When it comes to Roy Halladay’s last couple of weeks, it’s tough to separate emotion from critical thoughts especially for fans of the team. We watched a guy who was, for a long time, one of the best – if not the best – pitchers in the game transform into something not at all very good.
I saw a colleague of mine, one whom I respect and think highly of, tweet about how she wanted a refund for her tickets yesterday and she wanted it from Roy Halladay. Now, obviously, she doesn’t expect Roy to give her $60, but I understand the emotional underpinnings of the joke: Roy Halladay knew he was hurt, knew that something was wrong with his shoulder, and he kept going out there for his last three starts and it took an embarrassingly public shelling for him to admit that something was wrong. I can see how you’d be pissed off if you witnessed that.
But I was at the game yesterday too, and all I could feel about Halladay was a profound sadness. I’d wager that most fans felt one of those two emotions: anger or sadness. I’d double down on that first bet and say that the split is pretty close to 50/50 in the fanbase.
It’s pretty easy to understand why someone would be pissed off about yesterday. It was tough to watch. I had friends that got stuck in traffic on the way to the ballpark and by the time they made it to their seats in the second inning, the Phillies were down nine runs. The game felt over before the first inning but you paid all that money for tickets and parking and food so you’re not gonna turn around and leave. We all just had to sit there and watch, kinda like Frodo did to that girl in Sin City.
But I think if you’re the type to be angry at Roy for trying to tough out an injury, it might be tougher to understand why you shouldn’t blame him for it, why others are disappointed. So let me try to explain it. Bear with me here, this is going to take a bit to get where I’m going with this, but it’ll make sense once I get there.
Just about every ballplayer in the major leagues was the best baseball player – probably the best athlete overall – from their high school or hometown. Think back to when you were sixteen and try to remember that guy from your high school. Remember the Alpha-Jock. Maybe he wasn’t a total dick. He might have been a four-sport varsity athlete and did mission work with a church group over the summers. Doesn’t matter. Put all the social aspects of the person aside (that’s a different column entirely) and try and remember the defining characteristics of that person. They were probably completely focused on being the best at whatever they did.
Keep that person in mind because I have to make a detour here.
Now, try and think back about yourself at sixteen. Sorry, I know this is never a fun thing to do but think back and try and remember the defining characteristics of you when you were 16 years old. I’ll use myself as an example. I wasn’t very social. I had a couple of good friends and we were all way into Fight Club and Halo. I wanted to be a computer programmer. At sixteen, I lived in a small farm town where everybody knew everybody else and I knew that if I did anything bad it’d get around to my mom somehow, so I never did anything even remotely edgy because I knew the instant I took a sip of a beer, for instance, my mom would find out and kick the snot out of me when I got home.
But then I changed. You changed. It’s a thing that happens to us all in life as we get older. We go out and we experience life. New things happen to us. Good things happen to us. Bad things happen to us. We experience triumph and we experience failure, and all of those experiences shape who we are. 27 year old Ryan has almost nothing in common with 16 year old Ryan. It’s those negative experiences, those failures that allow us to cope with life and roll with the punches. They allow us to adapt and grow and change as we get older.
With that in mind, go back to your Alpha Jock. Those same things probably happened to him. If he was the type that hooked up with all the cheerleaders, maybe he found out that once he got to college he wasn’t the best looking dude out there anymore and suddenly getting girls wasn’t so easy. Maybe he went and blew out his knee on the first day of his full-ride athletic scholarship and had to hit the books for the first time in his life just to stay in school. Or maybe he was a super-devout Christian that goes away to college and discovers girls and drugs or *gasp* Christopher Hitchens. Point is, that guy probably changed, and most importantly chances are that he found out that he was no longer the best at what he did, whatever it was he was doing.
But for every hundred Alpha-Jocks that go away to college only to learn they’re no longer the best athlete around, there’s one that looked around and realized that he was still the best athlete around. The guy goes to college and continues to play sports and continues to dominate everybody around.
For me at Shippensburg University, that guy was football player John Kuhn. Kuhn set 27 school records and six state records. When he left Ship in 2005, almost every stat in his career stat line was a school record: 4,685 rushing yards, 910 carries, 53 TDs, 5,300 all-purpose yards, and the list goes on. He was the only player in the school’s history to rush for 1,000 yards in three straight seasons. He was, unquestionably, the best player in the school’s history and he was a damn good student too.
…and he still didn’t get drafted after graduating.
Even after all of his success in college, the best he could at first was to land a spot on the Steelers’ practice squad. Only because of some freak injuries on the team’s roster in the first half of 2005 did Kuhn make it onto the Steelers active roster. Once he was on the roster, he tore things up and quickly established a name for himself in the NFL. Now, he’s got two Super Bowl rings to his name and a nice, fat contract with the Green Bay Packers.
But I’m not using Kuhn as an example as a success story here. I’m not comparing him to Roy Halladay. Kuhn was the best at what he did for a long time but he wasn’t someone with sky high potential that was obvious to everybody. Nope. If he was, he wouldn’t have gone to a D2 school that most Packers fans have never heard of. He wouldn’t have gone undrafted, and he wouldn’t have had to bust his ass on the Steelers’ practice squad just to earn a shot in the NFL. Hell, he grew up in the same football-crazed county as me at about the same time and I had never even heard his name until I got to Shippensburg. Kuhn is an example of an Alpha-Jock that even while experiencing great success in his life, still had to battle through adversity and defy the odds to make it to the highest levels of professional sports.
