Roy Halladay leans against the front railing of the home bullpen at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field. Oakland's Barry Zito and Keith Foulke and Seattle's Jamie Moyer tilt backward in folding chairs nearby, chatting and laughing as they watch Esteban Loaiza of the White Sox pitch to Gary Sheffield in the All-Star Game. A pinstriped Roger Clemens is warming up to throw the third inning, and Halladay watches him carefully, glancing at the field only when the catcher flips the ball back to Clemens.
It's Clemens' ninth All-Star season and only Halladay's second, but the two have much in common. By month's end, Halladay's streak of consecutive victories will have reached 15, matching Clemens for the Blue Jays' club record.
This-the Game, the streak-was always Halladay's destiny. but like a good fastball, destiny doesn't always travel in a straight line.
TWO SUMMERS ago, Halladay's baseball career seemed likely to end in a small ballpark in a small town, the last hours spent on a bus. The minor leaguers around him would have been laughing at Major League as it played for the 10th time on the mounted VCR at the front of the bus, thinking how they might spend the last quarters of their meal money. Halladay would be alone, wondering why he was here.
His arm is powerful, anchored to a perfect pitcher's body: 6'6", 225 pounds. Ever since he was a high school kid in the Denver suburb of Arvada, Halladay's fastball had been clocked in the mid-90s, and his other grades were off the chart: great kid, great work ethic, competitive, focused, never any trouble. He breezed through the minors, and 13 days after the Blue Jays called him up in September of 1998, he came within one out of a no-hitter against Detroit at SkyDome. Bobby Higginson's home run hardly dispelled the promise of greatness. Halladay was 21 years old, and he was going to lead Toronto into the next millennium.
And then his career began to disintegrate. In 2000, Halladay allowed 107 hits in 68 innings for the Blue Jays, including 14 home runs, and his ERA ballooned to 10.64. The Jays tried shifting him to the bullpen, then to Triple-A Syracuse; nothing worked. He slid all the way back to Class-A Dunedin by the spring of 2001.
Minor league hitters just a few months beyond their last frat parties were hammering him. Inevitably, it would be the responsibility of some manager to summon Halladay into his office, small-talk his way through uncomfortable silence and then take away Halladay's dream; he was that bad.
The Blue Jays had all but given up when they sent their former pitching coach, Mel Queen-himself recently shifted to advance scout-to rework Halladay's pitching mechanics in Kodak, Tenn., home of their Double-A team. Queen consulted with a sports psychologist before he met with Halladay, and the doctor's advice was to break down Halladay completely-fillet him emotionally, push him to the edge. Halladay was nearly at rock bottom, but to heal him, Queen intended to drive him down further.
In mid-May, Halladay and Queen walked into the manager's office at Smokies Park and closed the door.
HALLADAY HAS always been eager to listen. He was 7 years old back in 1984, when his father marched him up to Bus Campbell, a part-time scout and pitching coach from Littleton, Colo., another suburb of Denver. Roy Halladay Sr. told Campbell his son wanted to be a pitcher. "Just keep him throwing straight, and don't let him throw any curveballs," Campbell advised him. When Halladay hit puberty, he went back to Campbell for more instruction, and through the years they worked together on mechanics, on a knucklecurve, talking weekly after Toronto drafted him in the first round in 1995. Halladay even bought a satellite dish for Campbell so his coach could see him pitch in the majors. But the networks don't broadcast any games from Smokies Park.
"I warm up in the bullpen and I have good stuff," Halladay told Campbell during his struggles in 2001. "Then I go out on the mound and I can't let loose."
"Roy, this is a mental thing," Campbell told him. "You better get ahold of someone who can help you."
Halladay had already begun talking to a sports psychologist by the time he and Queen stepped inside the whitewashed walls of the manager's office, with its one window overlooking the parking lot. "You're wasting talent, Doc," Queen began sharply, calling Halladay by his nickname. "Unless we make changes-and I mean drastic changes-you're out of baseball in a year. You're going to have to completely change your approach, mentally and physically."
Halladay told Queen he thought he had been throwing better in the minor leagues. "But you weren't missing bats," Queen said. "Let's be realistic. You may have been throwing good, but you weren't pitching good."
Halladay's problem was that his fastball-fast as it was-did not move laterally. It didn't cut away from righthanded batters or tail inside. Once hitters saw him throw a couple of pitches and timed his fastball, he was helpless. "Straight as a string," says Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, then Oakland's director of player personnel.
"I think there was a lot of feeling in the Toronto organization that maybe Doc's time was up," says former catcher Darrin Fletcher.
