Second To One

April 16, 2007
April 16, 2007

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April 16, 2007

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Second To One

A perfectionist, a prankster and the best pitcher in the AL not named Johan Santana: That's Roy Halladay, whose recent success makes it easy to forget how far he once fell

Roy (Doc)Halladay was mowing them down in order last Saturday afternoon: 00, 01, 02,03.... Routine. Twice on the day before starts and once more on game day, theToronto Blue Jays righthander takes a laminated grid containing 100 randomlydistributed numbers and locates each one in sequence: 37, 38, 39, 40.... Thinkof it as Sudoku for Cy Young winners. The purpose of the exercise is to narrowthe focus of a lively mind to nothing but the next number, which helps Halladaysharpen his concentration on nothing but the next pitch when he reaches themound. "I'm not one of those guys who's worried about who's on deck,"he says. When he began working the 10-square-by-10-square grid five years ago,he needed 17 to 20 minutes to finish. Now he has become so proficient that hesometimes amps up the distractions, turning on the TV or listening to songswith burrowed-in-the-brain lyrics: 89, 90, 91, 92.... He usually finishes in 31/2 minutes. This effort, he clocked in four minutes and 29 seconds.

This is an article from the April 16, 2007 issue Original Layout

Most of the timeHalladay is just as efficient dispensing with numbers one through nine."He's more than just good, he's great," says Detroit Tigers designatedhitter Gary Sheffield. "His breaking ball is second to none. His sinker issecond to none. His changeup is second to none. If he's on that particular day,forget it."

"Thereis," says Tampa Bay Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon, "a simple eleganceabout him."

For someone witha 2003 Cy Young award on the shelf, a .664 career winning percentage and anarray of pitches with more plane changes than a platinum-level frequent flier,Halladay deserves Johan Santana--like recognition. But Halladay is far lessvisible than the Minnesota Twins lefty--and not just because he plays forCanada's Team, bystanders in the AL East laser-sword fight between the Yankeesand the Red Sox. He simply isn't on the mound long enough. According to theElias Sports Bureau, the average time of a nine-inning game started by Halladaysince '02 is 2:37, alacrity surpassed only by Chicago White Sox lefthander MarkBuehrle. (In a 6--3 win on Sunday at Tampa Bay, Halladay dispatched the DevilRays in a tidy 2:32.) As A.J. Liebling, the prolifically brilliant New Yorkerwriter, once described himself, Halladay is better than anybody faster than himand faster than anybody better than him.

"Your secondfoot is getting into that [batter's] box, and he's already winding up,"says Baltimore Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons. "With a lot of movement andgreat control, it'll be one, two pitches and a grounder to second. He's thequickest 0 for 3 in the league."

Despitetechnicolor stuff and so many pitches (cutter, curve, change and a ChinaSyndrome sinker) that, as Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer puts it, the catcherhas to remove his glove to flash signs, the 29-year-old Halladay has averagedjust 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings during his 10-year career. "He knowswhat hitters are hunting and entices contact," Blue Jays pitching coachBrad Arnsberg says. "He throws so many strikes that the hitters get very,very antsy. Because they don't want to see that hook and don't want him carvingthe edges of the plate, they try to attack him early in the count. He defineshitters' strike zones for them."

Once the seasonopens, purpose rules in Halladay's world. No deep counts. No lollygagging. Noclubhouse card games. "He's looking at video on hitters, working out,throwing a bullpen [session], putting in an eight-hour day whether it's his day[to pitch] or not," Toronto catcher Gregg Zaun says. "A towel over hisshoulder and a bead of sweat dripping off his nose--that's him."

Halladayinherited his work ethic from his father, Roy Jr., a commercial airline pilotfrom the Denver bedroom community of Arvada, who when his young son was idlewould invite him to build a model boat or toss a baseball or fly aremote-control airplane. "Something productive," says Halladay, whomthe Blue Jays chose with the 17th pick in the 1995 draft. "I never had alot of time when I was just 'kicking rocks,' as my dad called it. That comesinto play now. I always feel I have to do something to make myselfbetter."

It's pitching asa self-help program. "He's prepared in every department and overprepared insome," Arnsberg says. "His focus is almost overfocus." Indeed, whenArnsberg joined the Toronto staff before the 2005 season, he was warned not topick up Halladay's towel or touch his rosin bag or talk to him while hestretched. While Arnsberg treads gingerly when he visits Halladay on themound--"I tell him he scares me at times, always growling andgrumbling"--he might grab the forbidden towel before the game to break theice, a tacit reminder to focus on the window of the strike zone rather than thewindow dressing.

If Halladay holdsdearly to routine, it is because not so long ago his career was in freefall.

