Commentary

Roy Halladay ready for October's stage

Phillies' veteran right-hander thoroughly prepared entering his first trip to postseason

Originally Published: October 5, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Starting pitchers are isolationists by nature, but some of the elite ones have taken the whole solitary confinement concept to the extreme. Steve Carlton built an alligator-filled moat around his locker when it was his turn to pitch, and teammates of Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson or Kevin Brown would have eaten pine tar before invading the air space of those gentlemen on game day.

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy "Doc" Halladay lacks the intimidating edge of the Big Unit, but he does prefer to play in his own sandbox. Every millisecond spent schmoozing, playing cards or watching "Talladega Nights" on the clubhouse TV is time that doesn't enhance his craft or make him better, so it has no place in his world.

Halladay's attention to detail was never more evident than last Monday in Washington, D.C. After throwing a complete game two-hitter to beat the Nationals and clinch the National League East title for the Phillies, Halladay reveled in the postgame celebration. His teammates chose Halladay, Mike Sweeney and Brian Schneider -- Philadelphia's three playoff first-timers -- to open the ceremonial first bottles of champagne, and within seconds corks were popping, hugs were being exchanged and the acrid smell of cigar smoke filled the air. The Phillies managed to raise a stink without even violating the local health code ordinances.

And then, suddenly, the evening's pitching hero transformed from happy-go-lucky reveler back to preparation addict. As the celebration wound down, the cigar smoke cleared and the clubhouse attendants rolled up the plastic sheets protecting the locker stalls, Roy Halladay peeled off his champagne-soaked jersey and assumed the look of a man in desperate need of a weight to lift, a muscle to stretch or a cardio machine to climb aboard.

The following day, Halladay was in the clubhouse, dressed and ready to go at 3:30 p.m. as the media streamed through the doors. And the question had to be asked: Did he really take part in a full-scale workout after pitching the clincher for the Phillies?

Not exactly.

"I skipped some of it," Halladay said, sheepishly. "I skated on part of it."

It's exactly the reply one would expect from a man who is pathologically disinclined to give 98 percent of full effort. If Roy Halladay loses a game, it won't be because he lifted one fewer weight or watched one less second of video than absolutely necessary.

Teammate Raul Ibanez calls it Halladay's "obsessive drive." But for Halladay, it's simply a matter of giving his employer and the paying customers their money's worth.

"In a lot of people, I think there's that consciousness of trying to get better and not be satisfied," Halladay said. "Complacency is something that can make you peak. If you can avoid that, you'll always feel like you have something else to reach for and go for. As long as I can avoid that feeling of being happy with what I've done, that's the fun part."

Clinching time

Actually, the fun part begins Wednesday, when Halladay takes the mound against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. All his time, effort and tunnel vision have taken him to the cusp of baseball's promised land.

The warm-up act came last week, when Phillies manager Charlie Manuel handed him the ball and Halladay responded in classic ace fashion. He allowed harmless singles to Wilson Ramos and Adam Dunn and threw a tidy 94 pitches in an 8-0 win over the Nationals to clinch Philadelphia's fourth straight postseason appearance.

This is precisely what Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. envisioned when he traded prospects Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor and Travis d'Arnaud to Toronto for Halladay in mid-December. In conjunction with the deal, Amaro dealt Cliff Lee to Seattle for three prospects and signed Halladay to a three-year, $60 million contract extension. And now Halladay is the man of the hour for a team on a mission to win its second title in three years.

"I can tell you he'll be prepared," Amaro said. "I've heard people describe him as 'Chase Utley on the mound.' It's difficult to find two more determined and driven players than that."

The champagne celebration helped validate the decision Halladay made in the summer of 2009, when he asked the Blue Jays to explore trades in advance of his free agency. Halladay was comfortable in the Toronto clubhouse and a popular figure in the community, but something inside him yearned for a change and a new challenge.

It's hard to imagine things working out any better for the Phillies. Halladay led the National League in innings pitched (250 2/3) and wins (21), and tied for first with 25 quality starts during the regular season. He ranked second to teammate Roy Oswalt in WHIP at 1.04 and second to Tim Lincecum in strikeouts with 219, was a close third to Josh Johnson and Adam Wainwright in ERA at 2.44, and has the pole position on a second Cy Young Award to go with his 2003 trophy in Toronto.

