TSN is looking back at the brilliant and unique baseball career of Roy Halladay this week ahead of airing E:60’s Imperfect: The Roy Halladay Story on Friday at 7 p.m. ET on TSN 1,3 and 4.
In between the near no-hitter in his second career start and the brilliantly consistent hall-of-fame script he wrote from 2002 onward, Roy Halladay came as close as it gets to being a bust.
For a period of about a year and a half, Halladay was lost, both mentally and physically, grasping for answers to his problems on the mound at every turn.
Confidence shattered, mechanics a mess, Halladay’s story could’ve ended much differently than it did.
Nineteen years ago, with what was known at the time, very few, even those closest to Halladay, would have predicted how things eventually turned out.
On Sept. 27, 1998, he was one out away from no-hitting the Detroit Tigers at home.
In 1999, with expectations raised, Halladay turned in a fine rookie season as a 22-year-old, registering a 3.92 ERA across 149.1 innings, bouncing back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen and back again.
His development was still going smoothly, and the hope was that the big 6-foot-6 right-hander, the 17th overall pick in the 1995 draft, would take another step towards his top-of-the-rotation ceiling in 2000.
This is where the train went off the tracks in an unexpected way.
The Halladay we know — the complete game machine, the prototypical ace, arguably the best pitcher of the 2000s — almost never existed.
Through the 1999 season, however, everything was going according to plan.
“I don’t think the warning signs were there yet,” former Blue Jays GM Gord Ash recalled. “I think they came a little later. And by warning signs, I mean for a guy who had such great stuff, he seemed to get hit more than you expected him to. I think that caused him a lot of concern and he started to question his ability.”
Taking the ball on the second day of the 2000 season behind veteran lefty David Wells, Halladay looked to be taking the next step, throwing seven strong innings to push the Jays to a 6-3 win over the Kansas City Royals.
The 22-year-old was efficient and hard to barrel up. That’s the Halladay we all remember.
But things quickly took a turn for the worse from there.
Over his next six turns, Halladay would allow six earned runs, five earned runs, seven earned runs, nine earned runs, six earned runs, and another eight earned runs before he was mercifully yanked from the rotation with an 11.53 ERA.
Something was not right.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Halladay told The Toronto Star after an April 25 loss to the Oakland A’s in which he allowed nine runs. “I’ve tried everything I can –mechanics, mental approach – and I understand what they say about trying too hard. Sometimes, I probably have … but there’s also got to be a point where you can get past all that.”
More than two months and just three appearances later, Halladay was shelled again and continued to sound like a broken pitcher.
“Sometimes I question myself and I shouldn’t,” Halladay told The Star on June 30, after allowing seven runs to the Baltimore Orioles. “If I give up a hit on hard stuff, or if I give up a hit on soft stuff, it doesn’t matter. I just have to start throwing the pitches I want to. I have to believe in myself.”
No matter what the Jays tried that year, it didn’t work.
Even in 11 Triple-A starts, Halladay’s ERA was a bloated 5.50, and he struck out only 38 batters in 73.2 innings.
“It was an exaggerated overhand delivery,” Ash said. “It was right over the top of his head, which created a ball that didn’t have a lot of movement on it. Everyone knows he was known for the movement on his pitches later in his career, but early on he didn’t have that.”
In his final start that year, Halladay allowed six earned runs over just three innings.
Five days later, he was tagged for seven unearned runs and five hits in his final appearance of the season, a relief outing in a 23-1 drubbing at the hands of the Orioles.
His ERA was 10.64.
The numbers didn’t paint a pretty picture of Halladay up to this point, but the underlying confidence issues were starting to become very noticeable to those who had watched him coming up through the minor-league system.
After the Jays had arrived in Dunedin in the spring of 2001, one of Halladay’s early Grapefruit League outings against the Detroit Tigers set off alarm bells.
“Spring training of that year,” Ash recalled when asked about the first time he realized something drastic had to be done. “I think he had an outing in Lakeland, I didn’t go to that game, but the scouts called and told me that it was not good at all. When the staff got back, we talked about it. He just didn’t seem to be pitching with the same … how do I describe it? … not intensity because he was always intense and always competitive, but he was second-guessing himself. Pitch selection and why weren’t hitters missing like they were early on or in the minor leagues.”
Ash said the idea to demote Halladay all the way down to High-A Dunedin, rather than Triple-A, was his.
With less media, less fans, and less pressure, Halladay would be able to go about his work quietly – after the initial shock of the assignment passed, of course.
In 2003, Halladay recounted to The Toronto Star’s Geoff Baker how he was told that spring.
During an on-field workout, Tim Hewes, a trained psychologist on the team’s staff, broke the news.
“It was like a nightmare, the worst thing that could possibly happen,” a 26-year-old Halladay, now an all-star and on his way to being named the American League Cy Young winner a few weeks later, told The Star. “You’re waiting for somebody to say, ‘We’re just kidding.’ It catches you off guard and there’s really no way to describe it. There’s nothing you can do to feel better.”
Halladay sat down with Blue Jays’ decision-makers to discuss the situation, and was not exactly happy, Ash recalled.
“It was in the old clubhouse at Dunedin Stadium, which was on the third base side at the time,” Ash said when asked if he remembers the initial conversation. “We were in [manager] Buck Martinez’s office, and Buck was there, of course, and Mark Connor, the pitching coach at the time, he was there. It was a very small place and it wasn’t exactly a soundproof area, either, so the conversations were probably pretty public.
“He obviously was very disappointed. I think disappointed in two ways: Disappointed in himself, how he got himself into this situation because of his ability level and starting to doubt himself a little bit. Secondly, I think it caught him off guard because it wasn’t, ‘You’re going to Triple-A because you’re having a tough time.’”
At the time, the plan was viewed as unique. Almost wild.
Many, even some within the organization, thought that they had seen the last of Doc, potential No. 1 starter.
If they were lucky, they could rebuild him into a serviceable rotation piece, but not a star.
Two and a half years after his mesmerizing debut, to put it lightly, expectations were now tempered.
“I had some people recommending, ‘Well, you should trade him now before it’s too late,’” Ash said. “I never felt that was the case. Not once. I saw him too many times in the minor leagues and he had too much of what I really liked in a player, which was the intensity and the competitiveness. That wasn’t going to go away. It was a matter of trying to get him mechanically in a zone where he could have success.”
One rumour had the Jays shipping the Colorado-born Halladay home to the Rockies in exchange for right-hander Pedro Astacio, but Ash said he never even came close to a trade.
All of the whispers went away when Halladay was banished to A ball.
“Once we sent him to Dunedin, which was so unusual at the time, I think clubs just said, ‘Well, what’s wrong with this guy?’ and they weren’t going to bite on him at that point because they felt maybe there were some other issues there that they didn’t know,” Ash recalled.
Shortly after Halladay began his 95-day exile, two key figures started to emerge in his rebuild: Mel Queen and Harvey Dorfman.
Dorfman, a noted sports psychologist, did his work behind the scenes, while Queen went about trying to tweak Halladay’s over-the-top delivery.
Despite the attempt to remove Halladay from the spotlight and create less pressure, Queen, the former Jays pitching coach who had been moonlighting as a special assignment coach at the time, challenged Halladay first and foremost.
“I went over and said, ‘Hi, how’re you doing? And he said … I’ll never forget it … ‘You’re wasting talent, Doc,’” Halladay recalled in 2003.
“I verbally abused him pretty hard that first week,” Queen told The Star. “A lot of guys wouldn’t have taken it. A lot of guys would’ve walked away. A lot of guys would’ve punched me.”
Queen’s plan was simple: Tell Halladay to throw sidearm.
When you envision sidearm, you think of a cartoonish drop down near the waist.
But for Halladay and his extreme overhand delivery, sidearm meant throwing with a three-quarters arm slot, which promoted the movement on his pitches that eventually made him an eight-time all-star.
