On Sept. 27,
1998, in only his second major league start, Halladay lost a no-hitter on a
two-out, ninth-inning home run by the Tigers' Bobby Higginson. As much as Kerry
Wood's 20 strikeouts in his fifth major league start for the Chicago Cubs
earlier that season had excited U.S. baseball fans, Halladay's precocious start
made Canada take notice. Two seasons later, after allowing 80 earned runs, 107
hits and 42 walks in 67 2/3 innings, a performance of historically bad
proportions, he was demoted. Not to Triple A Syracuse. Or even Double A
Knoxville. 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. If
Halladay had been sent to Syracuse, he could have rationalized that a few good
starts would put him back in Toronto's rotation. Instead, the Jays' emotional
shock therapy stripped him of all pretension. Halladay actually learned of the
demotion not from then general manager Gord Ash or manager Buck Martinez but
from an employee assistance program facilitator.
[management] thought some of the problems were a lot more serious than they
were," Halladay says. "They were looking at a lot of things: 'Is there
anything wrong with his personal life? What happened to him as a kid?' It just
had gotten to the point where I couldn't build confidence in myself. I'd never
had a doubt from the age of eight to 22. Now for the first time I wasn't
getting guys out, and as someone who never had to deal with that kind of
adversity, 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 the
plate, he's going to hit it 800 miles."
The trip back to
Toronto was actually 1,098 miles, a three-month journey eased by a former Jays
pitching 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's
Lazarus-like comeback. "The person who deserves the credit is Doc,"
says Ash. (Has anybody with a name similar to Halladay's not been nicknamed
after gunfighter Doc Holliday?) Halladay, however, says his time in Knoxville
with Mel Queen, then an organizational pitching coach, was invaluable.
broke into the majors, he threw straight over the top, a 6'6", 225-pound
Iron Mike whose pitches were flat. Queen simply lowered his arm angle. Within
two bullpen sessions Halladay's pitches were jitterbugging. This was about the
same time that Halladay's wife, Brandy, presented him with The Mental Game of
Baseball, written by sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman. Halladay devoured it.
After moving up to Syracuse and finally being recalled to the majors on Canada
Day, 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 with
the psychologist. If 90% of baseball is half mental--by the way, that's former
big league outfielder Jim Wohlford, not Yogi Berra--Halladay owns the inner
half. He thumbs through Dorfman's The Mental ABC's of Pitching a few times a
week and reads it cover-to-tattered-cover eight or nine times a season, keeping
his dog-eared copy close to his numbers grid.
2001 represents Halladay's career nadir, Dunedin 2006 represents the apex--at
least of the ace's understated wit. When shortstop Russ Adams and second
baseman Aaron Hill joked that Halladay and fellow starter A.J. Burnett might as
well 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 that
nobody is closer than a double-play combination, they arranged a mock wedding
for Adams and Hill at the team's spring training site. This was Katie and Tom's
nuptials, only in double knits: embossed invitations, matching tuxedos with the
couple'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 plane
that trailed a banner reading congratulations aaron + russ, a deejay, gifts, a
photographer and an SUV decorated with blue and white balloons for the faux
honeymooners. "See, Doc wouldn't just make up a T-shirt," says Zaun of
the elaborate gag. "He went to great lengths with that wedding. That's
typical. He goes to great lengths to be the best."
And if the
Yankees' pitching implodes and the Red Sox' bats falter, Halladay and the Jays
just might live happily ever after.