For all his dominance, Halladay is also a monument to precision. For the second time in his career, he struck out more than 200 batters while finishing with more starts (33) than walks allowed (30). In the past 50 years, only two other pitchers have achieved the feat even once: Curt Schilling did it for the 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks, and Ben Sheets did it for the 2004 Milwaukee Brewers.

Like Lincecum in San Francisco, Halladay is so good that rare glimpses of mortality pass for red flags. When he went 4-2 with a 4.32 ERA during a six-start stretch in August and September, some Phillies fans inevitably showed up on Internet chats and posted, "What's wrong with Halladay?" questions. They were not alone.

"We sit there in the dugout and he'll give up three runs or whatever and walk a guy or two, and we say to ourselves, 'Roy is struggling today,'" Schneider said. "Then we look and it's in the eighth inning and he comes out of the game and we're winning 7-3, and it's like, 'What are we talking about?' We pinch ourselves, too."

Mr. Perfect

Halladay's individual highlight came on May 29, when he beat the Florida Marlins 1-0 in the 20th perfect game in major league history. In August, the Phillies held a ceremony to honor Halladay at Citizens Bank Park and gave him a portrait, the No. 34 jersey he wore during the game and a copy of the lineup card.

It's customary for pitchers to treat their catchers to a steak dinner, a new suit or a piece of jewelry after an achievement of that magnitude, and Halladay fulfilled his obligation when he gave catcher Carlos Ruiz home plate from the game at Sun Life Stadium and a ring with the inscription, "We did it together. Thanks, Roy."

Then he went above and beyond the call of duty. Halladay bought about 60 watches from Baume & Mercier, a maker of fine Swiss time pieces, for teammates, coaches, the video people, the media relations staff, the bat boy, the clubbies, the training staff and some front office folks for their part in his accomplishment. His thoughtfulness was nothing short of extraordinary.

"For me it was just a way to thank everybody," Halladay said. "It's something you tend to get the credit for [as an individual], but a lot of other people are big parts of that. It's not just that day, but everything leading up to it. I just wanted them to know I appreciated everything they've done for me."

This is not just idle chatter for Halladay, a man whose sentiments invariably come from the heart.

"It really is about the team for him," Amaro said. "He truly believes in 'we' rather than 'I.' When you talk to him about his personal accolades, I think he's almost embarrassed by it."

While the watch-buying spree enhanced his teammates' respect for Halladay, his fellow Phillies admit he's not the easiest nut to crack. Like the Johnsons, Carltons and other obsessive preparers, Halladay is just as likely to develop a rapport with the trainers or the strength and conditioning coach as his teammates. Since he's always on his way to the video room, weight room or some other ballpark work nook, it only leaves so much time for bonding.

"He's kind of standoffish, I guess you would say, until you get to know him," said Oswalt, who came to Philadelphia from Houston by trade in late July. "Then he opens up a little bit after you're around him for a while. All pitchers have a set routine, but he may put himself in the so-called 'zone' a little longer than most people. On days he pitches, he's pretty locked in."

Halladay's reservoir of commitment runs so deep, it's even made an impression on Philadelphia's resident pitching elder. Jamie Moyer broke into the big leagues during the Reagan administration, reinvented himself a few times through the years, passed the 250-win barrier while throwing a fastball in the low 80s and showed enough resourcefulness this year to pitch a shutout at age 47. People tell Moyer that Curt Schilling was an amazingly diligent preparer. But he's never seen anything to compare with Halladay's single-minded pursuit of excellence.

"You want to talk, eat, sleep and drink baseball? That's this guy," Moyer said. "Every waking moment, from what I know of him, is focused on his job or preparing for his next start. He's not here to be your best friend. He's here for a purpose, and that's to win baseball games. He wants to win so bad."