On Sept. 27,1998, in only his second major league start, Halladay lost a no-hitter on atwo-out, ninth-inning home run by the Tigers' Bobby Higginson. As much as KerryWood's 20 strikeouts in his fifth major league start for the Chicago Cubsearlier that season had excited U.S. baseball fans, Halladay's precocious startmade Canada take notice. Two seasons later, after allowing 80 earned runs, 107hits and 42 walks in 67 2/3 innings, a performance of historically badproportions, he was demoted. Not to Triple A Syracuse. Or even Double AKnoxville. He was shipped to Class A Dunedin in the Florida State League,Dante's Inferno with early-bird specials. Oh, how the righty had fallen. IfHalladay had been sent to Syracuse, he could have rationalized that a few goodstarts would put him back in Toronto's rotation. Instead, the Jays' emotionalshock therapy stripped him of all pretension. Halladay actually learned of thedemotion not from then general manager Gord Ash or manager Buck Martinez butfrom an employee assistance program facilitator.

"I knew[management] thought some of the problems were a lot more serious than theywere," Halladay says. "They were looking at a lot of things: 'Is thereanything wrong with his personal life? What happened to him as a kid?' It justhad gotten to the point where I couldn't build confidence in myself. I'd neverhad a doubt from the age of eight to 22. Now for the first time I wasn'tgetting guys out, and as someone who never had to deal with that kind ofadversity, I had no idea how to turn it around. I was thinking about negatives:I can't bounce this pitch or I can't walk this guy or if I throw it over theplate, he's going to hit it 800 miles."

The trip back toToronto was actually 1,098 miles, a three-month journey eased by a former Jayspitching coach and a 334-page self-help book. Ash, now the Milwaukee Brewers'assistant G.M., cautions that many want to take credit for Halladay'sLazarus-like comeback. "The person who deserves the credit is Doc,"says Ash. (Has anybody with a name similar to Halladay's not been nicknamedafter gunfighter Doc Holliday?) Halladay, however, says his time in Knoxvillewith Mel Queen, then an organizational pitching coach, was invaluable.

When Halladaybroke into the majors, he threw straight over the top, a 6'6", 225-poundIron Mike whose pitches were flat. Queen simply lowered his arm angle. Withintwo bullpen sessions Halladay's pitches were jitterbugging. This was about thesame time that Halladay's wife, Brandy, presented him with The Mental Game ofBaseball, written by sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman. Halladay devoured it.After moving up to Syracuse and finally being recalled to the majors on CanadaDay, July 1, 2001, Halladay met Dorfman through first-year general manager J.P.Ricciardi, who, as a member of the A's organization, had become acquainted withthe psychologist. If 90% of baseball is half mental--by the way, that's formerbig league outfielder Jim Wohlford, not Yogi Berra--Halladay owns the innerhalf. He thumbs through Dorfman's The Mental ABC's of Pitching a few times aweek and reads it cover-to-tattered-cover eight or nine times a season, keepinghis dog-eared copy close to his numbers grid.

While Dunedin2001 represents Halladay's career nadir, Dunedin 2006 represents the apex--atleast of the ace's understated wit. When shortstop Russ Adams and secondbaseman Aaron Hill joked that Halladay and fellow starter A.J. Burnett might aswell be married after seeing them hang out a lot at spring training last year,the pitchers decided to get the last laugh. Operating on the premise thatnobody is closer than a double-play combination, they arranged a mock weddingfor Adams and Hill at the team's spring training site. This was Katie and Tom'snuptials, only in double knits: embossed invitations, matching tuxedos with thecouple's numbers and names on the back, a classy spread in the team lunch room,a wedding cake with baseball-player figurines on top, a flyover from a planethat trailed a banner reading congratulations aaron + russ, a deejay, gifts, aphotographer and an SUV decorated with blue and white balloons for the fauxhoneymooners. "See, Doc wouldn't just make up a T-shirt," says Zaun ofthe elaborate gag. "He went to great lengths with that wedding. That'stypical. He goes to great lengths to be the best."

And if theYankees' pitching implodes and the Red Sox' bats falter, Halladay and the Jaysjust might live happily ever after.


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"Your foot is getting into that [batter's] box,and he's ALREADY WINDING UP," says Gibbons. "With a lot of movement andgreat control, it'll be one, two pitches and a grounder to second."
PHOTOPhotograph by Jeffery A. SalterPHOTODAVID BERGMANQUICK STUDY With intense preparation and lightning-fast work on the mound, Halladay has gone 78--31 since the start of '02.PHOTOMIKE CASSESE/REUTERSQUITE A PAIR Halladay turned a joke about his tight relationship with Burnett into a memorable practical joke last spring.