Breaking The Code

It’s often said that baseball is a metaphor for life. Each spring, as the major league season gets set to begin, I like to read one baseball-related book to set the mood for the next 162 games. And, inevitably, I end up learning a little bit more about baseball – and a whole lot more about life.

This year on the bookshelf, it was the third effort by Dirk Hayhurst, a journeyman pitcher who had a couple of cups of coffee with three major league teams a few years back, but is probably better known for his intelligent, witty writing and his television appearances on Rogers Sportsnet and TBS during last year’s playoffs.

Hayhurst’s books are filled with small moments of triumph surrounded by plenty of self-doubt, deprecation and failure. His first book, The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran, talked about his long career in the minor leagues, trying and hoping for a break that would take him from a life of riding buses and pinching pennies to the big-paying career of a major leaguer. This was a side of baseball rarely written about, which made it refreshing. It also made Hayhurst somewhat of a pariah for breaking an unwritten baseball code: what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room.

In his second effort, Out Of My League: A Rookie’s Survival in the Bigs, Hayhurst finally achieves his dream of playing regularly in the major leagues. Along the way, he meets and marries the woman of his dreams and buys his first house. Still, Hayhurst is hounded by the demons of his own horribly dysfunctional family and finds many bumps in the road.

Which brings us to Bigger Than the Game: Restitching a Major League Life, Hayhurst’s latest effort. The “code” plays a bigger part in this chapter of Hayhurst’s life. The book picks up after his successful season with the Jays when he injures himself in the off-season and spends the better part of the year undergoing surgery, rehabbing and dealing with severe depression.

Hayhurst ends up talking with a sports psychologist via phone for a good portion of this period, trying to sort out why he can’t be happy, even when good things happen to him. He talks often about the nature of the code and how he’s alienated his teammates by breaking one of baseball’s unwritten laws. He worries constantly about how he is perceived by others and struggles with trying to hold himself back and act the way he’s expected to around veteran players, coaches, trainers and his wife.

The psychologist listens patiently for several sessions of Hayhurst’s moaning and whining, leading the player along and pretending to be on his side. Finally, he broadsides Dirk, telling him how incredibly selfish and self-centred he is. Hayhurst is so shocked, he actually makes the doctor repeat himself and asks, “Is this a joke?”

To answer the question, the psychologist explains: “You keep using this language, ‘everyone.’ ‘Everyone hates me. Everyone likes me. They all think I’m nuts.’ It’s a pretty selfish way to think, wouldn’t you say? Believing that at any given time every person you come into contact with hates or likes you, or even cares about you at all?”

Hayhurst tries to reason with the psychologist, talking about how a few of the players have openly criticized him for breaking the code. “I know all about expectations and codes and unwritten rules,” says the doctor. “Most players spend their entire careers subscribing to one form of them or another. Most people, for that matter. You think baseball players are unique in code making?”

Hayhurst says he does. “Please,” the psychologist says. “You’re not as special as you think. People everywhere worry about how the group will see them if they break those codes. Codes they never even had a hand in making but take on as all-encompassing. We all do. And we all project those assumed consequences of breaking those codes onto ourselves or others, to the point that we act on them irrationally.”

It’s at this moment that the door to Hayhurst’s real problems is finally opened wide. The issue is not about others, it’s about Hayhurst himself. Like all of us, to some degree, he’s concerned about what others think about him, rather than trying to live his own life and be true to himself. He can be what he wants to be, but he also has to deal with the consequences when he does so. If he feels there’s a reason for breaking the code and doing what he believes in, he needs to fight for that right.

During this time, Hayhurst also befriends a brilliant physical therapist who helps him battle through his pitching injuries and insecurities while the psychologist continues to work on his mental challenges. With their help and, as the book’s subtitle notes, he’s able to restitch his life. As his psychologist says, “I’m not going to fix you, Dirk, because you’re not broken. I’m just going to help you learn about who you are, underneath the seams.”

There you have it. A metaphor for life masquerading as a book about baseball. It proves that you never know where you’re going to find wisdom or learn more about your own place on this planet. In this case, Hayhurst has provided both. And hit a home run while doing it. How many pitchers can say that?


