Arm Force: Roy Halladay
July 2004, Toronto Life
by Matt Beam

   Under the bright lights of the Blue Jays’ utilitarian clubhouse, with the background clang of weights punctuating a solemn pre-game murmur, Roy “Doc” Halladay looks like a giant. The six-foot-six, 225-pound fastballer stands half dressed in front of his locker, idly chatting with a few nearby teammates. But when I approach, he appears to shrink before my eyes, his shoulders folding away from me. I stop and introduce myself, at which point he turns, offering a circumspect eye. “Didn’t you get a call today?” he asks in his gentle midwestern drawl. (Apparently the Jays’ media relations person had tried to reschedule our interview at the last minute.) Before I can respond, the big shoulders shrug, and he says, “I guess you’ll have to do it now, won’t you?”
   Hardly the behaviour one expects from an all-star baseball player and winner of last year’s American League Cy Young Award. Then again, Halladay isn’t your average all-star. Not since Roger Clemens left Toronto for the Yankees in 1999 have the Jays invested so much in a right arm, signing Halladay to a hefty $42-million (U.S.) four-year deal this past winter. But unlike Clemens, a hotheaded grandstander, Halladay is a shy, humble man. Like the franchise itself, he has had his share of ups and downs, and as a result, he’s developed into the kind of steady, hard-working pitcher the Jays can build a team around.
    Five minutes after our rocky introduction, he joins me in the dugout and looks out onto the field. SkyDome echoes with the sound of players beginning their warmup. It’s hard to imagine the building as full as it was back when the Jays last won the World Series, in 1993. Given the team’s mediocre record since then, it was both a surprise and a relief that the 27-year-old Halladay decided to stay rather than gamble on more money in a big-market American city. “I love Toronto,” he volunteers. “It’s a situation where I felt good about the team and good about the city--it was an easy decision for me.” No doubt loyalty was a factor; he’s been with the Jays his entire nine-year career.
    Harry Leroy Halladay III was born in 1977 in the Denver suburb of Arvada. His father flew planes for a food processing company; his mother stayed home to raise the kids. From an early age, Halladay gravitated to America’s pastime, and like any kid growing up playing baseball, he sampled every position on the field. By 14, he’d had so much success on the pitcher’s mound that he attracted the attention of major league scouts. In 1995, when he finished high school, he was picked up by the Jays in the amateur draft. Four seasons in the minors later, the strapping righty made the team and immediately proved his worth. In his second game in 1998, he almost tossed a no-hitter--an astonishing feat for any pitcher (only Dave Stieb has accomplished this as a Blue Jay), let alone a rookie.
But then something happened. Within two years, Halladay began giving away hits like they were bobbleheads, letting in an average 10 runs a game. In 2001, he was sent back down to the minors to regain his confidence, but still he struggled. Finally, in a last-ditch effort to save a quickly dwindling career, the 24-year-old was shipped to Knoxville, Tennessee, to work with one-time Jays pitching coach Mel Queen. The problem, Queen realized, was Halladay’s total reliance on his strength -- his attempt to overpower batters with straight-ahead pitches. Within two weeks, Halladay remade himself, altering his arm angle for a more deceptive delivery and adding pitches that sank and careened. By mid-season, he was back in the Jays’ rotation. It wasn’t easy, though; the slump had taken a mental toll. “I had never struggled to that point and didn’t have a very good idea of how to cope with it,” he says. “That’s something that’s hard to learn.”
    The lesson in humility has had a lasting effect. Gone is the youthful brazenness, replaced by a more mature focus and intensity, and a renewed desire to improve. Even after winning the Cy Young, Halladay has continued to tinker with his game. (He spent the winter developing a new pitch -- the “change-up”.) Off the field, he keeps his mind occupied with the headiest game around. “I got pretty serious playing chess last year,” he says, noting its similarities to baseball. “Whether you’re pitching and have a huge lead or you’re playing chess and you think you have it sewn up, you can’t let your guard down.”
    That guardedness disappears, however, when the conversation moves to his family. He breaks into a boyish grin at the mention of his wife, Brandy, whom he met back in Colorado, and their three-year-old son, Braden. The family lives in Palm Harbor, Florida, in the off-season, and in a condo near the SkyDome during the summer months.
    By now, Halladay’s teammates have begun their stretching routine, and the pitcher’s attention returns to the field. I ask what Toronto can expect from him over the next four years. “I’m going to compete every time,” he says with a determined look. “No matter how bad I’m beat or how far we are ahead.” With that he nods and steps out of the dugout. I watch as he settles in shoulder to shoulder with his teammates, like a kid returning to the street to play after supper. Beyond all the pressure and the million-dollar contracts, he embodies the purity of the game. The Jay’s gentle giant is the type of player who cuts the often extravagant sport down to size.

© Copyright 2004 Toronto Life Magazine