Halladay had to get some movement on his fastball. To do so, Queen proposed a thorough reconstruction of his mechanics. Using the delivery taught by his father and refined by Campbell, Halladay had always thrown the ball with his right arm angled almost directly over his head-at about 12:30 on the face of a clock (from the pitcher's point of view). These mechanics were sound and helped keep him injury-free, but to the hitters, Halladay looked like a pitching machine-an Iron Mike, Queen said. Delivered from that high angle, the ball was easily seen, with no deception and no movement.
Queen told Halladay he needed to lower his angle to almost 2 o'clock, to a point where he was almost throwing sidearm. By changing his release and how he gripped the ball, Queen thought, Halladay could create lateral movement. Halladay was willing to try anything. "I felt like things had been so bad that I was surprised Toronto was even working with me and trying to get me back," says Halladay. "I think I was just fortunate to feel like I had a second chance at that point."
It was clear that Halladay, once one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, would have to learn how to throw all over again.
QUEEN TOLD Halladay to come out to the park in the afternoons to play catch before the other players arrived, to save him from the embarrassment of being watched. Halladay assured the coach this wouldn't bother him, and he listened unflinchingly as Queen berated him for his mental approach to the game. "What happened to your curveball?" Queen asked one day.
"I forgot how to throw it," Halladay replied.
"How can you forget how to throw a curveball?" Queen asked again, his voice rising. It went on like this for two weeks-Queen chastising the pitcher like a drill sergeant breaking down a new recruit. A lot of other players would have walked away, thought Queen, who had gone through his own radical transformation as a player, switching from the outfield to pitcher midway through his major league career.
But Halladay stayed, listened and kept playing catch. "At a time like that, you really want someone to be honest with you and not sugarcoat things," says Halladay. "He was very up-front with me, and sometimes it hurts your feelings. You have to put it behind you and listen to what people are saying to you. Maybe that was the problem before. People would have advice, and you really don't hear it because you don't want to."
Halladay could see the improvement in his fastball right away. He wasn't pitching in games yet. He was just tossing in the outfield with Josh Phelps, the Smokies' catcher, trying to improve his balance over his right leg, and the ball was already darting all over the place. "You could see it sink and cut," Phelps recalls. "The results were there right from the beginning."
The arm angle felt awkward, but it didn't hurt; it was just a matter of developing muscle memory, reminding himself with each pitch to keep his arm lower. Queen showed him a new grip for a sinker. Now Halladay grabbed the ball across two seams, letting his thumb sit naturally, but as he released the ball, he tucked his thumb underneath it. "This is what will give you movement," Queen told him.
They tinkered with his curveball, throwing it from 10 feet at first, then longer, with Phelps retreating day by day. Scouts thought Halladay always had a good curveball, but because of his old arm angle, his curve spun straight down and tended to be an all-or-nothing pitch. If his trajectory was precise he could throw it for strikes, but too often he struggled to control it, and the curve would be useless. With the lower arm angle, Halladay's curve was more enticing to hitters, its movement more horizontal than vertical, tempting them before spinning away. Queen told Halladay that because his curve and fastball veered and sunk so much, all he needed to do was throw the ball to the middle of the strike zone, and the newfound movement would zip it to the corners. This took pressure off Halladay; his control didn't have to be perfect.
Halladay had been searching for answers for months, and now, playing catch with Phelps as Queen barked at him, he sensed he might have them. He was stunned at how quickly the pieces were coming together. His father says Roy never stopped believing he had the ability and desire to succeed. It was a matter of identifying solutions to the problems, of working through the adversity. "He knew a lot was riding on what was being taught to him," says Roy Sr.
Halladay's link to his old coach would help him as well. Campbell's advice had salvaged Jamie Moyer's career after the lefty was released by the Cardinals in 1991. Halladay learned Moyer had worked with Harvey Dorfman, the Marlins' former team psychologist. Halladay too began talking with Dorfman. "It gave me an idea of the mental game of baseball," he says. "That was something I had no idea about whatsoever. I didn't know how to handle failure, obviously, and didn't know how to create confidence.
"Sometimes, when things are going bad, you have no idea what to do. You don't know why they're bad, and you have no idea how to fix it, and you're trying to change everything. Now I have a better idea of what I can control."
HE RETURNED to the mound on May 26, 2001, pitching against the Carolina Mudcats. Queen sat in the stands and watched Halladay's face radiate as he broke bats. "He was absolutely elated," Queen says.
Phelps, the catcher, kept reminding Halladay to lower his arm angle, and he gave up just four hits in five innings. In the midst of Halladay's next start, against Orlando, Queen watched a couple of innings before going to the edge of the dugout as Halladay came off the mound. "Stop aiming for the corners," Queen snapped. "Just throw it down the middle!"
