nothing.
My dad fell into a deep depression. My mother started eating mints compulsively and wasting days playing solitaire on her computer while empty coffee cups and ashtrays overflowed. My brother went to rehab, moved into a trailer park, then relapsed and drank himself blind before passing out, face down in his own vomit and urine, and moved back home.
I went off to college, but my heart was always home, looking to the next chance I’d have to fix the mess I left behind.
I rolled up three great years at Kent State before I’d get my next shot at the pro draft. Come 2002, my junior year, I was the staff’s ace. I led the team to a regional bid, and made the all-conference all-star team for my effort. My fastball sat in the low-90s, I struck out hitters in bunches, and ate up innings in big gulps.
Everyone on the team expected me to go pro. In fact, they wanted me to. I was obsessed with the draft to the point my teammates couldn’t associate with me after my starts. It got so bad that a teammate called my apartment answering machine in a fake voice and left a message: “Hello Dirk, this is Harry Rosinbag with the Kansas City Royals. I was just calling to talk to you about our interest in you for this year’s draft. We’re thinking of taking you in the first round and wanted to know if you’re interested in becoming a Royal, and if you’d take a flat $1 million to sign?”
It didn’t help that a Cleveland Indians scout said I should expect to go in the top 10 rounds. You can’t imagine what that was like to hear. Me, a stupid kid who never had a paycheck bigger than $300, told I’d get drafted to live my dream, and probably make $100,000 or so in the process. Surreal.
Then the day of the 2002 amateur draft came. I sat on the floor of my room in my parents' house, surrounded by dirty clothes, useless textbooks and stained dorm-room furniture. It could all burn for all I cared. The only thing that mattered, the only thing I’d bothered to unpack, was my phone, which I held, waiting for it to ring.
It never did.
The next day, my college coach tried to console me. He told me that, despite not going pro, I still had a chance to break all the school’s pitching records and make a case for Kent State’s Athletic Hall of Fame. I told him that, as nice as that was, it wasn't what I wanted or why I worked so hard.
Most kids look at college in a practical sense, as a gateway to a degree in a lucrative field. For an athlete, however, pro sports is that lucrative field. It is their chance at a better life. But in my big chance, I was 0-for-2.
I went out with friends the day after the draft. I needed to blow off steam and find a reason to trust and believe in my talent again. I hated the draft, scouts, questionnaire cards and the industry of baseball as a whole. I didn’t trust it anymore. I didn’t trust myself.
I don't remember what I did that night, but I remember when I made it back home, I walked in to find my dad alone in the dark, weeping, with a rifle in his mouth.
I spoke calmly to my dad until I could get close enough to grab the gun. The reason he couldn’t use his old work keyboard was the same reason he couldn’t maneuver the trigger. I overpowered him, but in his frustration he punched me repeatedly, demanding I give it back to him, because more than anything he wanted to die.
“Nothing ever goes right for us!” he said as I held the gun. “Nothing. Just one disappointment after the next … life just doesn’t have any reason … just shoot me!”
I told him he was wrong and that life did have a purpose. But, considering the way I was feeling, I’m not sure I believed myself.
The following year, back at Kent State, I pitched better than my junior year. And come June 3, 2003, the phone finally rang.
The San Diego Padres had drafted me in the eighth round.
Their initial offer was for $10,000. After some negotiations by my agent, they upped it to $15,000 and two velcro Padres caps.
I had no leverage as a senior. My parents were thrilled, but I was disappointed.
I was finally going to be a pro, and I was thankful for it, but the bonus shrunk closer to $10,000 after taxes, and that wasn’t enough to help my dad with his medical bills, get my parents a new car, or get them out from under the shame of taking money from their parents. It just wasn’t enough, and to get a shot like that again, I’d have to beat near-astronomical odds and make it to the big leagues and stay.
I knew there were millions of people who would trade the opportunity with me in a heartbeat, but what those people didn’t know is, if they had a healthy, stable family, I’d have traded my life for theirs.
On the day of the draft, my parents and I went to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate. It was a dive of a place where you ordered food by its number and ate off Styrofoam plates with plastic utensils.
My mom stood up during the meal and told everyone in the place—four bikers, an elderly couple which was more frightened by my mom’s outburst than intrigued, and a pair of Chinese waiters—that her little boy was going to be a professional baseball player and that she was so proud. There was a light round of applause and then everyone went back to scrapping heavily breaded, deep-fried Chinese.
I was ashamed. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. I wanted to take my parents out. I wanted it to be a nice place. I wanted it to be followed by an all-expenses paid trip to the car dealership. I wanted a new start for all of us. Instead I got a fortune cookie that taught me how to say “good afternoon” in Chinese.
“I’m sorry,” I told my parents, “I’m sorry it happened like this.”
They were confused.
“Why are you sorry?” my mother said.
“I’m sorry this day isn’t what it was supposed to be,” I said. “I’m sorry that all your sacrificing to get me here ended up like this. I’m sorry that, even when things go right for us, they still feel wrong.”
“Honey,” my mother said, “you shouldn’t feel sorry. You should feel good. You’re breaking free of this now. You’re moving on with your life. We never wanted you to fix things for us; we wanted you to live your life and experience your dream. We’re sorry.”
My dad agreed.
“And who’s to say you didn’t fix something?,” he said. “If you wouldn’t have pitched yourself into a college scholarship, we’d never have been able to send you. If you’d have gotten drafted out of high school and tried to give us the money, we might have been dumb enough to take it, and your mother and I would have regretted that more than anything else that’s happened.”
“And,” my mother said, “if you had been drafted your junior year, you may not have been home when your father needed you.”
Now I was confused.
“But I thought he was depressed because of me not getting drafted?,” I said.
My dad looked away and my mom reached across the table to pat my hand.
“That’s not the first time your dad has been in that situation. The other times, I’ve been home for him to lean on. It’s a much bigger issue than you and your baseball career, and if you’d have gotten drafted, you may have covered it up and hid it until it was too late.”
“We’re proud of you,” my dad said. “Now stop ruining one of the few good days we get and eat your crappy Chinese!”
This week, many young dreamers are getting their chance to play professional baseball. Some will receive a life-changing windfall. Some will get a plane ticket and cab fare.
And some won't get the call at all. In that silence, there will be doubt and sadness. To those players, know that you are not a failure, and that your career, though not as long as you might have liked it to have been, is no less glorious, even if you can’t see that right now.
Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also an accomplished author, and has appeared on Baseball America, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more.
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