All About Autumn

“Autumn…the year’s last, loveliest smile.” – William Cullen Bryant

It’s the season so nice, they named it twice. Some call it fall. Some call it autumn. I call it awesome. What a glorious time of year it is. Nature’s harvest in its full majesty. Gorgeous sunsets. Crisp, cool mornings. A rainbow of fall colours. Thanksgiving. Halloween. Bundled up school kids. Hearty meals prepared with the season’s bounty. Falling leaves. More falling leaves. Taking off the crops. Cozying up under a blanket. Craft sales. Hot apple cider spiced just right. Leisurely fall walks. Pumpkins, squashes and gourds, oh my. The World Series (aka The Fall Classic).

It’s an autumn extravaganza of dazzling pleasures, just waiting to be enjoyed. As George Eliot once said, “Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”

Ms. Eliot had that right. Unlike other seasons, where you’re anxious for the next one to arrive, most of us would be perfectly happy if fall stayed around a little while longer. Even in the bleakest days of November, you’re still hoping for one more of those lingering autumn afternoons where you put on a fall jacket, take a hearty deep breath, stroll through a forest of changing colours, and reminisce about the year that’s slowly fading into the horizon.

Everyone has the season they enjoy most, one that often reflects your personality. For me, it’s always been autumn. Writer Lauren DeStefano feels the same way: “Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.” Author and journalist Jim Bishop agrees: “Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.”

To me, the other three seasons seem so showy, so full of themselves. Autumn is a time of peace, of contemplation, of reflection, of giving thanks. Yoko Ono said, “Spring passes and one remembers one’s innocence. Summer passes and one remembers one’s exuberance. Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence. Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.”

Reverence. That’s a good word for it. “A feeling or attitude of deep respect, tinged with awe.” What a perfect description of this wonderful season. It’s a time when the farmers’ labour is repaid with the bountiful harvest. When we settle back into a warm, welcome routine following the vagaries of summer. When we give thanks for the warm memories that have come and gone throughout the year. And when we prepare for the long winter ahead and enjoy those remaining moments of sunshine and warmth.

It’s sad and happy and toasty and frigid and melancholy and joyous and light and dark and new and old and romantic and heartbreaking and so much more – all rolled into one magnificent, meandering collection of moments. It’s autumn. Enjoy every second of its transcendent beauty before it’s gone.



You Know You’re Getting Old When…

Last weekend, I had the weird déjà vu experience of interviewing an Emergency Services worker who my wife used to babysit many, many years ago when he was just a toddler. It made me realize that not only am I not getting any younger but, consequently, I also happen to be getting a whole lot older. It’s funny how that works, isn’t it?

In any case, that encounter, plus a whole lot of other recent experiences made me start thinking about all those subtle signs that start cropping up at some point in your life and make you realize that, hey, you’re definitely on that slippery slope into agedness.

One sure sign was when my eldest daughter and her boyfriend recently made an offer to purchase their first home. It took me back to when my wife and I were doing the same thing 25+ years ago and considered ourselves to be full-fledged adults. When your kids are suddenly going through the identical experience, it makes you appreciate exactly how far along you are on the journey of life.

Of course, there are plenty of other road signs that you’re getting old. Here are just a few:

1)    The music you listened to when you were growing up is now so old it no longer even qualifies to be played on the oldies radio stations.

2)    Not only are you constantly complaining about your aches and pains, your children have started to complain regularly about theirs, as well.

3)    The old expressions you use are so out of date you constantly have to explain them  – and they don’t even appear in the dictionary anymore. Instead, they’ve now become the conversational equivalent of cave drawings.

4)    When you watch “old celebrities” on television or read about them in magazines, you suddenly realize they’re the same age as you are. And, frankly, none of them are looking all that great anymore.

5)    Virtually all the technology you grew up with (tape recorders, VHS machines, CD players, home phones, etc.) is now obsolete. Miraculously, the one technology you figured was gone forever, vinyl records, inexplicably lives on.

6)    Inevitably, you have to compare the prices of everything you buy with what it cost when you were growing up. That’s followed by a sentence that goes something like, “Why, when I was a kid you could buy…”

7)    You enjoy playing the “Dead or Alive” game with all the movie stars, singers, and sports figures you grew up with. Not surprisingly, every time you play, you end up with more on the dead list than the live one.