When Moyer sits on the bench, he'll glance over and see Halladay locked in on the opposing pitcher during warm-ups between innings. Moyer was recently passing through the clubhouse when Halladay summoned him for a brief consult. Halladay held a piece of paper in his hands and was comparing two still photographs of himself in mid-pitching motion, and he was studying them with the intensity of an architect poring over blueprints. In Halladay's world, no detail is too trivial to make a difference.

Halladay expresses great admiration for Utley, Philadelphia's second baseman, and he's carved out a similar leader-by-example niche in the Phillies' clubhouse. It has to warm manager Charlie Manuel's heart when he looks down the bench and sees Cole Hamels or one of the other young pitchers gravitating toward Halladay's section of the dugout.

"It would be real easy for Roy to say, 'I've won 20. I've had a good career. I just signed a big deal, and I came over to the National League and I'm just going to sail through it all,'" Moyer said. "No. That's not what you're getting out of this man. He's the real deal, and a lot of guys here have seen something pretty special. If they aren't aware of it, they've missed the boat. They really have."

Past, present and future

As Halladay enters the next chapter of his career and makes his Hall of Fame push, it's only natural to reflect upon the events that brought him to this point. Magazine and newspaper profiles have duly noted the influence of three men who helped shape his mindset and alter the trajectory of his career. After his father, who is also named Roy, they've helped lay his foundation and been at the forefront of each catharsis in his baseball life.

The first major influence, Bus Campbell, was a Colorado-based coach and scout who worked with the teenaged Halladay and always provided a trusted voice in the hard times. Campbell died two years ago at age 87.

The second, Mel Queen, was a plain-spoken Blue Jays coach who turned his career around in 2001. Halladay, then 23, showed up on his doorstep with a 10.64 ERA and a fractured psyche, and Queen broke him down and built him back up with a Marine drill sergeant's intensity and fervor. Halladay, who had formerly thrown straight over the top, swapped his 12 o'clock arm angle for something closer to 10 o'clock, and the impact was immediate and profound. Much of the nasty, late-breaking movement on his pitches is traceable to that mechanical change.

Halladay's third major influence, sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, wrote the book that defines his approach to the game. "The Mental ABC's of Pitching" covers 80 separate topics from A ("Adjustments," "Adversity" and "Attitude") all the way to Z ("Zeros"). The book is Halladay's constant companion, and he thinks every organization should distribute it to pitchers the moment they get drafted.

"His whole mantra is, 'One pitch at a time,'" Halladay said of Dorfman, "and basically the book is about helping you get to that point. Different things might come up and distract you or complicate things, but the bottom line is being able to go out and go pitch-to-pitch."

Halladay has overcome his share of adversity through the years. He made only 21 starts in 2004 because of shoulder tendinitis, and missed the final three months of the 2005 season after suffering a broken leg on a Kevin Mench line drive through the box. Moyer has talked to him about the need to back off his grueling work regimen and allow for some recovery time as he gets older, and Halladay will have to make that determination as he goes.

Contrary to public perception, Halladay is capable of shedding his Robo-pitcher persona and having fun now and then. It usually happens in the winter months, when he recharges his batteries with a number of off-field pursuits.

Halladay enjoys fishing, whether it's fly-fishing in his native Colorado or trolling for bass in Florida. Golf is a nice diversion, too, although he's wild off the tee and "very inconsistent." The perpetual kid in Halladay loves go-carts and model airplanes, and he's spent lots of hours in the garage at home rebuilding a 1932 Ford.

"I took it apart to the ground and realized I'm a little over my skis," Halladay said. "So I'm getting a little help with that."

Halladay used to be big on household repairs, until his wife, Brandy, decided it would be better to call in the professionals. And while his contract with the Phillies forbids it, he talks wistfully about taking to the air one day -- as in, getting in a cockpit and flying a plane.

But that's all fun, down-the-road stuff, and Halladay is too consumed with the here and now to tolerate distractions. Come Wednesday, he will rely on his ability and rare brand of commitment and take the first step toward a championship ring.

In this, the biggest game of his career, Halladay will be all business when he stares in for the first sign from Carlos Ruiz. The Reds hitters would be wise to bring their A-game.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer