Doc working on youngsters' minds

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Roy Halladay says young pitchers need to brainwash themselves into performing consistently well.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Roy Halladay says young pitchers need to brainwash themselves into performing consistently well.
Posted: February 21, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Earlier this week, a potentially awkward moment unfolded in the corner of the Bright House Field locker room that is home to an assortment of minor leaguers, most of whom will depart camp well before the Phillies head north for the season.

One of those players, a 23-year-old outfielder named Zach Collier, was approaching his locker after that day's workout when he noticed a stranger sitting in his chair. Collier hesitated, as if contemplating how to proceed. But before he could make alternate arrangements, the visitor felt his presence and looked up from the conversation he was having with 22-year-old pitching prospect Jesse Biddle. With an apologetic wave, the visitor rose from the chair and gestured for Collier to make himself at home. He then walked over to a table where a number of other younger players were eating lunch, grabbed an empty chair and rolled it to a position in front of Biddle's locker where he would no longer intrude on any of the other rookies' postworkout routines.

With that, the conversation resumed, the eager, clean-cut Biddle listening to the words of the grizzled stranger, a onetime major leaguer named Harry Leroy Halladay.

Given the presence with which Roy Halladay commanded the mound every 5 days during his Hall of Fame career, you might think it impossible that he has spent most of the last week rendering himself indistinguishable from the rest of the spring-training instructors who mill about the grass playing surfaces of the Carpenter Complex in their red windbreakers and wrap-around sunglasses. But to anybody who studied him during his 4 years as a member of the Phillies, the ease with which he has blended into the background should come as no surprise.

All of this comes with the natural disclaimer that we never really know our athletes as well as we think. At some point in the coming years, Halladay could show these words to be ill-conceived. Perhaps deep beneath an impassive exterior lies the same kind of yearning for affirmation that most of the great ones possess, the kind that fueled Favre and Jordan, as well as the kind that refused to let them go, the yearning that has powered countless farewell tours and broadcast careers and spring instructorships. That's the thing about athletes, even the great ones. They suffer the same insecurities as the rest of us. They need affirmation, the confidence from its abundance, the motivation from its absence (whether real or perceived or invented).

Halladay, it seems, does not need it. He is the rare, perhaps unprecedented, great athlete who is impervious to the effects of life at performance's peak. The plane on which he operates is at a different level from most other existences. He is a closed system, operating entirely on energy produced from within. It is why he was able to walk away from the game, and it is why you had no doubt about his response when somebody asked him yesterday about the sunshine and the green grass and the popping mitts and the cracking bats and the sudden depth issues on his former employer's starting pitching staff, about whether any or all of the above might prompt him to reconsider the decision he announced in December.

It is also why, after a week of watching him monitor bullpen sessions and confer with coaches and interact with younger players, one finds it difficult to envision a distant future that does not feature Roy Halladay as the pitching coach of a major league team. It will be a distant future in which his sons are out of the household, but, at 36, Halladay has plenty of time. When he sidles up to a young pitcher such as Biddle and spends 20 to 30 minutes in quiet, serious conversation as the hullabaloo of a spring-training clubhouse whirls around him, he looks as he did on the mound, minus the glare, every ounce of his focus dedicated toward imparting the kind of understanding of self he believes can turn anybody who has great stuff into a great pitcher.

"The stages they're at now, it's just a mental part and, really, it's just confidence," Halladay said. "They are very good at what they do, but there's just that extra confidence that you see in everyday major league players, opposed to maybe a guy at Triple A or Double A. I've been trying to help them speed that up by starting to think about the mental parts and preparing themselves and getting themselves ready to start. Really brainwashing themselves into thinking that's something they can do consistently. That's really what it takes. Some guys need to have that success first, but in the things I've seen, a lot of guys can start to believe that and they talk themselves into that over and over, and suddenly they become it. That's something I've talked to some of them about."

Brainwashing. The perfect word, really. All of those times he proclaimed that his body was feeling great, that his mechanics were coming around. The night he made it through six innings of a National League Championship game with an injured groin. The day he returned from that remedial trip to the minors all those years ago and, the words of late sports psychologist Harvey Dorfmann fresh in his mind, swearing to himself that from that point on it was just him and his body and the ball. That is what greatness requires.

"It's kind of fake it until you make it," Halladay said. "I had to do that with myself. That was something Harvey was very good at. He used to tell me to keep acting the part until I actually became it. That's something I really had to try to do. I really had to try to repeat these mental phrases, try and exude the confidence, all that stuff until it became part of me."

It is still a part of him, even if "him" features 10 fewer pounds, his familiar square face melted to normal proportions, his strength training limited to coaching his sons in baseball and basketball and "sitting up to get off the couch."

"When you're trying to compete and you're not able to do the things you've always done because of discomfort, it takes the fun out of it," Halladay said. "So for me, you go through that for a long enough period, it's very easy to know that this is the right time. I can still enjoy the game, I can still be around the game, and make it something that I enjoy doing."


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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