8)    Crooked, inept politicians from years past start to look more and more attractive compared with some of the choices available today. Richard M. Nixon, come back! All is forgiven.

9)    You constantly need to make a list of where you put the list of the lists of all the things you’re supposed to do today. After much searching, you’re able to locate that list in the back of the refrigerator where you mistakenly put it. Now you start wondering that – if the list is in the fridge – where the heck is that jug of milk you were supposed to put away? Once that’s all sorted out, you begin the search for your reading glasses, which are, obviously, required to read the list of the list of the list. Then you forget what you were looking for in the first place and decide to take a nap on the couch. Repeat as necessary.

10) The hapless Toronto Maple Leafs of your youth are now perennial Stanley Cup Champions. Hmmm. Apparently, I’m not as ancient as I thought.

There’s a silly old expression that goes something like, “You’re only as old as you feel.” In case you’ve already forgotten, check out #3 on the list above and see why it’s an old expression. Who actually uses that phrase when, instead, you start feeling old pretty much all the time and the first question you pose to your spouse each morning is, “How’d you sleep last night?”

In any case, if you’re feeling old today, take solace. You’re not alone. It happens to all of us and it’s pretty much unavoidable, no matter how much you fight it. So, to everyone reading this, here’s to getting old. Cheers! May you enjoy every moment of it. Now, with all due respect, “Get off my lawn.”

Does Anyone Hate Winter More Than Me?

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right off the top: I hate winter. Honestly, I never used to have a problem with this season until my family moved up to Northwestern Ontario right before I started Grade 11. After that, it was straight downhill in the winter-loving department. For me, there are four defining moments in my life that made me realize how winter and I share totally different philosophies of life.

The first occurred in high school when I had to walk to a hockey game one evening. Here’s something you should probably not recommend to your children: trudging several miles at night carrying a duffel bag loaded with goalie equipment in -47 Celsius (-53 F) weather. Imagine adding cold on top of cold on top of cold. Got it? Good, because that’s still nothing close to what I felt like that night.

But, that’s just the tip of iceberg. And I’m not using that cliché figuratively. A few years later, a buddy of mine offered to take me out ice fishing. Well, gosh, that sounds like it might be a lot of fun, doesn’t it? If it’s anything like the grand old time those characters had ice fishing in the animated version of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, I bet it will be a blast. But, only if you’re referring to a blast of Arctic air.

I must have missed the memo on why ice fishing is fun. Does it include spending two hours auguring a hole through ice that seems to be a metre thick? How about sitting on a metal stool on a windswept lake waiting for something interesting to happen while every other creature is hibernating? Or perhaps packing up to leave ten hours later after catching absolutely nothing – except the worst cold of my life? Somehow, they must have left those details off the sales brochure.

The last two instances happened when I worked on the ‘utility crew’ at the local paper mill after high school. Put ‘paper mill’ and ‘winter’ in the same sentence and you know you’ve got good material right there. Add in the words ‘utility crew’ and you have the bonus of not knowing exactly what job you’re going to be assigned when you show up for work each day.

In the first case, I was working in the area called the ‘wood room.’ This is where frozen logs come up from the frozen river along a frozen trough and into a wet, frozen building where frozen workers use frozen hooks to move those frozen logs into the next area of the mill. Part of the ‘fun’ of being on the utility crew was not being able to dress properly for the yet-to-be-assigned job you’re doing on a particular day. In this case, it would have been positively splendid if I’d known that wood room workers wear insulated rubber boots (not winter boots), wet suits (not winter parkas) and waterproof gloves (not winter gloves). Long story short, 18 seconds into my 12-hour shift every part of my body was soaked and, for the next half-day, was constantly re-soaked and re-frozen. You know the expression, “It sends shivers down my spine?” Yeah, that.

Finally, there was one other night that will live on forever in my winter memories. It involves the last evening before a Christmas holiday shutdown at the very same mill. Remember when I mentioned that I never knew what I was doing when I showed up for the start of a shift? How about not knowing what you’re doing for the first 11 hours of your 12 hour shift?