Roy Halladay is something else. He’s a freak of nature that stood out for so long that success at the highest levels of his game seemed almost predestined.
Roy Halladay was on major league scouts’ radars by the time he was 13. THIRTEEN. By the time he was in high school, he had already been training with Bus Campell, a Colorado baseball genius that previously coached Brad Lidge and Goose Gossage. Halladay was drafted by the Blue Jays in the first round of the MLB amateur draft in 1995, the same year he graduated from high school. He was the 17th pick overall. Just three years later, Roy made his major league debut. Famously, in just his second start with the Blue Jays, he took a no-hitter into the ninth inning only to lose it by surrendering a two-out home run.
Halladay’s 2000 season is notable for how completely not-good it was: his 10.64 ERA in 19 games (13 starts) was the worst ever for a pitcher with more than 50 innings pitched. The next season, he was demoted to single A to fix his delivery.
While in single-A Dunedin, Roy worked with a pitching coach who helped him understand that he needed more than raw power to regularly get hitters out at the major league level. A 95 MPH fastball, which was more than anybody could handle at every level he had ever played, wasn’t enough in the big leagues if he couldn’t command the pitch. It took him less than half a season to work his way back up to the big leagues, and in 16 starts for the Blue Jays, he posted a 3.19 ERA.
The rest is history, really. Other than the 2000 season, Roy Halladay has always been the best at what he does. He was the best player on the sandlots of his hometown. He was the best player in his high school. He was among the best players in his draft class. (History will almost certainly show that he was the best player in that draft class period.)
It’s been painfully obvious to a lot of us for a while now that something is very, very wrong with Roy Halladay. People were expressing concerns with Roy as early as spring training last year. I specifically remember a conversation about this I had with another writer in the pressbox of Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida after he got lit up by the Tigers in a spring training game.
But it doesn’t matter what anybody else sees or says. For someone to make a profound change in their life, in any aspect of it, that person has to come to understand the problem on their own. This is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. It applies to individuals and couples. It applies to alcoholics in rehab (“the first step is admitting you have a problem…”) and it applies to people in therapy. It’s not always easy for people to come to an understanding like this, and I imagine it’s a thousand times harder for someone like Roy Halladay, who isn’t used to failure and personal disappointment, to come to this understanding.
That’s why I’m not mad at Roy Halladay for trying to pitch through an injury. He’s probably done it a dozen times before and always come out on the other side no worse for wear. Just take a look at his injury history on Baseball Prospectus. He’s only been on the disabled list six times in his professional career, and of those six occasions, once happened when he was hit in the leg by a line drive that broke a bone and another happened when he needed appendix surgery. This is a natural, albeit stubborn reaction athletes have to injuries. Hell, when my knee started bothering me while I trained for a triathlon, all I could hear was my old football coach telling me that I was being a pussy and to suck it up. So I kept on training until the pain worsened to a point where I could hardly walk. And that was me doing something for a hobby. Had my family’s livelihood depended entirely upon me running, I know for a fact that I would have kept on running through the pain.
The body has ways of telling you to stop what you’re doing because something is wrong. But for a professional athlete, especially an elite one like Roy Halladay, pitching is all he knows. And when something is wrong and he can’t pitch like he knows he’s capable, his natural reaction is going to be to try and pitch his way out of it, because that’s what he’s always done, and it’s always worked for him.
Other than a very, very, very brief period in his life between 2000 and 2001, Roy Halladay has never really experienced the kind of profound professional failures we all have.
Roy Halladay has never known anything other than being the best at what he does. It’s that fact that allowed him to pitch a perfect game and a playoff no-hitter in the same season. It’s that fact that makes him a shoo-in to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But it’s also that fact that makes Roy Halladay completely unable to understand that he’s no longer the best at what he does. He’s not used to anything else. Just like in 2000, Roy Halladay hasn’t yet realized that what he’s been doing – what he’s always done – will no longer work for him.
Roy Halladay is getting older. It happens to us all. And, for the first time in a very long time, Roy Halladay needs to understand and comprehend that he has to make a change in his life if he wants to keep on pitching, especially at a high level. The good news is that since he is such an amazing athlete and probably the hardest worker in all of baseball, I have zero doubt that Roy will be able to find a way to get batters out. Maybe he won’t be an All Star anymore, but he has enough God-given talent that his insane work-ethic will allow him to get back to being an effective and capable major league ballplayer.
But that insane work-ethic is a product of someone that has developed differently than you and I. It’s a product of someone who has developed differently than most of the kids he grew up playing ball with. It’s a product of someone who has developed differently even than some of the players on the team he’s playing for now.
I don’t have the answer for Roy. I wish I did. Someone out there does, that’s for sure. But until Roy Halladay is able to come to the kind of understanding that all of us have grown into being able to make, he’s not going to be in a position to be able to do anything about his struggles. Roy needs to understand that he’s not who he used to be and, more importantly, he needs to understand that it’s okay that he’s different.
That’s why you shouldn’t be mad at Roy Halladay: the same things that made him the athlete you love make him the athlete that you hate right now.
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