Doc Halladay Taught Me His Cutter and Then I Got Sober

Photo credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

On a wall that sees nearly infinite sun facing Townsends Inlet hangs a picture of my father and his three sons celebrating the epic no-hitter Roy Halladay threw on October 6, 2010.

One hundred and seventy-seven days after just the second no-no in MLB playoff history, I was covering my first game on the beat with “Doc” once again on the hill.

I’m grinding for an upstart website called Philly Sports Daily and somewhat rightfully placed in the far corner of the press box with the Delco Times and other assorted fringe media members.

I’m following the game on Brooks Baseball, confident I’m the only guy in this packed press box going full nerd. Doc’s sinker topped out at 93.8 MPH with an absurd vertical break.

What startled me was Halladay’s somewhat newfound reliance on the cutter. I was hired by this emergent media company to flex my nerdom via analysis, so the fact that 51 of his 101 of his pitches were cutters intrigued me given his previous assortment of pitch types.

Waiting around for baseball players to shower isn’t so different than waiting for anyone to shower – checking your phone and tapping your feet. Halladay came out and talked to the huddled media crew for his requisite stretch of four or five questions from the two reporters he recognized and then filtered over to his locker where he had a toy helicopter that his son was already playing with.

We were over talking with Jimmy Rollins after a notable two-hit performance and I feel a sting in my calf. It was the ‘copter that Halladay’s son was manning hitting my leg. I try to pick it up and a media employee for the team is already en route, so I just tip my “all good” expression with my fat Irish face to Halladay at his locker and he raises his hand.

“Man, I’m sorry.”

“All good, Roy.”

Having his attention, I then ask in likely a cracking schoolboy cadence, “If you don’t mind, is there any reason you landed on the cutter so much this afternoon?”

“It’s all about Cliff (Lee). He makes me better and I make him better. Here’s what it looks like … ”

The best pitcher on the planet is showing a random new media guy with a “Balco” t-shirt his new grip on a pitch that would serve to devastate National League hitters for months on end.

The concise version of his three-or-so-minutes of explanation was, “You just have to work on it and you need to really reflect on the results.”

I’m not surmising this portion. I’ll never forget; “You need to really reflect on the results.”

It didn’t strike me that “really” would be an overused term for Halladay, so it expressed some level of prominence.

That next Sunday morning (the third game of the series), I’m at the park and enthralled by my first taste of the beat. I get there when the media gates open at 9:30 in the morning. Shockingly, I’m the only person there. Going full tool bag, I’m taking pictures of the empty stadium as I walk the lower level’s perimeter to the media elevator.

The smell of cotton candy being whipped was actually in the air. Cases of water sat wrapped on pallets. It was an immersive baseball climate. From the corner of my eye, I see someone in the third-base stands running the steps. It looks oddly mechanical, like a precision you couldn’t match if you tried.

It’s Halladay. I have no interest in false mythologies. I don’t often believe the “first to the stadium, last to leave” narrative given just how human most humans are. This was different. He was honestly running the damn steps. I stopped at the railing, just behind the plate at the park, and just watched. It just didn’t stop. It was a Powerade commercial. It was a person reflecting on results and working on that goal.

It was love of craft.

There is an “inside baseball” anecdote about how Halladay and Chris Carpenter were in a hotel room together during Spring Training 1998, amid a time when both were struggling for the Blue Jays and famous pitching guru Mel Queen gave them a rousing speech of how they’d reconnect with the game and both would thrive as professional pitchers at the highest level. Queen was all about mental reflection in pitching.

In subsequent bullpen sessions, Queen taught Halladay how to shift grips on his fastball to maximize horizontal movement. It reportedly only took a few days for Halladay to connect with the new assortment of grips.

“You just have to work on it,” resonated with me when learning of this baseball folktale.

It’s entirely lateral, but I actually learned something quite pivotal from Halladay in that summer of surgically concise wins. This is going to sound bat-shit silly, but Roy Halladay helped save my life.

I was drinking to the point of personal wreckage in 2015. The media site I was with floundered early in 2012. I was the head high school football editor for ESPN and that entire vertical evaporated in 2013 in a matter of a few phone calls. I was deep underwater without much reprieve. And by water, I mean whiskey.

It’s a terrible thing to be an alcoholic — and sometimes worse when you know it.

You might not believe it, but I always thought about Halladay running those stairs as I approached the prospect of sobriety. It would require such mechanical routine to change my life. To change my well-worn patterns. To fix my grip on life. I then would usually take another sip of Jameson or rip a bong hit.

I woke up early one morning in May of 2016 after a night of drinking high-potency beer near my house. It was that prior day Adam Schefter retweeted my Steph Curry quip to millions of impressions – of course, I deserved to get secretly drunk. Stuck to a leather couch in my basement, I peeled myself off the surface in shame. I had a three-month-old daughter just upstairs that we had tried to have for years and yet I was still mired in this endless cycle of recidivism. I don’t pray, but that morning I got on my knees and asked for some help, for some glimmer of a solution.

If you’ve been there — you know what I mean. A bewildered call for help to yourself, to the room, to the world at large. A prayer from an agnostic – when you don’t believe in much so you are willing to believe in everything.

I have no idea how stuck Halladay was during his early-career struggles – the guy had a 10.64 ERA in 2000. But he got himself out of it and became pure excellence on the hill and the archetype of an ace. The epitome of precision. The myth of talent driving enduring success is often false. Halladay was proof of what conscience reflection and unwavering work ethic could accomplish.

Showing up at meetings and working my program is my version of running the stadium steps.

Halladay represents one of the rare bids of pure excellence Philadelphia sports has experienced. We don’t often consume such clean and concise production. We don’t often get such a professional and, at times, perfect athlete like Halladay. He was completely willing to share such “secrets” with me, I’m guessing because he knew they weren’t secrets, but rather simple truths.

On November 11th, it will be 18 months of sobriety for me. It took a lot of work and a lot of reflection to get here. I needed to make a dramatic change in my approach, and I needed the help of a Mel Queen to get there. Just two days after peeling myself off my couch, I drove myself to the Caron facility in Berks County for 28 days of “sober summer camp.” It was time to care about change more than I feared it. I thank Halladay for what that he did for me, as silly as that reads. Modeling is a very important path for those who want to really change. Intention and intense work ethic drove Halladay to his perch as the best pitcher in the world.

Halladay was clearly just talking about pitching when he said that about his new grip and approach to his cutter, but it meant something more to me. I’m extrapolating a lot from a simple conversation in the clubhouse that he’s had thousands of time, but that’s sort of how heroes work. Small anecdotes of kindness, consistently showing up to do his work. Halladay’s excellence was the culmination of thousands of these moments. Changing your life in the face of addiction, or overcoming loss or any of life’s challenges also requires thousands of consistently positive decisions and actions to come out on the other side.

A Robert Frost line I often turn to is, “The best way out is always through.”

Halladay included me in his process, if for a few minutes. I can include others in mine. They say altruism incites a dopamine cascade that can mimic the feeling of getting high or gulping a highball. I have no aims of making this about me. It’s about Halladay and his family. There is no easy way to fix the pain we all feel in Philadelphia and in the greater baseball world and certainly not for his family and friends.

The immense legacy of professionalism he leaves is immeasurable. We can all spend some time to ourselves and reflect on what an impressive man Roy Halladay was.

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