Halladay adjusted, striking out nine in six innings while allowing two hits. Queen called Gord Ash, the Toronto GM who had assigned him to Halladay. "He's fine," Queen said. "He's ready." Taken aback, Ash remained cautious-barely a month before, he thought this was a lost cause. Halladay made three more starts for the Smokies and two for Syracuse, surrendering just 37 hits in 48 innings, striking out 42 and walking six.
"I was like a kid with a bunch of new toys," he says. "You go out there, and you don't have to be as fine. You go out there and throw the ball at the middle of the plate, and all of a sudden it's moving in on the hitter's hands."
Halladay made it back to the Blue Jays on July 1, working out in the bullpen for then-manager buck Martinez and pitching coach Mark Connor. Watching him throw, Martinez found the improvement remarkable, in Halladay's pitches and demeanor. "It was like a totally different person," he says. "He had confidence, he pitched with a purpose, he had focus. He had one thing on his mind-he was going to beat the batter that he was facing. Prior to that, there had been a lot of doubts. He knew he had good stuff, but he didn't know how to get people out."
Halladay struck out 10 in six innings in his first start for the Blue Jays, against Montreal. The new Doc was having a lot more fun, Fletcher thought: "His pitches were cutting and slicing, and nothing was straight."
So he gave Halladay a new nickname: Mr. Giggles.
HALLADAY WON 38 of his first 50 decisions for the Blue Jays after returning to the majors two years ago, becoming, in the estimation of Martinez, now an ESPN analyst, the most dominant pitcher in the league. Meanwhile Ricciardi has rebuilt the Blue Jays offense, and now is trying to construct a pitching staff around Halladay as the stopper. "He's nasty," says Derek Jeter. "His ball moves. It's similar to Derek Lowe's, but Halladay throws harder. He's not fun to face. He throws hard, it moves, plus he's got that good curveball."
Ricciardi has also reconstructed his staff, firing a horde of scouts, Queen among them. As Halladay piles up the wins, Queen is sitting at home in Morro Bay, Calif., watching games, hoping to coach again next year. He saw Halladay lose his first two decisions this season, and quietly sent word through a friend that his arm angle was not low enough. Shortly thereafter, Halladay began his winning streak, although it is unclear what role Queen's tip played in his recovery. "It doesn't matter," says Queen. "All that matters is that the kid is doing great."
AS HE watched Clemens warm up in the All-Star bullpen that night, Halladay was within sight of the all-time record for consecutive victories: 19, held by a pair of ancient pitchers named Rube Marquard and Tim Keefe. The curators at the Hall of Fame, who collect the relics of success, were clearing space for his glove and spikes. Whether they needed to fill it or not is really beside the point.
Roy Halladay is 26 years old, and now that he's settled in his mechanics and in his mind, his fate is firmly back in his own right hand. That means, of course, his destiny may yet lead him down a back road to a small town.
A DEVIL OF A TIME
Like Roy Halladay, Tampa Bay's Dewon Brazelton was a firstround pick, one of baseball's best pitching prospects. Like Halladay, Brazelton was busted from the majors down to Class-A. Now we'll see if Brazelton, 23, can follow Halladay back from the wilderness.
Brazelton was 1-6, 6.89 in 10 first-half starts for the Devil Rays. The last straw came June 24, when he got on the wrong subway and was an hour late for a start at Yankee Stadium, then gave up two hits, four walks and three runs in an inning.
His road to redemption began in Bakersfield, Calif., where he's rebuilding his mechanics and mental approach. When he arrived, Brazelton was greeted by pitching coach Marty DeMerritt, who immediately had him run for 20 minutes. He didn't complain.
The D-Rays had altered the delivery that made him a star for Team USA and Middle Tennessee State, slowing it down and making it more compact to improve his command and his breaking ball. That failed, and it also cost him velocity on his fastball. Now the team wants Brazelton to revert to his old delivery, which DeMerritt describes as "a Satchel Paige thing, with a lot of movement." Already his fastball is livelier and has returned to 91-94 mph, and his slider is more effective. With body parts moving in every direction, his pitches are harder to follow.
But Brazelton has work to do on his mental game. "I'm still trying to learn how to be an adult, trying to find my way," he says. And he's seeking consistency and confidence after going 0-4, 6.66 in his first five Class-A starts.
"His main purpose now is his mind-set on the mound," says DeMerritt, a big league coach with the Cubs in 1999. "Once we put that together with what we've done physically, you'll see something very exciting. When everything is right, they can't touch him."