On the night in question, I reported for duty and was told to “sit in the lunchroom and wait.” So, wait I did. Several hours later, the supervisor I was working with showed up to make sure I was still there and assure me that he’d be coming to get me soon. Did I mention that he was already blind stinking drunk at this point? Or that I was starting to worry just a bit about what job I’d actually be doing?

Several more hours later, he showed up again to let me know we were almost ready to go. Did I mention that he was now about eight sheets to the wind and could barely stand up? At this point, I definitely started worrying a lot. Exactly what type of job would require almost no time to complete but would be worth bringing me in for a full 12 hour shift? I was about to find out.

About an hour before the shift was over, my fine inebriated friend stumbled in the door, bellowing, “It’s time.” Time for what? When I asked that question, he said, “You’ll find out.” And I did. Apparently, when they shut down the mill for the holiday break, one of the jobs that had to be done was to close off all the fan vents. On the roof. Of a several storey high tower. In the middle of winter. On one of the windiest, blizzardiest (it’s not a word, so don’t bother looking it up) nights I’ll ever remember in my life.

I’d always heard that alcohol tricks the body into ignoring the elements, but I’d never had any concrete proof until I saw my supervisor stumbling around blindly and obliviously that winter evening on the roof of some godforsaken paper mill in Northwestern Ontario. Somehow, all the vents managed to get closed that evening, but I’ll never know how. And, somehow, my drunken friend and I survived the night to tell the tale. Well, at least I did.

So, that’s my chilling story and I’m sticking to it. It’s also why I hate winter so much. Some memories can’t be unfrozen no matter how much time passes. And these are just a few of them. Therefore, I ask this question one more time: Does anyone hate winter more than me?

Dreams Of Glory

What drives an elite young athlete? Having watched a fair amount of this summer’s Olympics and also having had the good fortune to speak with several teenagers who are just experiencing their first taste of international, high-level competition, it’s fascinating to imagine what pushes them to ever-increasing levels of excellence.

Is it the need to prove you’re the best at something, beating all challengers until there’s simply no one else to beat? Is it some desire to push yourself and your body to its extreme limits? Do you have dreams of hope and glory? Or, is there a family member passing on their own aspirations and living their own missed opportunities vicariously through you?

Perhaps, it’s a little of all of those reasons – or none of them at all. In any case, there’s definitely something that separates all these elite athletes from other people. There’s a drive somewhere within them that most of us just don’t seem to have. It pushes and prods them every single waking moment of the day – and probably when they’re sleeping, as well. We’ve all heard of business people or artists or religious zealots who seem consumed by their passions, but it’s hard to compare their obsessions with what these athletes endure, often setting aside virtually everything else in their lives to become the best they can be.

Is this healthy? It seems an ironic question when you’re talking about some of the most muscle-bound, body fat-deprived specimens of the human race you’ll ever see. But, there’s more to health sometimes than just gleaming abs and rippling biceps. What about the mental aspect that accompanies these athletes’ single-minded pursuit of victory?

Sometimes their total dedication to a single goal almost seems disturbing. Witness an athlete who believes he’s let his entire country down when he steps on a line during a race and, inadvertently, causes his team to miss out on a medal. Did he just participate in a killing spree in a mall or develop a poison gas that could wipe out the whole planet? No, he made a mistake that could happen to anyone and our country took home one fewer medal.

What about a team that lost a close match to a competitor and, rather than saying how well both teams played and how proud they should be of their performance, says (in the heat of the moment, I’ll agree) that the reason they lost was because of poor calls by officials, not because the other team was better. Is this what we want our children to learn, to blame others when we don’t win and undermine those who do?

I apologize for nit-picking a few random examples from hundreds of inspiring Olympic events. For the most part, I enjoyed much of the games and was happy to see the support given to both winners and runners-up. The sight of competitors from various countries embracing and supporting others in their events certainly made the games, for the most part, an overwhelmingly positive experience.

In the back of my mind, however, there will always be a question about what motivates these athletes and whether, in the long run, it’s going to lead them to be better citizens when their Olympic careers are done. If everything’s kept in perspective and everyone remember that these are, after all, just “games,” I think it will. It’s when it becomes the sole expression of someone’s life that it sometimes causes me to worry.