Gord Ash was vacationing in Florida during the spring of 2002 when, by sheer coincidence, he bumped into Roy Halladay.
Only a year earlier, when Ash was still the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, he demoted Halladay all the way down to the lowest rung of the baseball ladder - Class A Dunedin. It was a harsh blow to the ego of the Jays’ first-round draft choice in 1995.
“When I met with him in spring training of 2001, I basically told him that he needed to go back to square one and rebuild his pitching mechanics,” Ash recalls from his office in Milwaukee, where he serves as the Brewers’ assistant general manager. “He was stunned. It was not a pleasant day. So I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Roy when I ran into him on my vacation.”
Halladay was no longer stunned. “He was appreciative,” Ash says. “He shook my hand, and he thanked me for sticking with him.”
Which, in retrospect, is precisely the way it ought to be. Before he was fired as GM in October 2001, Ash irrefutably made one of the sharper moves in the Jays’ history by reloading Halladay.
He shook my hand, and he thanked me for sticking with him.
Halladay has now become one of the top starting pitchers in the major leagues. After making the American League allstar team this season, he has emerged as a strong candidate to win the Cy Young Award.
“It’s been an incredible turnaround for the guy,” says Jason Giambi, the New York Yankees’ slugger. “He’s gone from a guy without confidence to an intimidating stud. He can singlehandedly beat you.”
Halladay largely credits two men for his revival - a former pitching coach and a shrink.
The ex-pitching coach is Mel Queen, who persuaded Halladay during his minor-league demotion to completely revamp his mechanics. The shrink is Dr. Harvey Dorfman, a 68-year-old sports psychologist, who co-authored the book The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide to Peak Performance. Dorfman has worked with major-league pitchers such as the Atlanta Braves’ Greg Maddux, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Kevin Brown, the Seattle Mariners’ Jamie Moyer and the New York Mets’ Al Leiter, all of whom had experienced temporary deteriorations.
“Harvey’s turned out to be very helpful for me,” says Halladay, affectionately known as Doc. “I haven’t talked much about him publicly, but he’s very important for me. He’s a good friend, a guy who’s helped me a lot with my confidence and my mental approach. Whenever I need to get my head cleared, he’s there for me.”
Dorfman is employed by super-agent Scott Boras for the purposes of working with Boras's clients. Halladay, however, has different representatives - Boras’s arch-rivals, Alan and Randy Hendricks.
A close friend of Jays manager Carlos Tosca, Dorfman was summoned to Toronto early in the 2002 season to work with infielder Felipe Lopez. Lopez, who has since been traded to Cincinnati, was trying to work his way into the Jays’ lineup.
“I was on the field with Lopez,” says Dorfman from his North Carolina home, “when Roy came up to me and told me he was reading my book. He said his wife had just bought it for him as a present. Well, he wouldn’t let me go. He was like a sponge. And we just hit it off.”
Halladay asked Dorfman to counsel him. And Dorfman agreed, despite the conflict of agents. “I couldn’t turn my back on him,” Dorfman says. “It would be as if a good musician came to me for help. Hell, what if he turned out to be Mozart?”
Dorfman now makes himself available to Halladay, for no fee, no matter what time of the day or night.
“No one can stay perfect all the time,” says Dorfman, “although Roy’s close. I can provide 50 guys with the same information, and only five would be able to integrate it into their behaviour. Roy does it. He’s special. He’s elite for me.”
Mel Queen uses similar adjectives to describe Halladay. Then a special assistant to the Blue Jays’ general manager, Queen was ordered by Ash to visit Halladay down on the farm in 2001 with clear-cut instructions: Drag the pitcher out of the doldrums.
With countless hours of private tutelage, Queen helped the right-hander to revise his motion. Halladay altered his grips. He changed his arm angles. And, when he returned to Toronto, Halladay finished the 2002 season with a record of 197 and a sparkling ERA of 2.93. He picked up this season right where he left off.
“It was Doc who listened and it was Doc who was able to fix himself,” says Queen, who is no longer in baseball. “I could have done the same thing with 10 guys, and nine would not have been able to start all over again the way Doc did. It’s been an amazing accomplishment on his part.”
Halladay says restructuring his mechanics was not very difficult once he’d changed his mental approach by working briefly with a sports psychologist in 2001.
“That psychologist helped me make adjustments in my mind,” Halladay says. “After that, I actually became excited
about the idea of changing my mechanics. It was something I knew I had to do. I didn’t know if it would work out. I didn’t know if I could turn myself around, but I did know that, if I tried, I’d at least be happy with myself that I gave it my best shot.”
After that, Halladay says, Dorfman gave him the tools he needed to identify the impediments between him and a successful pitching career.
Halladay entered the final weekend of September this year with a 21-7 win-loss record and a 3.18 ERA - and he had dominated opponents more often than not.
Quite the turnaround from the 2000 season, when the 6-foot-6, 225-pounder experienced a nightmarish season with the Jays, recording an ERA of 10.64 - the worst and highest in big-league history for a hurler with more than 50 innings pitched in a season.
“It’s nice to see a decent guy improve the way Doc has,” says Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens, who played with Halladay in Toronto. “He’s a nice guy with nasty stuff, and he’ll do some serious damage before he’s done.”
Actually, he already has. And he’s still only 25.
“If I’m in charge of Toronto, I do whatever I can to make sure I (keep) Halladay for a lot of years,” volunteers Lou Piniella, manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. “He’s the kind of guy you need on your side. If he ever became a free agent, there wouldn’t be a club in the big leagues that wouldn’t be salivating for the guy.”
So far, Jays’ fans don’t have to worry. Halladay isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2005 season. And his preference, he says, is to re-sign with the Jays.
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