“All his pitches start in the same place and end in a different place,” New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said to the New York Times about Halladay in 2009.
It was far from as simple as just trying a new delivery and everything clicking.
Queen pushed Halladay to throw gruelling 70-100 pitch bullpen sessions to iron everything out. Another change was Halladay started bringing his hands above his head during his windup.
“There aren’t too many pitchers out there who could do what he did,” said Queen, who died in 2011 at the age of 69. “But Doc was able to do it because of the special type of individual he is.”
Ash said Queen loved to tell the story of how he relayed to Halladay why the mechanical changes were needed, recalling that the pitcher was a little bit stubborn and resisted at first.
“He explained to Roy, ‘You’re coming right over the top, you’re almost like a pitching machine. Hitters are getting too much of a look at the ball and that’s hurting you,’” Ash said.
“Mel told him, ‘I want you to throw sidearm.’ And for Roy, sidearm meant moving from directly overhead to high three-quarters. And it worked.”
It was not a linear path, however.
After 13 appearances out of the bullpen in Dunedin, Halladay had allowed 33 baserunners in 22.2 innings. The work was still ongoing.
When he was elevated to Double-A Tennessee and placed back into the rotation, the results started to show.
In five starts, Halladay posted a 2.12 ERA.
“Mel called and got really enthused by what he saw,” Ash said.
More importantly, he started limiting the contact (25 hits across 34 innings) and the movement he was creating added some much-needed swing-and-miss, as Halladay struck out 29 batters, something that continued in two Triple-A starts prior to his big-league return in July.
“He was starting to see results, he was starting to have better command, and because of his trust in Mel, I think, he was willing to hang with it for a while,” Ash said.
Halladay was recalled just before the all-star break and made his first start July 7 at home against the Montreal Expos, striking out 10 over six innings and allowing three runs.
After about six weeks, Halladay would find a groove and dazzle the rest of the way, never giving up more than three earned runs in any of his final nine starts, registering a 1.98 ERA and .206 batting average against.
It was capped by a complete game, two-hit shutout – with no walks and eight punchouts for good measure – of the Cleveland Indians on Oct. 5.
He’d carry that momentum into the 2002 campaign.
Once Halladay started seeing results on the mound, the confidence aspect Dorfman was working on started to fall into place, and Doc continued to work on the mental side of things for the rest of his career.
Even when Halladay was dealing, like he was in 2002 when he ended three years of soul-searching and frustration with 239.1 innings of emphatic redemption and a trip to the all-star game, Dorfman played a role.
“Yes, I think there always is that fear that it can go back to what it was,” Halladay told The Star in 2003 about continuing to work with Dorfman, who died in 2011. “I think I’m a little bit better now. But I called him a couple times last year and said, ‘Look, I’m afraid this [success] isn’t going to be here again. What should I do to make sure it’s there? Because I don’t want to forget what happened to me – or what helped me.’”
Despite the Dunedin setting being his idea, Ash calls the unique decision and overall Halladay plan a “collective effort” by the Blue Jays organization.
It’s clear Ash, Queen and Dorfman all played major roles in one way or another.
But in Ash’s mind, there’s one person who deserves credit for rebuilding Halladay into a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“When he had some success, there were unfortunately a lot of people saying, ‘I did this and I did that,’ and that never really sat well with me,” said Ash, who was fired at the end of the 2001 season. “Like I told Roy and Roy’s friends, ‘Everyone’s looking for credit. The guy who deserves the credit is Roy. He put in all the work. He put in the time. He put in the effort. He committed to make this work and he’s the guy who deserves the credit.’”
The lessons learned from that experience propelled Halladay the rest of the way.
“When you go through something like what I did, no matter how difficult it was, it can only make you stronger,” Halladay said in 2003. “The important thing is I did get through it and I’m stronger for it. Finishing strong, that’s what’s important to me.”
—With files from Toronto Public Library archives